By Roger Alexander
The admission season has started with a bang, literally. Stories of colleges demanding capitation fees up to Rs 2 crore, principals auctioning 'management seats', college clerks demanding bribes, and the UGC granting 'deemed university' status without adequate audit are dominating the front pages of newspapers as the admission season opens.
Education is now a purchasable commodity!
Thanks to the blinkered vision of middle class parents, education is no longer a learning process. Instead, it is now all about “job-oriented” courses. A B.A,, B,Sc, or B,Com degree is “useless” as it does not “equip” youngsters for the “needs of industry”. (Check out the 'Education Supplements' in leading newspapers, magazines and TV shows.)
As a result, while mainstream education has become passé, courses like BMM, BMS, Catering and Hospitality, Computer Training and even Air Hostess training have parents queuing up to pay lakhs to teaching shops affiliated to unknown 'foreign universities' for a seat. Is this what education all about?
If 'counsellors' at many of today's so-called institutions of higher learning are asked what they can expect, students are offered a straightforward answer: “a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials.”
In the new scenario, even the University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education Commission (AICTE) say that recognising the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, courses should be utilitarian, vocational, and narrow.
But in the quest to churn out 'graduates' suited for 'industrial needs', the present system is not preparing them for life, challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (One reason why the Raj Thackerays can sell the 'Marathi Manoos' spiel so easily.)
But what is forgotten is the fact that if you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job - if it's merely a mechanism for mass customisation within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods - you effectively give a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it. The status quo remains unchallenged and unquestioned!
Today's college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work”. They're being taught to measure their self-worth by the salary they'll earn after college. They're being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” Of course, there's no guarantee that keeping current won't get you a pink slip as so many 'techies' are learning to their dismay.
Indeed, these so-called techies are programmed to believe that technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery.
Parents and students are recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, and even alumni satisfaction rates through glossy ads and government pronouncements. They are led to believe that these courses are a panacea to solve the problem of unemployment.
The new courses, therefore, are smart courses, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students are programmed to respond robotically to “questions” posed to what are supposed to be inquisitive minds. Now it all about “credits, projects and presentations”. Check out the syllabi of the new-age institutions and you'll know what I mean.
Now that this mindset is official policy, the old-fashioned idea that education is about moulding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person has been flushed down the toilet.
After all, how can you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing TV ads that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
As long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country's direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by industry imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that the goal of education is to know yourself - and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognise your own limitations as well as illusions. Indeed, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways.
As parents we must know that if we want a better future for our children and grandchildren, we must resist accepting the world as it's being packaged and sold to us by those who lead us to believe that education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.
Roger And Out