HE should focus on potential rather than global skills

There are two ends on the spectrum of higher education. At one end is the higher education or training needed to be airline pilots or software engineers or neurosurgeons. Their work is, by and large, of a global nature, informed by global technology.

‘Local social context’ does not play a major role in such professions. Hence, their training aims at achieving global standards. Those students who, for some reason other than ability to pay, cannot meet those global standards, may be excluded from the training. Such ‘exclusion’ may be beneficial for society at large.

At the other end is the type of higher education needed to train people for a number of occupations, to train government officials, school teachers, employees of non-governmental organisations, those who are self-employed or employed in local enterprises, and so on.

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There are two important features of this education. First, the ‘local social context’ plays an important role in the performance of these jobs. Second, people belonging to different socio-economic groups, and with different abilities, have to be trained in order to achieve overall social development.

This is also true in the case of postgraduate education that is aimed at creating development practitioners, social workers and so on.

What do we mean by a ‘poor’ quality student? In the conventional sense, poor quality is based on a relative comparison. If there are 100 places on a programme and there are 200 applicants, then those at numbers 101-200, based on a common criterion, are judged to be poorer in terms of quality.

The applicants’ performance depends on a number of factors – intellectual ability, the kind of schooling they had, parental interest in their education, extra coaching received to enter the specific higher education programme, their ability in the medium of instruction, and so on.

The exclusion of these ‘poorer’ quality students may be useful for the first type of higher education, but it can be dangerous for the second type. Why?

Let us consider the post of a government employee, say, an officer in a local government. There is a need for government employees from all social groups (in terms of caste, race, religion, gender, language, sexual orientation and so on). There is a need for government employees with all kinds of ‘abilities’ to ensure governance is sensitive to the needs of people with different abilities. The exclusion of someone on the basis of a particular ability would make governance non-inclusive.

Moreover, there is a need for people from all social groups and varying abilities to participate in governance from all social groups.

Governance will never be perfect if it is carried out by a set of experts who meet a specific global standard, whereas aircraft piloting would be perfect with 25,000 or so people who are trained to meet a specific global standard.

So far, we have been dealing with the narrowly instrumental objectives of higher education. What if the objective of higher education is to create informed and empowered citizens who can lead a democratic society?

It is obvious that no social group can be excluded from such an education. Also, the purpose of such a higher education cannot be met if students are excluded on the basis of the language they speak, the kind of schooling they have received or the differential interests or abilities that encourage them to focus on different aspects of human endeavour.

Attitudes to learning

In my work I have come across ‘quality’ students who have a higher level of intelligence, speak the global language fluently, have received education from ‘good’ schools, have scored high marks and have educated parents. However, they don’t want to or cannot ‘learn’ much.

They have learnt everything when they were in their mother’s womb or after just a few years of education. They may excel in passing examinations, getting a degree and taking up a job that requires that degree. But there is no ‘learning’ in their education. There is no ‘transformation’ through education. Frankly speaking, such students do not interest me.

I have also come across ‘poor’ quality students. They cannot speak or write a single sentence in English. Their schooling offers the bare minimum so they are not proficient in subjects such as mathematics. Their parents are not educated. Indeed, the majority of children who complete school education in India are like this.

However, some of them have two important characteristics. One, is the ability to listen and be open to learning. Second, they have an intense desire to get out of their difficult life situation.

Due to their circumstances, they know and understand the transformative value of education. They struggle a lot and finally may reach a situation where they can communicate in imperfect English, but may excel in what they are supposed to do – to help others like them to achieve the transformation that they were able to undergo.

This is not a hypothetical argument. I can name such students whom I have met in my lifetime.

It is true that there are students who come to higher education from underprivileged backgrounds but don’t want to learn or use the opportunities that are given to them. A section of them may have become stunted in terms of their learning due to the poorer quality of school education they have received and a non-conducive social and familial environment.

There could be mental blocks among these students too. Hence, I will not argue that social or economic vulnerability is the factor that makes a person open and willing to learn.

I usually use the logic of neoclassical economics to evaluate a student. In my view, a student who comes with a benchmark ability of 60 and reaches a level of 65 through a degree programme is poorer than another one who comes with a benchmark grade of 30 and reaches the level of 50. It is the marginal improvement that should be evaluated. The possible impact of a teacher is in this marginal improvement.

Learning potential

There is a genuine argument that a willingness to learn and the ability to learn are two different factors. Different kinds of pedagogy need to be tried out to meet the needs of students with different abilities to learn. The crucial factor is the willingness of the student to learn and the willingness and the ability of teachers to try out different kinds of pedagogy to meet the needs of a diverse set of students.

Higher education of this kind is currently lacking in India. We need to imbue higher education with a sense of social purpose and address the fact that there is a limited ability and willingness on the part of teachers to meet the requirements of different types of students.

Instead we try (without much success) to meet a global standard. This has serious implications. Many people are in their positions in society having failed to meet this global standard. The majority of people in India are in jobs that are crucial for our society to function because they have not fared well in this education process.

There are school teachers in rural areas in India because they cannot get a better job in the cities. There are doctors in remote villages who failed to excel in a super-specialised education. Someone may have become a local politician because he failed to be a government official.

It is difficult to build a better country when such crucial jobs are carried out by people who are marked by their failures and not by their abilities and interests.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University, India. He teaches economics for development practitioners in the university, and carries out research on education and development issues.