We need new templates of education

Written by Uma Ganesh | Updated: Aug 5 2013, 07:49am hrs
India produces every year close to 3.1 million graduates with 7-8 lakhs being engineers. Statistics indicate that only 20% of the engineering students are employable and far fewer number of non engineering graduates are able to find suitable employment opportunities. That leaves with the majority being under employed or unemployed for a period of one to two years after completing their studies.

More often than not the solutions proposed have been around the curriculum, making the programmes industry relevant and incorporating vocational skills and giving necessary exposure to the faculty. In addition to these, it is time we start looking at options that could bring about dramatic change in the outcomes and produce citizens who are better equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow. The education models we currently follow in the higher education system are stagnant and in view of the change in the aspirations and expectations of the current generation and the new dynamics of the employers, we need new responses and new templates of education.

Liberal arts and science programme, which has been in practice for several decades in the US and now under active consideration of the Indian education administrators, could possibly be the instrument of change that may have answers for many of the challenges being faced. The arts and science education which is at a formative stage of conceptualisation and implementation in India has been pioneered in the country by FLAME, a private sector initiative led by its founder president Indira Parekh, the former Dean of IIM-Ahmedabad.

The response to this model has been very encouraging and several parents and students are beginning to look at this option in India actively as an alternate to studying in the US. This year Delhi University has introduced a similar format for the first time amidst the debate on the likely outcomes from this programme, the challenges involved with the duration of the programmethe four year format and whether our faculty are geared to cope with this system.

Although liberal arts education was nurtured in Europe and centered around classical languages and literature, its importance diminished in the mid 20th century. Over a period of time, this format was adopted in the US system and was refined further to include newer areas of study. However lately, the liberal arts format of education is making a come back in Europe through programmes being offered in institutions such as Leiden University College The Hague, University College Utrecht, University College Maastricht, Amsterdam University College, University College of London and the European College of Liberal Arts.

Mathematics, science, arts, and language are all now considered part of the liberal arts education programme. While the liberal arts education format produced successful professionals and entrepreneurs in the US, education policy makers are discussing about how to re-energise the country with STEM education. With the focus on skills and knowledge,there has been a school of thought that programmes with a narrow focus on technical and vocational skills would be better suited to produce better talent. However there is no conclusive evidence yet in the US that the sharp focused programmes preparing for legal or medical studies for instance, produce better talent than the liberal arts programmes.

In the Indian context, we have two different sets of challenges when it comes to employability with respect to blue collared and grey collared workers. We need sharp focused skills from the talent pool who would be deployed in technical areas and here the current model particularly the ITIs, polytechnics, the engineering and medical colleges try to address these requirements. This model should be continued albeit with improvement in curriculum, content, learning delivery and better alignment with specific needs of the industry clusters.

When it comes to employees hired for a variety of administrative, sales, research and other support roles in functions such as HR, finance, legal and customer service, the characteristics of talent required not just in the short run but in the medium and long-term also require attention. Employers expect candidates to be self starters and diligent in handling the tasks assigned in their first jobs however soon as they grow into their roles they expect in them a mix of capabilities.

These skills are hugely in short supply with the talent in India at the moment and the constant refrain of institutions and corporates is that our education system has not kept pace with the changing dynamics of the economy. The last decade has seen the emergence of new businesses, the opportunity to expand exponentially on the strength of innovation and technology and businesses getting integrated globally as never before. As a result, we need a larger number of resources to be able to independently communicate, think on their feet and be able to seize/create the opportunities to move the needle of business trajectories with very little lead time.

These capabilities also propel entrepreneurship and self employment. The current education system does not adequately prepare the youth for such requirements and therefore individuals are expected to learn while on the job. The multitudes of business schools which were set up in the last decade were expected to build these capabilities but most of them have failed miserably to do so. Part of the reason for their inability to build these capabilities is the quality of input coming out of the undergraduate system and the archaic system that students get used to which conditions them to think of entitlements rather than creating ownership and responsibility for their careers.

Liberal arts education by virtue of its design and the format of

delivery is better equipped to create opportunities for individuals to develop these competencies. Introducing liberal arts education as prevalent in the US alone may not be the perfect solution for India.

A healthy blend of liberal arts education along with specific programmes in professional/vocational/technical streams will lead to the education system being able to produce differentiated talent pools capable of donning different roles with better self awareness, career orientation and preparedness. This would go a long way in making the school education system also make necessary adjustments in the long run and thereby enhance the overall productivity of human capital.

The writer is CEO, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company