Cultivating Liberal Arts: An Essential Colour for the Education Rainbow

image-1_parag-saxenaDiscussion on the issue of education in India typically gets partitioned into either the issue of primary education or higher education, and most of the attempts at out-of-the-box thinking on education seem overly focused on the ‘box’ itself. In other words, the problem of delivery. How do we deliver high quality education to the millions of young Indians in a timely and meaningful fashion? Without discounting the enormity of the delivery issue, in this article we approach the education issue from a different angle by focusing what is within the box – in other words the content of Indian education. Parag Saxena, Founding General Partner and CEO of New Silk Route Partners who also co-founded Vedanta Capital LLC, in 2006. Parag has been a member of the Foreign Direct Investment task force for the Prime Minister of India and during his last sojourn to India, the Fundamatics team discovered that Parag holds the issue of Indian education very close to his heart. Bumblebee got him to share his thoughts on what he feels is the need of the hour for Indian education and the content required to make Indian education and the institutions that deliver it more relevant. ~

By 2016, approximately 50 per cent of the total population is expected to be in the 15-25 years age group, and in the next 15 years a vast population will enter the working age group. To ensure that the young Indians are productive members contributing to the increase in productive activities in India, it is but obvious that to address the tremendous rise in the number of employable workforce in the job market in the coming decade, India needs to make a massive, commensurate investment in education today.

The major challenge before Indian education is how to harness itself so that our advantageous demographic dividend does not end up being a demographic disaster.

India needs to expand the number of higher education institutions both at the graduate and post-graduate level. While a lot has been done at this level (there are about 26,478 institutions providing higher education in India which is one of the largest numbers in the world) both for the IITs and otherwise, a lot more needs to be done in terms of improvement of the infrastructure available within these institutions and recruitment of the right human capital necessary to deliver high quality education.

The Perils of Neglecting Liberal Arts Education

A worrying trend that I have noticed in recent years is that as a nation, we are not doing enough to expand the number of institutions teaching liberal arts. This may be due to the fact that historically the demand for students from the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines have been higher. This may have made it easier for us to ignore the study of humanities, but to neglect humanities is to lose sight of the long-term value of practitioners of liberal arts and the liberal arts institutions.

Even though India does have many excellent Universities that teach Humanities, not enough has been done to improve capacities and enable their expansion. The number of higher education institutions that teach liberal arts has not increased nor have they increased the number of students.

I also think that dropping the language requirement from the entrance exam of engineering colleges like the IITs was a mistake. The language need not have been English and we could have had aptitude testing of different regional languages specific to different states of India. But the communication abilities that language as a subject of study represents is a crucial aspect of professional life which we ignore at our own peril.

This may have made it easier for us to ignore the study of humanities, but to neglect humanities is to lose sight of the long-term value of practitioners of liberal arts and the liberal arts institutions.

Quality of humanities teaching at technical engineering institutions is also another lacuna. The humanities classes in the engineering colleges are of varying quality depending on the institution. We need to critically look at what we are teaching people apart from physics, chemistry, maths and their upward rising derivatives and my feeling is that a lot more needs to be done in that area.

Importance of Skill Education

To me it seems that the model that we have veered towards is the US model – K-12 education, college graduate degree followed by an advanced degree (PhD). I don’t think that this is a good model for much of the world. Even the US today is realising that it is not a good model for them. A better model exists in Europe, specifically in Germany, of training people indifferent skillsubsets.

We all realise that there is great need for skilling in India. We have the ITI, but can we increase their numbers while ensuring the quality of instruction remains top order? Should we not have more and more people who are persuaded to enter skill-based professions? But it is important to understand that this would require a major cultural shift in the Indian psyche and this is bound to take time.

For instance, if you stay in some of India’s best hotels, their service is at par with global standards. There is a fair amount of training of their personnel which adheres to global benchmarks. There is no reason why this cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Let me illustrate my point with an example of skiing in USA as opposed to Europe and the differences that may be observed while skiing in both areas. If you went skiing in USA, say in Colorado, it is an elite and expensive affair and chances are that the person sitting next to you in the ski lift is likely to be someone just like yourself, someone working in a large metropolitan area, maybe in the financial business, a wealthy entrepreneur or something similar. Contrast this with the experience of skiing in Europe where the sitting next to you might easily be a plumber or a mechanic, and if you ask him about his profession you will find that he is very proud of what he is doing. He might say that I work for Daimler Benz and my name goes out on every car that I help build.

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In Europe they have evolved a cultural mechanism of recognition for the humblest tasks. It builds a culture of pride for a job well done irrespective of what it is.

This is quite unlike what we have in India where historically we have never had something similar. Take the Ellora caves or the cave paintings of Ajanta, you will not know or find the names of the artisans, craftsmen or architects who built these magnificent edifices. By a similar token, in the modern context we do not know the names of our mechanics who build our cars or elevators. We have not built pride in this kind of skilled work into our system and it is this cultural aspect that needs change.

To return to the subject at hand, it is important to assess the areas where the maximum number of jobs are needed and then focus on the issue of how we can supply that workforce. Typically in India, most people look at government certification skeptically except in from a handful of institutions. Trained apprentices can prove equally valuable. But the key challenge is to focus on how to find employment for them and also how to imbue their profession with dignity.

The problem to be alleviated is that we are not training enough people in the right skill sets nor is there post-graduate practical skill-based training of working in specific domains. Also can we solve this problem of skilling by training them at an earlier stage?

To start with, can we get the top ten recruiters in each major domain to combine and come up with a global standard of excellence which skilling institutions that impart training can emulate and aspire to?

India needs more productive people in the workforce and that too at earlier stages, so that people who are coming out of educational and skilling institutions are immediately employable and can become productive in a very short period of time.

For instance, if you stay in some of India’s best hotels, their service is at par with global standards. There is a fair amount of training of their personnel which adheres to global benchmarks. There is no reason why this cannot be replicated elsewhere.

The issue is how we create high quality institutions that will train people with the right content so they are ready for employment as soon as they graduate.

Take the IITs for example, and if you compare them to how they were before with what they are like now you will notice that the students are far more practically equipped for the job market today. Even the students have a more practical bent of how they approach their education. The issue for us is how to expand this at every level?
Today technical training colleges in the US have focused on communication skills and imparting a high level of skilled training so that students are immediately employable, be it at a factory or service business or in some other area. We do not have enough numbers of such high quality institutions in India.

India needs more productive people in the workforce and that too at earlier stages, so that people who are coming out of educational and skilling institutions are immediately employable and can become productive in a very short period of time.

So if we segment the education conundrum, three distinct strands emerge that need to be addressed multilaterally.

  1. At the high level, we are not increasing the number of liberal arts institutions or the number of graduates from existing institutions at a pace that is required today.
  2. How do we impart a more practical orientation to the education imparted at our engineering and technical training institutions across the country?
  3. People should also have the option of being skilled at a trade that is immediately useful to them for employment purposes.

We need to recognise that these are three very different strands, but we need to make strides in all of them. Take the analogy of the rainbow here; it is all seven colours together that make a rainbow beautiful. If the rainbow was just one colour, even if it was your favourite, it would not be as pretty. The three strands I mention are the key colours that would make the Indian education rainbow complete.

Bumblebee

Bumblebee

The Buzybee who is always buzzing with fundaes on serious subjects.
Bumblebee

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The Buzybee who is always buzzing with fundaes on serious subjects.

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