Why Complete Education is a Luxury
A typical Indian child learns a diverse range of subjects in his schooling life. Millions of students have cribbed while mugging up their texts, “How will this (cell structure, complex mathematics, chemical properties of Argon, Shakespearean poetry) ever help me in real life?”. Its time we took this complaint seriously. I argue that a complete education that includes all of these subjects in detail, is in fact, a luxury. It is a luxury because it demands 12 years of a child’s life and does not make him employable. Instead it simply renders him ready for college. Between 3-6 years later, and a full 15-18 years after the child has started his education, he is FINALLY rendered employable. This means that till a child attains the age of (at an average) 23, he is in the process of educating himself. It also means that, till this time, he is dependent on his parents for sustenance, or to put it rather harshly, he is a burden on his parent’s finances. A portion of India’s population, the middle classes and above, have the financial power to keep a child’s education continuing.
However, an overwhelming percentage of the population simply does not have the financial super-power to sustain multiple children for a period of 23 years with education, food and housing thrown in. Its simply overwhelming. In this context, school education deserves a re-look. Let us take the example of the family of Sushil Kumar, a carpenter in Kauriaganj, a small town in Uttar Pradesh with 3 children – 2 boys and a girl. He earns anywhere between Rs 5000 to Rs 7,000 per month (and sometimes just Rs 3,500) and is reasonably progressive – he wants his children to get educated. He signs them up in a CBSE, government run school nearby. However he finds out that after his eldest son has been in a school for 6 years, he is still grappling with questions such as:” Prepare a chart on the food habits of Animals”, after 8 years he is working with exponents, after 9 years, he was working on how cells reproduce and after 10 years he is studying European Nationalism. At the end of class 10, after educating his eldest son till the age of 15, the father takes stock. His son can speak passable English (if the school had a good teacher); add, subtract and multiply numbers, and tell his father the history of the Indian Freedom Struggle in complete detail. Yet none of these skills make the child much more employable than he was 10 years ago. With 3 children to support and an unsteady income, the father is in a fix. He would need to support his eldest son for atleast 5 more years for his education to pay dividends. Then there was the second child, a daughter’s marriage to think about. What would he do?
Let us re-examine the situation from a different angle. Readers may argue that a diverse range of subjects leads to the development of the mind, opens up the horizons and allows a child to explore his interests and find out his true calling. However I argue that this is in fact a luxury that is not available to millions and millions of Indians. Let us examine education from an economic stand-point. Primary and Secondary education is largely free in India, so the direct costs are negligible. The costs however emerge in the form of opportunity cost of earnings after a certain age. It is essential to understand that the thinking of a poor family and a middle class family differs greatly. For a poor family, once the child is 15, the opportunity cost of his lost earnings, constitute the cost for the free education he is receiving. For a middle class family, a child is not expected to earn till around 23 (average figure), till the time he has probably completed his engineering or MBA, or any other masters. Coming back to the poor family, the opportunity costs start at age 15. However, at age 15, he should be having employable skills supplied to him over the past 10 years, that is essentially why he went to school right? But if you examine his textbooks for the past 10 years you realise that the education has added almost no value to his skill set ensuring that at age 15, he is still raw in the labour market and would probably carry less value than a contract labourer. Assuming that the child convinces the father to let him continue till the end of school, even at age 17 he has hardly any skills that set him apart in a crowded labour market. 11th standard biology was never going to be of any use in small town Kauriganj.
Do you think the father would allow his other children to continue their education if after 12 years, his eldest son is worse off than him? Let us examine the concept of value addition. Time is indeed money. The 12 years of time that the son spent in his normal CBSE based school education, had an opportunity cost. A comparison between the United States and Germany (educational systems) reveals some important lessons. Germany is one of the most stable, prosperous and successful economies in the world. Germany’s economy has a mix of both large corporations (Volkswagen, Siemens) and highly advanced, small family owned enterprises known as Mittelstand. German education lays heavy emphasis on advanced vocational training running parallel to secondary school education. This is known as “Dual Education System” and is followed not only in Germany but Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, France and Netherlands (all of which are among the richest countries in the developed world). In the Dual Education Model, a child is supplied with both soft skills and hard skills essential to survive in the job market. English and Mathematics allow communication, critical thinking and basic accounting while training in machine tools and auto assembly allow the child to take part in advanced training at Audi straight after school (just an example). Already equipped with basic hard skills, the student is ready to be a part of advanced industrial training and furthermore to take his place in an industrial economy. In the United States on the other hand, there exist a wide spectrum of educational courses that leaves students struggling with educational loans and lack of job opportunities. When even Harvard Law graduates have admitted that it took them between 10 to 20 years to repay their student loans, what would be the situation of a student who has paid $75,000 to major in European Cultural Studies from the University of New Hampshire?
The point being, education that does not add to your skill set is essentially a luxury. When I talk about skill set, I am referring to any skills that add economic value to you when you are in the labour market. For instance, if Sushil Kumar’s 17 year old had managed to make himself extremely fluent in English then he might talk his way into a comfortable Rs 15,000 a month job at a call centre. In the real world though, that is both rare and unlikely. In reality Sushil Kumar’s son’s 12 year old education was a luxury, a luxury that the family could not afford. WHAT AM I SUGGESTING?
Education need not necessarily be a process that adds no employable values. I suggest the setting up of schools (or the conversion of existing schools) that discard the existing syallabus and instead impart a mix of soft skills such as English, basic Mathematics, very basic accounting and finance; in some cases, Computers; and hard skills such as carpentering, electrical repair, automobile assembly, use of machine tools and more. For any economy to develop, it must first move from the primary sector to the secondary sector to the tertiary (service) sector. The Indian economy skipped the 2nd step, did not industrialise on a large scale like the USA, UK, Japan, Germany or China and instead moved to a service economy. While this has ensured high growth, it also meant that a massive section of the population is under-employed. There were many factors that held back large scale industrialisation in India but surely, lack of skilled workers is a critical component of this.
What I’m advocating, a Dual Education System on the lines of the German system, need not supply skilled workers only to the industrial sector, it can filter and process students and can equip them with the skills necessary to excel even in the service sector. Some readers may argue that I have used selective representation in Sushil Kumar’s example, but that is not so. Sushil Kumar in fact represents the vast majority of Indian population and I believe that the present system rather focuses too much on the middle class. I also recognise the existence of ITIs (Indian Technical Institutes) and Polytechnics, but I am stressing for a change at an even more basic school level. Some readers may also argue that by bringing about this practical style of education we are essentially giving up on these children and depriving them of the opportunity to pursue higher education (since the education system that I am advocating essentially aims to put these children in the labour market by age 17 or 18). But I’m simply being a realist. An education that continuously adds value to a child’s skill set will also see substantially lower drop-out rates and will actually encourage more fathers like Sushil Kumar to continue educating because they will see substantial results in a realistic time-frame.
In conclusion what I am suggesting is not that the existing system be wiped out, I am simply suggesting that the Dual Education System that I have suggested also run in parallel to the existing system. For instance Kauriganj, Sushil Kumar’s town has 4 schools, then initially one school should run the Dual Education System on a trial basis. As and when the system becomes successful and it gains the confidence of parents and students, it can expand into the existing infrastructure. Its time for India’s population to pay its demographic dividend and this is the way we are going to do it.
Note: I realise that readers may have opinions differing from mine. I would love to hear from you!
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