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Some thoughts on University Education in India

Recently Sam Pitroda recently mentioned that - "too much focus on engineering and medical education has created a situation in India where liberal arts really did not get the kind of attention it deserved." He said:

"A good liberal arts education is important to produce leaders. India has now begun to recognizse that we need not only world class engineering education, we also need world-class liberal arts education. And, we agree that the model we have in (University of) Chicago or Harvard is a model that we need to look at, but it needs to be Indianised - it has to be of a local context."
Clearly, Pitroda is talking about the skewed model of having competitive exams for professional courses only which has created a void in liberal arts education in India.

Unlike US system, Indian universities do not have a uniform SAT for admission across disciplines – so while for entry to professional courses like engineering and medicine we rely on AIEEE/SEEE and PMT/CPMT’s but for non-professional courses we rely on class 12th scores. This creates an imbalance in the evaluation criteria for non-professional courses because class 12th is a qualifying exam and not a competitive exam. It is a measure of one’s qualification in a particular subject and not his/her aptitude in general.

What is the result of this skewed mis-representation? The result is that, in India academic subjects are ranked in terms of the kind of people who opt for them. So Engineering and Medicine seem to come first, then would come other professional courses like Management and Sciences (especially Computer Science which nowadays ensures a good job in an IT company) and then come humanities like Economics and History, pure arts coming the last.

But is it that there are no great jobs in the field of history or economics? Certainly not, not in a country headed by an Economist! However, due to the socio-hierarchal status accorded to our study courses often people with high levels of aptitude are qualified only in engineering or medicine and not in humanities and arts. So you end up finding engineers heading economic/commercial institutions (For example S.B. Bhave who heads the SEBI) or educational boards.

Even worse, you may find people qualified but not with great aptitude heading institutions for want of properly qualified individuals with high aptitude (I confess this statement is a little controversial but its not a generic one I am making – this may happen only in specific cases).

This cycle is created because people with high aptitude are being forced by a flawed system to take up a certain type of qualifications and certain type qualifications being shunned by the society at large. It in fact takes a lot of personal daring to choose a subject of humanities even if you are a great student - and then too hear several noises of discontent from the society as to “why you are destroying your career!” - which is quite unfortunate!!

What needs to be done to solve this cycle.
  1. A common aptitude test needs to be set up for entry to any course in any university in India
  2. People need to be encouraged to take up all kinds of subjects
  3. Corporate need to be influenced to recruit people with proper of qualifications for suitable jobs than with high aptitude only
However, recognizing the size of our population we also need to restructure our non-professional courses in order to ensure that talented individuals can find good ‘placements’ even without opting for professional courses.

One idea is to run every course in 2 modes: Basic and Advanced. People with high SAT scores can take up the advanced mode so as to ensure better “placements” and job offers on completion. This may be a bit unfair in the short run, but can be dismantled in the long run once the system has self-corrected itself and we have people with good aptitude choosing qualifications unabashedly.

Case Studies

The above ideas may look to be preposterous to most of us accustomed to live in a world where most of our peers choose engineering / medicine over commerce or arts. However, the corrective trend has been seen in the microcosm of the IT industry.

In the early years of the IT boom when most IT companies were recruiting heavily, they started recruiting students from all streams (from Mechnical to Civil engrs) of IITs/NITs for IT / Software jobs. However, as number of qualified people in the computer science, IT electronics engineering streams increased, this trend tapered. Now, mechanical engineers from an IIT are more likely to take up jobs which require their aptitude in their own stream than join an IT company which recruit them only to be retrained to code software.

Another case is that of the Armed Forces which ensure that all regiments of the Army are staffed with equally skilled officers by ensuring that IMA graduates are assigned regiments not merely by merit but by dividing them into different blocks by aptitude and distributing students from each block to different regiments.
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1 comments to " Some thoughts on University Education in India "

  1. Dada, this is accompanied by the fact that most ppl feel engg is not what they wanted to do.. and thus it again turns up being a "qualifying exam" for them, as they need graduation.

    just as i was reading your post... questions came to my mind... 1. why is it so? and 2. How can this change? as i kept thinking on answers this is what struck to my mind..

    for 1. the societal trend changed over time becoz they saw more success stories in ppl passing out with engg, scores earning high value and respect in society.

    with 2. i feel rather than making elders supporting non prof. courses... better solution could be if we can integrate a few subjects of arts & science together in gradutaion.. with specialized subjects to be choosen at later stage.. coz subjects of arts is also a very vital part of professional education which is missing today.. most of them learn those while they enter job.

    just thoughts..

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