A 'Liberal Education' for India

In an ironic twist, many large employers in India complain that the education Indian graduates receive are too narrow. 

Surely, the same employers, riding high on growth of IT services, helped model a tertiary education system - second largest in the world in terms of student numbers - as one narrowly, vocationally, defined. The glamour of the IT services industry, with an urban cosmopolitan life and the chance of lottery-draw for offshore opportunities, completely transformed Indian middle class life over the last two decades: That the whole ecosystem of Middle Class education, from Senior School to Business School, aligned itself to these new opportunities, is no surprise at all. 

But this expansion has now stalled, offshore is becoming off limits, and the industry is transforming rapidly.  Rather than each corporation trying to develop their various enterprise-wide systems from scratch, and thereby, handing out huge multi-year development contracts to be executed by an army of low-cost coders, more and more companies are now using Products and Apps, prepackaged solutions that can be adapted with some customisation. While the IT services businesses keep maintaining the systems they have built in the last few decades, they can see that business is coming to an end. They are now competing on a different plain, that requires creative imagination of the future of the business, understanding of real work practises and design thinking. A narrow process-oriented education doesn't necessarily prepare a workforce to think creatively, communicate across cultures and operate with imagination, and therefore, the same employers are complaining about the attributes of the education system they themselves helped to create.

While the impact of the structural change of work is reaching crisis proportions - only a fraction of India's army of Engineers find a job after graduation - there is hardly any substantial conversation about the structure and purpose of Higher Education system in India. The lack of jobs have been picked up by the media, which chose to amplify the point of view of the business community, and solemnly proclaimed that Indian graduates are not employable because the curriculum is out of touch and the pedagogy is too theoretical. The regulator of Technical Education in India, the AICTE, has mandated that anyone doing an Engineering degree must henceforth do a certain number of internships, gaining practical experience. The questions of practicability aside - this would need more than 2 million internship opportunities created every year - this would indeed discriminate against those who can't afford to live out of town at their own expense. However, even if this could be done and done equitably, there is no evidence that this would solve the problem of being able to do a different kind of work than what's being done in the Indian workplaces today.

There is another response to the 'crisis', and this is coming primarily from the Higher Education community. They can see that the close integration that they aspired to achieve through the years isn't working any more, and they can see, from their vantage point, that overt vocationalisation, rather than the lack of it, may actually be the problem. This view is somewhat marginal, and indeed, there are divergent opinions on what needs to be done, but a more humanistic approach to Education is definitely on the table as an option. Some employers, particularly outside the IT Services sector, are increasingly open to graduates who had studied Science, Mathematics or Humanities. Also, the current cultural resurgence in India, the rise of Hindu Nationalism (as well as of the other cultural identities, not just religious but regional as well), has made a cultural education more attractive to Indian middle classes. 

Such divergent reactions are typical in India - it is commonly said that everything and its opposite are usually true for India - but the very feeble conversations about a 'Liberal Education' is an important departure. Unlike the universities in Western countries, and even those of China and Japan, modern Indian universities were conceived to be vocationally oriented entities. With exception of some universities set up during the National Education movement in the early twentieth century, and that of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in Independent India, a cultural education was never really the agenda in modern Indian Higher Education. This contemporary departure, at least up to this point, has not drawn anything from the earlier ideas, but a rather different 'vocationalisation' imperative. While a 'vocationally oriented Liberal Education' is an oxymoron, but that is exactly the conversation in India. And, because of this, no model exists - no model could exist - for an 'Indian Liberal Education'. 

Indeed, the American, British and the European models have evolved over a long period of time, and have had their false starts and crossroads. In a sense, India is just getting started, and early efforts have been rather a hodgepodge of imports of different models. These models are implemented without the context of realities of India. Every great American college, even when they were drawing ideas from German or Scottish models, were a product of their time and place, but the Liberal Arts schools in India, who chose to copy their format, have structured themselves on the opposite proposition, positioning themselves as prep schools for an overseas education rather than a way to engage in the country itself.

Now, this may undermine my earlier claim that there is a conversation about Liberal Education: Apparently what's there is too limited, too little and too superficial. However, that could be said about the whole Indian Higher Education system, which has to find a purpose for itself when the global division of labour model, under which it was conceived and under which it operated for such a long time, falls apart. And, there is indeed a practical model to follow: China, which has developed its liberal education, following their own path and looking to meet their own requirement. When such a moment comes, Indian Educators may find their inspirations, and models, not from American Colleges, but from the Indian ones, such as Viswabharati, BHU and Annamalai.


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