Friday, August 31, 2007

Indian Higher Ed: "Keep 'Em Here Until They've Lost Their Idealism"

I was talking with one of the faculty in the guest house (not in the theatre department) about her work at the university. More specifically, she was talking to me. She was complaining that standards in higher education have fallen; that students are less prepared; that attempts to increase access to students from all economic (and caste) backgrounds only serve to weaken the educational outcomes for all students, since allowing students to attend university "who might not have been able to get in otherwise" forced faculty to spend a greater percentage of their time on remedial instruction, thus lessening the amount of focused study and information that could be distributed to the other students in the classroom.

To turn the discussion away from caste, I said that this "ill-preparedness" probably came as much from poor primary- and secondary-school education as it did anything else.

She agreed. The primary- and secondary-school education for the majority of incoming students at the university was abominable. They didn't know how to write, read, figure, etc.

I said that a similar problem seemed to exist in the U.S., but we hadn't yet found a useful method of solving it, and No Child Left Behind certainly hasn't been the answer.

"I know how it could be solved," she said. She proposed that at least half of the money currently being used on university scholarships be funneled into primary-school education, particularly in under-performing localities.

"But I also know why they don't do that," she said. And then she explained something that I thought was very interesting.

She said that there were no jobs for young people in India, even after they earned their BA. Thus it was in the Indian government's best interest to keep students in universities for as long as possible, encouraging them to earn MAs and PhDs, even if it meant admitting and retaining (and offering scholarships to) students who were not capable of handling the work.

She said that if students truly understood that their BA degrees were worthless, they would riot. Particularly, she claimed, the Dalit students, who had been lured into the system with promises of a better life.

"And after they get these additional degrees, then do they get jobs?" I asked.

"No," she said. "There still aren't any good jobs. But there's a difference."

I instantly understood. "By the time they get their PhDs," I said, "they're almost 30 years old."

"Or older," she agreed. "And they're tired. And their families are pressuring them to marry and settle down."

"And when you're 22 with a BA," I said, "you want the best job, the one you think you've been trained to do. When you're thirty, with no assets, you know you have to take what you can get."

Fascinating. Do you think it's true, or just an elegant conspiracy theory?


ctrlalteredmind said...

Wow, this post was really thought-provoking - made me go 'hmm' all the way ( the end of the post) :)

All the same, while the theory is quite plausible, I'd still think that the reason for higher education is a direct result of the growing student population funneling to reach a limited resource - jobs, in this case. My buddy in the lab that I worked in (in the US), was getting his degree in Physiology and talked about jobs that until a few years ago needed just a BS, now need a MS or even a PhD qualification - due to the growing popularity of the field and the number of students in general. This trend has been true in India for a bit longer than in the US (I'm specifically referring to fields like engineering and medicine, that see the highest competition).

Phoenix said...

There might be some weight to your conspiracy theory. But at the same time, just because of the sheer number of students with a BA degree, it is bound to be worthless, and therefore students are forced to differentiate themselves with a higher degree, it need not be a 'conspiracy theory'. In foreign countries, a BA is good enough to get you a decent paying job, but in India , you need something more to differentiate yourself, because just having a BA isn't enough. Thus they have to look to the next level. So it may not be a government conspiracy, just a simple recognition of the reality.

Rahul said...

(Saw this post by way of DesiPundit)

It's not that there are no jobs for BAs in India. It is that most bachelor's degrees are worthless. Sometimes intrinsically so -- what will you do after a degree in political science, for example? And sometimes it is useless in practice, because of the quality of education, though the field certainly has market value -- for example, economics.

I know plenty of people who got excellent jobs after a bachelor's degree. Employers know that the degree means nothing, but if you have demonstrable skills, they take you.

So if you have a useless BA or BSc degree, and have not taken any independent initiative to educate yourself by reading anything beyond the "prescribed" cram-books (and, sad to say, that applies to 99.9% of undergraduates), you are unemployable. So you do an MA, and then a PhD, and you are still unemployable.

J.Kamath said...

I do not agree with the idea that there are no jobs for BA graduates; I used to teach in a BCom course here in Bangalore and there were plenty of call centre/accounts jobs that were available. The jobs paid well, but the students did not opt for them as they considered it too menial. But they never asked the question ( and frankly neither did I have the guts to ask them)- are they capable of anything else? Most of them were the 'low intellect easy money' types, who just rated themselves too highly. Their skills - be it language or quantitative - were abysmal and they made no effort to improve this !! They were god's gift to mankind and that was it!

I quite agree with Rahul's comments though - you should have employable skills...