Any society which fails to give cutting edge education to its younger generation is doomed to a future of stagnation and dependence. No sane person would deny this and indeed, this is a prediction enlightened scholars, activists and politicians have been unanimously and consistently making, especially in the present times with reference to the whole of India as such. The country has a young population, and in another decade or so, it is headed to have the biggest workforce, overtaking even China where thanks to its long time one-child policy (though lifted now), the population is aging. But given the current state of education in India, it is quite likely its young workforce may not be completely up to the challenge of the next generation. This is a fear so many have expressed, including by economic Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, during a visit to India in 2018. In many ways, the National Education Policy, 2020, is a sign that these warnings are being heeded. However it remains to be seen if the new initiative can break the entrenched mindset with regards to education.
In very many other ways, the urgency of this warning of inappropriate education can be felt most painfully amongst those of us in Manipur, where higher education has been virtually made a cretin as of today – becoming more a empty degree hunt than quest for skills or knowledge. As far as school education is concerned, the situation is no longer so critical, although government schools, run on public tax money, therefore universally affordable, are still depressingly in the doldrums. Fortunately, here private initiatives, which by their very definition depend on enterprise and hard work for their survival, have lifted the overall standards, but because they have to live by their earnings, their fees are higher and beyond the reach of the poorer sections of the society. However, it is in the education sector beyond the schools where the horizon is still very dark. Except for a very few colleges, there is practically no serious education being imparted in any of them anymore.
Once upon a time, parents who could afford the cost used whatever resources in their command to send away their children to other states for even school education. But thanks to a silent revolution sparked by the entry of Catholic mission schools into the arena, despite their many limitations, in a matter of a generation or two, they redefined the school education and also sparked an explosion of quality private institutions providing school level education. Thanks to this transformation, today’s parents are saved of this painful dilemma at least up to school level. But this is not entirely so at the college and university levels where private initiatives are still few and weak. Those who can afford it still send their children away, and this would include the government servants who run these institutes of higher education. Such is the faith everybody including those who are supposed to be in their drivers’ seats of the system, repose in the system.
Time and again through the years that have gone by, governments after governments promised drastic steps, including mandatory enrolment of children of government employees in government run schools and institutes of higher education, but no initiative in this direction, even milder versions of them, is seen yet, and higher education continues to be moribund, churning out degrees with worth only in the government job market, but not in the open competitive world. There has been, and there always will be, geniuses amongst the crops of students each year who will rise despite the lack of quality formal tutoring, but the larger majority constitute of average learners, and they will be the one who end up with no knowledge or skill fit for gainful employment outside of the government. This is sad if not tragic, especially when there is so much talk of the Act East Policy, which has been sold as the economic elixir waiting to arrive in the state and the Northeast region. The fact is, even if the AEP does arrive in a substantive way, given the state of education of the next generation, most of the opportunities the policy brings will most likely bypass the state.
On the larger canvas, India needs to pull up its socks, but more immediately, and in our opinion, more desperately, it is Manipur which will have to overhaul its education sector, especially higher education, on a war footing. The impending doom could not have been spelled out more clearly than by Apple co-founder, Steve Woznaik, when he remarked not so long ago during a visit to India that Indian sense of achievement is still limited to getting a job and making a living, and that by and large they have no ambition of creating brands, be it in consumer products, scholarships, politics, engineering feats, or whatever other field of life. Indeed, in Manipur today, given this social attitude and the state of our education system, nobody is considered employed until he or she has managed to bag a government job, even if the work responsibility is that of an anonymous clerical staff. Equally, the mark of material success today, even amongst government employees is measured in terms of money made outside salary regardless of whether the means are dubious, and the most coveted of these is through government contract jobs. How can Manipur ever lift itself out of this sorry status of complete destitution, destined to survive on the charity of political godfathers in Delhi? Something will have to be done fast to change this degrading predicament.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author