The Prime Minister of India, during his Independence Day address, laid out his vision of a New India where the youth of our nation become key stakeholders in building the India of the 21st century. He underscored the fact that we are a nation of young people; the children born at the dawn of this century will come of age in 2018. Thus, it is clear that for New India to be a developed nation, it has to be powered by its most valuable resource: the bright, educated youth who are highly skilled and are capable of being job-creators. But a country that dreams of bullet trains in New India will find it hard to do so with an education model that teaches our youth to build steam engines for Old India. In our current system of education, a young student does schooling until the age of 18, gets a Bachelor’s degree by 22, works in the industry for about three years to get basic understanding. After another five years of working, at around the age of 30, he/she becomes really productive and then spends the next 30-odd years working until retirement at the age of 60.
Designed in the image of 20th century industrial era, with schools and colleges arranged like batch production in a factory, this model assumes that every student learns at the same pace. It was designed to create “workers” needed to operate factories (engineers in electrical, mechanical, civil, industrial, etc), and people to manage these workers or handle sales and money (MBAs in HR, marketing, finance). This system has worked and will continue to work well for the Old India of the industrial era.
However, the Prime Minister’s vision of a New India build in the image of the internet age needs a different model. With the use of internet-based learning, we can make our young people productive by the age of 20 and to be able to work for perhaps 40 years. Imagine what the productivity gain of 10 years for 100 million youth can do for India—it will give us enough manpower to catapult straight ahead into the league of developed nations.
So, how can we create this change?
The key lies in understanding the structure of an educational degree designed for the industrial era—a degree is the academic proof that a student can do useful work. An engineering course of today, for example, is completed through structured accumulation of credits (180 credits for a degree), with each credit earned by attending 15 hours of theory class or 30 hours of lab work. However, with factories getting automated, this degree that mirrors the industrial age skills is no longer useful for getting any productive work done in the internet age. Changing this entire system overnight would be painful and creating change at scale involving 10,000-plus colleges would just be too slow and hard.
The new generation, on the other hand, is getting smarter at a younger age—with early access to information through the internet. Just like how bullet trains require new fast rail tracks to be laid, to fast-track New India, two new education tracks are vital. One, we need to introduce an internet-based learning system along with a fast-track degree, where students are permitted by the certification granting institutions to take any exam online for school, undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate degrees at any time, irrespective of their age. Students can enrol for courses online through the Swayam portal of the ministry of human resource development or other resources online and learn at their own speed and move as fast as they can, leading to an engineering degree by, say, 18 years of age.
Two, we can operationalise “industry outcome based degrees” under the Cabinet-approved National Skills Qualifications Framework, where the industry-approved work requirements can be actually demonstrated by students as proof of ability to work, instead of exam-based academic credentials. Students can work in the industry through internships or apprenticeships or build their own start-ups to gain industry knowledge and skills, after which they can appear for exams approved by the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).
The industrial-era model of getting a degree first and then getting a work experience, therefore, gets flipped. The Prime Minister envisions the New India of the 21st century to be a digital and internet based economy. For any nation to create a developed economy, it needs new enterprises; to build new companies we need new start-ups; and to build new start-ups we need new youth with an entrepreneurial mindset. This mindset transformation among the young people build on foundation of a fast-track education system holds the key to the vision and dreams of New India becoming a developed nation a reality.