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[Coomi Kapoor] Rote learning explains lack of great achievers in India

In short, in spite of India’s universities churning out some two million graduates every year, there has been no Bill Gates, no Steve Jobs and no Nobel laureate among them in a long, long time.

In spite of India’s universities churning out some two million graduates every year, there has been no Bill Gates or a Nobel laureate among them in a long time. The education system that rewards rote learning over originality and creativity seems to be at fault.

An unusual announcement by a Delhi University college recently made headlines. The elite college said only those with 100 percent score in the school-leaving board exam should apply for admission to an honors degree course in commerce.

This left tens of thousands of anxious students who did the college trail mid-June at their wits’ end. Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal was not happy, either. But there was little he could do since university colleges enjoy a good degree of autonomy.

The 100 percent cut-off, however, helped focus on the growing malaise in higher education. School leavers with 90 percent to 95 percent marks could not be certain of admission to colleges and courses of their choice. And those with 70 percent or lower could well drop the idea of doing an undergraduate course at the University of Delhi.

Indeed, it would be hard for the vast majority of the teaching community in the university to gain admission on the basis of their marks now. Until very recently, it was rare for anyone to score a perfect 100 in school-leaving exams.

A good first class, say, 70 percent, was enough to get one in a couple of decades ago. Following complaints of subjective and erratic marking in the school-leaving exams, the Central Board of Secondary Education tried to make the system as objective as possible. Unfortunately, the big downside of the new system was that it further privileged rote learning over intelligence and understanding.

Overnight, there was a huge inflation in marks across the board. The grade inflation did not translate into brighter and better students. Barring a small percentage, a vast majority of school leavers lacked basic understanding of subjects in which they had scored very high marks. It was sheer rote learning.

Also, along with the grade inflation, almost simultaneously college cut-offs for admissions to various courses touched new highs.

Crisis in higher learning also manifested in an inordinately high percentage of school leavers seeking admission to Delhi University and others located in big cities like Bombay, Chennai, Calcutta, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. Clearly, the standard of education in the hinterland was not the same as it was in big cities.

With the number of colleges in big metros not keeping pace with the exponential growth in the student population, it was natural for the elite institutions to feel the pressure. Hence, the 100 percent benchmark for admission to the capital’s most prestigious commerce college.

Though old-timers bemoan the decline in standards at even the most prestigious colleges in big metros, there still existed a wide gulf in the quality of education in main centers and provincial towns. Besides, there was a cache attached to not only British-era universities such as those in Mumbai, Delhi, and Calcutta, but also to elite colleges which made it easier in later life to seek jobs and even matrimonial alliances.

With 400-odd universities churning out some two million graduates annually, including over half a million in engineering courses, there was an increasing demand for a basic college degree for joining the job market.

Employers insisted on a college degree even for menial jobs such as a peon or a chauffeur. No wonder there was such a huge rush for admissions to undergraduate colleges.

Admittedly, vocational education for school leavers was talked about as one of the ways to ease pressure on college admissions. Given the social and economic backgrounds of a vast majority of aspirants for college education, the authorities believed they were better off learning professional skills.

A fast-growing economy with a rising middle class needed carpenters, masons, air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics, television and computer repairmen, etc. in increasingly large numbers.

Unfortunately, even those who ended up as unskilled workers such as clerks and couriers insisted on acquiring a plain bachelor’s degree because most employers in public and private sectors had laid that down as the minimum educational qualification. There was a low demand for admissions in vocational courses in the few institutions that existed in big cities like Delhi.

Despite all the emphasis on a college degree, it was notable there were no great achievers in scientific research and academic fields. The sole emphasis being on passing the exams through rote, improvement of mind naturally took a back seat.

That explained the total lack of achievers in various disciplines of educational instruction. In short, in spite of India’s universities churning out some two million graduates every year, there has been no Bill Gates, no Steve Jobs and no Nobel laureate among them in a long, long time. When the education system rewarded rote over mind, it was not surprising that originality and creativity was at a huge discount.

Recognizing the value of learning by rote, a huge number of coaching institutions sprouted up all over the country.

Private tutors charged large amounts on students eager to score high marks in school-leaving exams. Indeed, even the all-India exams for admission to class one central government services had become a simple matter of learning by memory.

In recent years, Kota, a mid-sized town in Rajasthan, has gained prominence all over the country for its record number of coaching institutions.

Here, each institution vies with the other in boasting that its students scored the highest marks in various competitive exams, beginning with the school-leaving one.

Eager to enrol fresh students, such “shops” regularly take out fullpage advertisements in newspapers to claim “100 percent success” of its alumni in various exams. Essentially, these coaching coll eges help students mug the answers to questions asked in the relevant exams over the previous two decades or so. That was it.

However, a further damage to the quality of students getting into regular university colleges was done by the abolition of the interview at the screening stage.

Following complaints that interviewers were often subjective in assessing admission-seekers, the entire emphasis was shifted to percentage of marks in the school-leaving exam.

Thus, there was no way of knowing whether an admission seeker was otherwise mentally-equipped for further education. No wonder India’s colleges no longer produce alumni who are good in studies, sports and extracurricular activities.

By Coomi Kapoor

Coomi Kapoor is the resident editor at Indian Express and president of the Indian Women’s Press Corps. She is also a columnist for the Malaysian daily Star. ― Ed.

(The Star/Asia News Network)