India and the world at large are witnessing the kind of change that we have not seen in recent times. We have been witness to worldwide ferment, revolutions, emergence of out-of-the-box ideas, inventions, disasters, untold agony, ecstasy and dramatic political, economic and sociological changes. And as the world changes, we have no choice but to revolutionise the field of education. Only that will help us ride the change.

We need innovations. We need people who will drive it, implement it and open the pathway for change by revitalizing and refashioning it. This is possible only with a dynamic education system churning out innovative students who can independently think, strategise and built the nation's future.

India needs an education system to empower teachers to teach differently. Ironically, ancient India had an ancient holistic education system aimed at creating well-rounded individuals who would reflect the soul of India. But the British changed it to one that historian and politician Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay introduced in 1935 - one that was specifically designed to create an army of clerks to run its administration. After more than 17 decades, the same continues at the primary and secondary school level.

Outdated and archaic

The goal of the British system was not to educate, but to enable people to get basic employment. Ironically, it appears we have even failed to achieve that objective consistently. As teachers and educationists, we have failed to develop the innate talent of our children that can help them do better in life, secure better jobs, get their creative juices flowing and contribute to society. At the moment, there is no foreseeable future effort by parents, teachers, educationists, policy makers and politicians to correct this and courageously bring in radical reforms. Talk to any of the thousands of engineering students passing out every year and the tragedy will be clear.

Politics is important in a democracy and has a rightful place, but if democracy is to succeed, it needs a literate thinking population to drive change and progress. Education should be our number one priority, as it has the potential to drive away many social ills, blind faith and, of course, poverty. It can help us think differently, build aspirations and inherent strengths. Political parties across sections have to realise this and hold hands to help the government in power to bring in reforms. We have already lost a lot of time. We cannot afford to miss this turning point in history.

Unprepared future

In ten years, India will overtake China as the world's most populous country. The good news is that India will be the only country with such a large young population. To turn around this demographic dividend, we need excellent schools, colleges and institutions of higher learning that have a revamped contemporary syllabus to meet the challenges of the future. Learning has to be exciting, proactive and practical.

Organisations today invest heavily in training new recruits as the education they completed did not teach them the required skills.

 •  Plugging the skills gap
 •  New teaching methods working? Rote learning which thrives in India does not focus on learning or application of what is taught. It does not develop critical reasoning faculties. Joint studies by WIPRO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have shown that rote studies at the primary and secondary school level actually resulted in students regressing in mathematics and science. The emphasis in our schools and colleges is on examinations that rely on such memorisation and not on intelligence, innovative thinking or even problem solving.

The Chinese leadership has realised that it cannot keep sustaining its economy by making cheap imitations but needs bright minds in research and development to compete with the western world that have made impressive strides in biotechnology, nanotechnology, knowledge intensive services and manufacturing. It has recognised rote learning cannot get them to achieve this. We in India need to see the logic too. How much research is done today in educational institutions? Pedagogical methods are archaic. Rarely are teachers sent for refresher courses or exposed to innovative methods of instruction. Teachers need to be paid attractive salaries so as to attract the best talent to the profession.

The challenges to innovation

It is not as if India has not experimented in education - there are schools that teach in innovative ways and create space for children to think independently. There are many experimental schools without examinations, such as the one established by the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry. The accent there is on learning, not performance. Students are encouraged to question, debate and put to test what they have learnt. They are given the space to think freely, have differing opinions, disagree and not be bogged down with mind numbing theories and ideas. No one laughs at their ideas.

However, parents themselves are wary of sending children to such institutions that operate differently, as they fear that they will not be able to compete with the outside world. This, despite the fact that those who have graduated from these alternative schools have done extremely well in a variety of fields. The need, therefore, is to figure out what ignited their learning and how it can be replicated.

There is no space for original thinking in most traditional schools. Can students have fun doing assignments which call for all their senses to be put to task? It will be tougher for a teacher to assess such assignments, but it is worth the effort as students would remember this more than any lecture. It may also be a good idea to have customised tests and evaluations as students are so different from each other and cannot be tested and evaluated in a general test.

Contemporary teaching today must have a lot of electives weaved into our higher education. Liberal arts should be available for all the streams so that students of both science and commerce students would benefit from learning history, sociology and psychology. And when they do, they will start looking at life around them with a different lens. A business school at Lavale in Pune, is attempting to do this. Business students are exposed to painting, sculpture, music, mask making, theatre, horse-riding and golf.

Minutes before the state board examination, students of Corporation Higher Secondary give their books a final go, after three revision exams and countless hours of in-school preparation during their study leave. Pic: B A Raju.

Serious shortage of skills and talent

In the Indian context, education must be job-oriented. Organisations today invest heavily in training new recruits as the education they completed did not teach them the required skills. Former President of India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, admitted that only 25 per cent of graduating students were employable. The rest lacked technical knowledge, English proficiency and critical thinking. Sam Pitroda, former chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, also says that only 10,000 of the 90,000 MBAs who annually graduate are employable.

A study by Aspiring Minds of 230 fresh graduates in three out of the top 10 B-schools in India found them lagging in practical intelligence. The study attempted to gauge their mid-level managerial skills in business intelligence, judgement, risk taking ability, decisiveness, leadership, marketing, communication and personal effectiveness.

As various sectors such as information technology, engineering and manufacturing witness a boom, the emphasis will be on skilled and cost-effective manpower. Operational excellence will be the key. International companies are eyeing India as there is a serious shortage of young people in the United States, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In some years, China will also be counted among them. India cannot afford to miss this opportunity . it is the only country that has a young, upwardly mobile class ready to work hard, take risks and dream.

However, the present situation does not show our preparedness in positive light. Take for example the construction sector, which faces a serious shortage of civil engineers. A 2011 report by Ernst & Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry pegs the overall labour shortage in the Indian construction industry at 30 per cent. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is a significant shortage of civil engineers in the country.

Speaking to an English daily shortly after the Uttarakhand mishap of 2013, Professor C V R Murthy of IIT Madras pointed out that of the 2,700 engineering colleges in the country, civil engineering is taught in only 400. It could also be a classic chicken-and-egg problem as students increasingly opt for the information technology discipline, with prospects in the IT sector appearing to be brighter. The Builders Association of India further adds that the curriculum at engineering colleges do not keep pace with changes in use of technology. The result is that construction firms are now hiring retired personnel at fat pay packages in the face of unavailability of fresh talent.

Various metro rail projects too face a shortage of engineers. Metro wizard E Sreedharan has asked IITs to start a course in metro engineering and is lobbying for a postgraduate course that will churn out engineers to meet the need of metros in the future. The situation is so serious that engineers are being poached by rival metros which are ready to offer them three times the salary! If things go the way it is going at present, India will have to get foreign workers in the years to come as there is not enough trained hands for sophisticated jobs.

The National Knowledge Commission has suggested that premier institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology take lesser-known engineering colleges under its wing so that their mentoring can help raise standards of graduates from these colleges.

The tale is similar when it comes to medical professionals. According to a Planning Commission report, India needs around 6,00,000 doctors, 10,00,000 nurses and 2,00,000 dental surgeons. The health ministry estimates that India needs at least 21,00,000 nurses, if there has to be one nurse for a population of 500. But only 11,00,000 are available. India has only one doctor for every 10,000 people. Compare this with Australia that has around 250 and the United States, which has about 550.

Wanted: Trained hands

Another major challenge for Indian policy makers is to introduce quality vocational training. One way for this to happen is for the government and private sector to hold hands. This is not impossible as the government has the infrastructure, credibility and scale. On the other hand, the private sector is innovative and dynamic with a wide network of industry links. Both training and placement will not be a problem as there is huge demand.

In the overall job market of around 496 million people, 30 million are in the organised sector. Of these 30 million, nearly 24 million are blue-collar workers, says Sudhakar Balakrishnan, chief executive officer of human resource solutions firm Adecco India & Middle East. This semi-skilled worker pool includes mechanics, fitter, electricians, plumbers and other technical hands who usually come out of the industrial training institutes or ITIs. These institutes take in students who have completed their tenth standard and put them through various vocational courses like carpentry, welding, motor winding and the like. There are 1896 of these institutes but most of them are in poor shape with outdated syllabus, equipment or machinery.

Can we ride the advantage?

India is in a singularly commanding position as it has a young upwardly mobile class ready to take the plunge. One opportunity lies in Knowledge Process Outsourcing which is a $3 billion industry. It has opportunities galore like financial analysis, equity research, treasury operations, credit decision processes and accruals. Then, there is Legal Process Outsourcing that has tremendous potential, as law services are comparatively cheaper in India. New opportunities are emerging in areas such as patent application, drafting, legal research, pre-litigation documentation, advising clients, analysing draft documents and writing software licensing agreements. The question is whether our education system is aligned to these realities and fashioned to produce the kind of talent that is needed.

However difficult it may be for students, it has become more important than ever today for teachers to encourage multiplicity of ideas, richness of thought and acceptance of differing viewpoints. They must allow minds to flower, not atrophy. The education system must give students the courage to question what they learn, infer from intelligent reasoning and become thinking individuals instead of senseless robots. One definite way is to stimulate their minds and reasoning by throwing ideas at them. They will be forced to think, analyse and then comprehend.

It is possible to do this, but it needs political will. We need reforms and teachers to drive it. We really do not have a choice. It is only an innovative education system that will help India take the next giant leap.