Education: In desperate need of an overhaul

“College is basically for fun, not learning.”

That thought may have crossed your mind in jest some time for sure but when the CEO of one of the world’s top companies validates that in all earnestness, it does grab eyeballs. Because that’s precisely what Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, said about college education and earning degrees around a year ago. He went on to say that he didn’t consider having gone to college “evidence of exceptional ability”. Musk himself may have two bachelor’s degrees alright, but his comment is worth thinking about. Does the way our higher education is currently structured guarantee a job, or the ability to deliver at one?

Not necessarily. Let me tell you why.

Education through time

Like most other systems, education too has evolved over time. The need to scale up education began several centuries ago, when the first schools and colleges were established. As the Industrial Revolution set in and the global population increased, education changed again. The need was dire: knowledge was concentrated in the hands of a few. Sources of information were limited too. It had to reach as many individuals as possible, so a transformation into an assembly line-like approach for education made complete sense then. Education was formalised: the school, graduate school, master’s and doctoral programmes came into being, all specific rungs in a step-by-step increment of knowledge. 

Today, many countries have some form of compulsory education or the other. However, the system of education has not changed much since then. There’s formal schooling, of course. But a huge reliance on graduate school still remains a proxy of how much a person knows, and what one can stand to gain with education. 

While that worked well decades ago, the world of knowledge is now at a cusp. The Information Age that launched in the latter half of the 20th century saw a shift from all the elements that characterised the Industrial Age to one based on information technology. The advent of the world wide web in the 1990s accelerated the age of the internet. Today, information is at every internet-wielder’s fingertips. Information locked away in old textbooks, often limited by access in time and space (or sometimes even other factors such as gender) is no longer a thing. Knowledge, on any topic – an explosion of it (including the latest developments in theory and practice), as detailed as you want it to be, and accessible anytime you want it – is just a few clicks away.

The need for systemic change 

And yet, this availability of knowledge is not mirrored in the education systems that many countries follow. Take India, for instance. The syllabus taught in many engineering colleges (excluding perhaps the IITs) is outdated. Students of engineering – including me – learnt about Intel 8085 and 8086 processors (introduced to the world first in 1976) as recently as 2007. But every field is dynamic now, with new trends emerging regularly; incorporating this into the syllabus is crucial. However, how regularly is the syllabus updated? And are the people who make these updates aware of the latest developments in these fields? These are important questions to ask.

“The Indian higher education ecosystem is in need of systemic change,” writes Varun Aggarwal, co-founder and CTO of Aspiring Minds in their 2019 National Employability Report. This report found that the employability of Indian engineering graduates is still abysmally low: only 20% of these graduates are employable for any job in the knowledge industry. They also scored very low in next-generation technological skills, such as machine learning and data science.

Interestingly, the findings of the report also highlight the need to change pedagogy. For even though engineering is an applied science, education is still mainly theory-based. Only 40% of students, for instance, take on internships (which are crucial for hands-on learning and application of learned theories). Practical knowledge is missing, and this is a huge handicap as far as employability goes. The current system places more importance on rote learning and does not foster creative development.

Skills and the future

This brings us to another crucial aspect – the role of skilled instructors in the education ecosystem. That’s yet another concern in India’s higher education system: the lack of qualified instructors with both academic and industrial experience. Skilled instructors play an undeniably integral role in learning and ensuring the applicability of what is learnt. There is a dire need for faculty development and making sure instructors remain updated about the latest developments and trends in their fields.

So in ways more than one, we desperately need an overhaul in our education system. An overhaul that will redirect people to achieve what they want, creating possibilities for people regardless of their formal education.

But it isn’t just about degrees either. People who don’t have degrees are still employable – and this is slowly becoming the accepted norm. For instance, there are more companies now (including Google and Apple) that no longer demand that their ideal candidate have a degree. Hirers today also look for demonstrated skill sets, including communication, in future candidates that they know will come in handy for the roles they are looking for. According to the India Skill Report 2021 that surveyed 65,000 students across India, most of the 45 percent of employable Indian youth in the country are expected to develop new skills through certifications that are in high demand today, mostly through online learning. Skills may in fact be the way to go, as employers are discovering that high grades may not correspond to individual competence, as this Harvard Business Review article points out. That could be the reason why many of the world’s top entrepreneurs include college dropouts.

Ultimately, it all boils down to one question: can you get the job done?

In the second post, I’ll be talking about the modern trends in education including project-based and experiential learning that currently guide the future of this dynamic field. And in the third and final post, I’ll delve on where we see Edurupt fitting in the grander scheme of things, with our focus on the digital hybrid cohort model to enable learning. So do watch this space!