In line with emerging opportunities, we need to foster employment- or vocation-oriented learning systems.
The percentage of people employed in agriculture has come down from 64 per cent to 54 per cent over the past 25 years, and more dramatic changes are likely in the future.
When I look back at my school and college days and how they have shaped me as a person I can see both the positive and negative aspects of our educational system. I see the role of primary education as one of ensuring all-round physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development of children.
In my case, while my initial years spent in schools in Delhi and Kolkata did not leave much of an impression, I was fortunate to land up later at Vidya Mandir, in Chennai. The atmosphere at the school, started by the local ladies club, was almost like that of a family, with very close and friendly interactions between the students and teachers, and an even-paced and non-competitive environment. There was a healthy disregard for marks and ranks. The focus was on helping the children develop a hunger for learning and instil a liking for sports and games. Most importantly, the children were allowed to make their own choices.
(When I visited the school last year for its 50th anniversary celebrations, I was touched when one teacher, who is now retired, recalled how well I had done as a narrator in a play in Std IV more than 35 years ago!) While my school did not push students to excel in any specific facet of life, it definitely attempted to ensure we grew to become good human beings.
However, when it comes to high school, college and IIM, I'm not as clear or convinced of the value of the nine years I spent there. Did I really need to learn all the things that were taught there? Was it appropriate to go through these courses in sequence, with no real-life experience? Or would it have been better if I had started working after high school and entered college after gaining some real-life experience?
Shift in labour patterns
Moving from my personal experience to a macro perspective, there is a clear shift of employment from agriculture to manufacturing to services. The percentage of people employed in agriculture has come down from 64 per cent to 54 per cent over the past 25 years, and more dramatic changes are likely in the future.
The agriculture sector in the US employs a little under a million people but has an output of $120 billion; in comparison, we have 230 million people producing output worth $143 billion! Even if you make adjustments for Purchasing Power Parity, there is a huge need for a shift in labour patterns here.
It's good that manufacturing and services are growing, both in employment base and in output. Services generate the best output per person, at around $3,000 per annum. Theoretically, if our entire labour force of 400 million can produce as much as what we currently do in services our GDP will double.
The opportunities for youth over the next 15 years are going to be very different, very diverse and far more lucrative. Some opportunities may be in serving a global customer base as in organic food production, precision manufacturing, back-office operations, IT, tourism and health tourism. With rising income levels and growing consumerism, areas like infrastructure, retail, white goods, domestic tourism and hospitality, entertainment and healthcare are likely to provide far more opportunities for youngsters.
Opportunity vs reality
But while there are plenty of opportunities, the harsh reality is that today only around 50 per cent of the children who complete Std VII are able to get into high school! Factors like affordability and relevance lead to a high dropout rate.
Keeping in mind these social realities as well as the emerging opportunities, we need to re-orient secondary education to ensure that it's far more employment or vocation oriented. Like in most developed countries, we need to encourage our youth to become productively employed right after high school.
In fact, one of our successful Business Unit Heads who built up our business in the UK was a high school graduate whose personal growth and development was based completely on what he learnt out of his life experiences rather than a college degree.
Implications for higher education
What can we do to change the focus of secondary education? Here are some suggestions:
A high schoolcertificate (HSC) should be sufficient as an entry criterion for most jobs and professions.
The high schoolcurriculum should clearly be career-oriented. Devised jointly by academia and industry, it should equip students with theoretical knowledge as well as the skills and competencies to pursue a career of their choice. Existing vocation-focused training institutes could perhaps expand into high schools in select disciplines.
Graduating professionalswho specialise in various fields agriculture, mechanical production, maintenance, office and administrative workers, call centre operators, programmers, healthcare professionals and so on should work as apprentices, either in the organised or unorganised sector, before being fully productive.
High schoolsshould not only impart technical education but also build communication, teaming and leadership abilities in addition to entrepreneurial capabilities.
While the needfor vocation-focused high schools is universal, we should first target rural areas where the dropout rate is high.
The challenge, clearly, will be to find the teachers to staff such institutions. It also calls for innovative approaches.
For some Gandhi-giri
Gandhiji completely rejected colonial education and had a radically different vision. He believed that schools should focus on teaching productive handicrafts to their students. The idea was to make the schools self-sufficient and productive "my idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity". With renewed interest in `Gandhi-giri', thanks to
Munnabhai, I hope these ideas will spur rethinking on the purpose and construct of high school education.
Our nation faces unique opportunities and challenges.
While we can learn from the development experiences of the western world, we also need to innovate and come up with our own approaches and methods that are relevant to a knowledge-driven world. We need holistic and balanced development rather than growth that enriches only a section of society.
Our youth are critical to making this transformation happen. Should our education system continue to rob our bright young minds of all creativity, freedom and enthusiasm with mindless cramming, or should we repurpose it to produce a confident, communicative and competent India? The choice is ours to make.
(The author is CEO, Mastek Group. He can be contacted at email@example.com)