Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts in India have the maximum number of professional colleges per capita in the country. In addition to being the cradle of banking, these districts are a cradle of private professional colleges (17 engineering and 8 medical). However, these institutions cannot claim excellence in standards of education, as I recently observed. My interactions with students at Aloysius Institute of Management (AIM), and with teachers at Besant and Nitte educational institutions, confirmed that India’s education system is in grave need of intensive care. Survey results of Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report 2017 (ASER 2017), released on January 15, 2018, fully supports my observation. My purpose was to persuade students and teachers that we must think out of the box to usher in a new era. ASER found that rural youths, aged between 14 and 18 years, do not have foundational skills in reading or basic arithmetic. About 25% cannot read basic text, and more than 50% struggle with simple division. More shocking was the indifference of the media, which failed to draw the nation’s attention to this disturbing reality. Almost all students at AIM thought they received a quality education. We discussed various metrics to assess education standards. Is it scoring high marks? High ranks? In discussing the creation of an environment of learning, igniting critical thinking, and encouraging students to ask questions, it became obvious to everyone that their schools could have done a better job.
Only three students had read Ramayana and Mahabharatha, which was the case in hundreds of schools I have visited in recent years. Shouldn’t this shock our educationists? No student in the West can graduate from high school without having read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, their classics. Only two students I met had any interest in entering politics. I pointed out that our Constitution says that our leaders are chosen based on elections, and asked them how can any of us afford to be indifferent to taking part in elections? That question did not elicit any reaction from the students. Not one student had read 10 books during the last twelve months. Only four had read a few books (three or four). When students were urged to ask questions on topics of their interest, none was ready. If these students had a solid foundation in elementary and high school, and were encouraged to think creatively, they would surely have been better prepared to do so in college.
Interactions with teachers at Besant College was more encouraging. Seventy per cent of teachers thought they had a good education. However, by the end of our interaction, all changed their opinion and agreed that their education was below par. They also concurred that they were not imparting a quality education to their students. No one came up with any good reasons for such a sorry state of affairs. Some teachers argued that students do not respect teachers, and it is difficult to motivate them to take studies seriously. Their laptops, iPads, and smartphones are more important than books. When I asked how many teachers have gone “beyond the call of duty” to take special interest in students after class hours or during holidays, only three came forward to describe their involvement.
We discussed the declining ethical standards in education sector. All agreed that no one can become a vice-chancellor of any university these days without paying a huge bribe, which in turn reinforces a cycle of corruption from the top. At the end of our interactions, most teachers agreed that they would now attempt to mentor students after school hours, motivate them to read books, discuss ethics and moral values, etc. Even if a small percentage of teachers implement what they promised, significant change in the educational environment in the college is possible.
The most exciting interactions were with the professors of Nitte Engineering College. They were liberal in thinking and interested in contributing to the betterment of students. All of them were fully aware of the limitations of the current educational system, which is driven by rote learning to clear exams. They readily agreed to mentor students and motivate them to read books other than their text books. I discussed my innovative programme to ignite students’ critical thinking, “True Education,” which has been implemented by a college in Mysore. The programme consists of 20 discussion sessions on various topics. All the professors agreed to experiment with it.
I have learnt again that when management takes interest, and teachers are exposed to new ideas, some of them will be motivated to go beyond the call of duty to guide their students. While students may have lost the habit of reading books, if teachers take an interest and mentor them, a beginning can be made to promote reading books. Finally, student/teacher communities must recognise that we have a serious crisis in our education sector; we need to act now to usher in a new era. It is futile to expect our political leaders to bring about much-needed reforms. Let us remember that the destiny of any nation is shaped in classrooms by dedicated teachers.
By Bhamy V Shenoy, Former manager, Conoco, and former board member of the national oil company of Georgia