Friday, December 23, 2011

Announcing the launch of Skill Train India in Hindi

With nearly 70% of the Indian population speaking Hindi, our national language it was only imperative that a blog in Hindi would reach out to a larger population and benefit an even larger number of people than an English blog. So, I am glad to announce the launch of the Hindi version of the Skill Train India blog. This blog can be accessed at Skill Train India Hindi

Do share it with all your friends and spread the word around!

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Announcing my new blog: Skill Train India

I am glad to announce the launch of my new blog titled: Skill Train India

I have been thinking about starting this blog for a long time. After closely working with learners ranging from school dropouts to working professionals, I felt that there is a strong need for a guiding light that could help learners from all walks of life clear the dense fog of the career maze. I am starting this blog today, to purely address this need.

Do I know enough to offer career guidance? I don't claim to know it all! But, I am going to count on many of you - my mentors, my teachers, my colleagues (and ex-colleagues), my batch-mates, my friends, my family and my students - to make this blog a meaningful one for those who need career guidance. I envision this blog to be a dialogue of sorts between those who have 'been there, done that' and those who 'want to be there and do that'! For all those who wanted to contribute towards helping me in my educational social entrepreneurship assignments, I appeal to you to share your thoughts on this blog. You never know - one statement of yours on this blog can probably have a profound life-changing impact on some student somewhere in the world. 

Every day, I intend to post a guidance note. I would like to call each one a lamp post! I intend each lamp post to dispel some darkness related to career. Initially, I would keep them focused on undergraduate & post graduate students but subsequently, I intend to include early career guidance to working professionals too. If you find the lamp posts useful or if you feel that these lamp posts can dispel the darkness caused by career confusion in somebody's life, I earnestly urge you to share them freely. You never know - one 'share' (be it facebook, linkedin, google + or digg) from you can make a world of difference to some student.

Comments and feedback are always welcome. But what I would like to see more of is contradicting view points. There are no right or wrong answers in this world. Everything depends on the perspective in which you see an incidence. I am not here to claim what I know or profess to be the only solution. What I am writing here is based purely on my personal experiences and hence based on a particular perspective. I firmly believe that there are other perspectives too and I urge you to share these contradictions openly. You never know - one contradicting view point from you can offer a better choice to some student.

I dedicate this blog as a step towards achieving one of my dreams - a dream to see a truly skilled India where everyone chooses a career out of passion rather than of compulsion; because only then can excellence become a habit in this truly disruptive age! I dedicate this blog to building a skilled nation!

Are you with me in this nation building exercise?

Click here to visit the Skill Train India Blog

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Where the mind is without fear…

Rabindranath Tagore
I bet you must have thought about Rabindranath Tagore when you read the title of this post! If you did not, then you probably did not attend a school in India! I am indeed referring to the famous poem by Rabindranath Tagore from his most famous work 'Gitanjali' published in 1912. This is more a prayer than a poem to me and this has been playing in my mind for the past few days. With my limited memory power, I could only remember the first two lines and the last line (which is what most people remember). Hence, today, I decided to read through the entire poem to see if there is a new meaning in it; if there is a different perspective to the whole poem. The poem was no doubt a vision for the India that Tagore envisioned and it was quite apt during the pre-independence circumstances. Reading through the poem now, I see an even higher degree of relevance of the poem today. I tried looking at it from an education perspective in today’s new digital world and I am amazed at how relevant this poem is even today. Take a look!

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

One of the most important success factors for life is to not have a fear of failure. If you look at any great achiever, every one of them has tried many things before becoming successful; every one of them has gone through failures before they tasted success. Trials and tribulations are part of life and only they can lead to success. As Edison said after inventing the light bulb – “I did not fail – I just learned 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb!”

However, the Indian education system instills exactly the opposite in every Indian student – a fear of failure. I am amazed at how the fear of failure is religiously taught to every child right since the kindergarten. As a child, most of us are born fearless; we do not mind trying out something new; we try and experiment with anything that ignites our curiosity; we do not know whether it is useful or harmful but we still try it. In short, as children, we are not afraid of failures.

The problem begins when we start schooling! The school and even the family system instills this fear of failure in every one of us; we are afraid of failure in our school exams; we are afraid of failures in entrance examinations; we are afraid of failures in assignments, projects, activities; the list is endless. More than fear of failure, we develop an even worse fear – the fear of being wrong. By admonishing any failure, the education system further alienates us from any creativity. Because you are afraid of failures, you progressively stop doing things differently; you stop trying new things; you inhibit your creativity! As a result, most of us end up as average employees all our life, afraid to take risks and afraid to go that extra mile that can differentiate us from mediocrity to excellence. I am sure many of you can relate to what I am writing about!

Now, the first statement of Tagore’s poem sounds so relevant! As long as our minds are with fear, our heads can never be held high. This is a clarion call to ensure that we do not let our kids go through the same. Encourage them to experiment; let them end in failures; do not punish them or ridicule them; do not force your ideas and thoughts on them; let them develop their own view of the world; let them try and be what THEY want and not what YOU want them to be! India will then definitely be a better place.

Where knowledge is free

Knowledge must be affordable; much better if it is free. Thanks to the internet technologies, the world is increasingly moving towards an open knowledge society. Google and Wikipedia must have educated more people than the combined number of people all the world’s Universities educate. Knowledge is no more measured by the number of books you have read but by the amount of gigabytes of data you have browsed on your computer. We are in the midst of an unprecedented digital revolution and this is just the beginning.

Thanks to advancing mobile technology and the reducing costs, I will not be surprised if 5 to 7 years down the line people learn primarily through mobiles, anytime anywhere. In fact, such a possibility already exists in several developed countries. Several such initiatives are already underway in India too. With so much information and knowledge available in the digital world, Tagore’s vision of knowledge being free is closer to reality than ever before.

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls

The internet and other media technologies have made nation’s borders irrelevant. We are living in a borderless world where exchange of information and knowledge is much easier and faster than ever before. Global research projects that transgress multiple national borders are the order of the day. Student and faculty exchanges across various Universities around the globe happen regularly. Thanks to advancing telecommunication and educational technology, a professor sitting in his house anywhere in the world can address students simultaneously across all 7 continents. Education has truly become global and soon learning too will become universal.

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Free and true knowledge must also lead to greater transparency. Today’s world is obsessed with transparency and demands it from every aspect of public service. In the absence of transparency, we have a Wikileaks to source and publish this information. If such free knowledge and transparency helps in improving processes and public services, then they must be welcomed. Truth, however bitter, must be welcomed and accepted.

The world is undoubtedly worried about the growing number of scandals that have happened due to unethical practices. In response, educational institutions, especially b-schools are taking a deeper look at their curriculum to incorporate better business ethics components. It is not just business schools, but the entire education system across the globe that must delve into its teaching curriculum and methodology to ensure that ethics is not just taught as a drab subject named “Moral Science” or “Business Ethics” but is actively practiced by the students. Only then can ‘words come out from the depth of truth’! 

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

The word ‘perfection’ reminds me about the 1986 Ron Howard Movie - “Gung Ho”. It is a must-watch movie for business school students and people who work across cultures. The movie vividly portrays the challenges of cross-cultural communication through interactions between a Japanese management and an American work force. One of the highlights of Japanese culture is their willingness and ability to strive for perfection in whatever they produce. They will never give up until they have the perfect product and that is precisely why Japanese products are much superior world over.

It is ideally this level of perfection that Indian educational institutions must strive for. Educational institutions have a direct role to play in nation building. If Indian educational institutions strive tirelessly to shape each student to become a world class product, then excellence becomes a habit and not an exception.

For the younger generation, aiming for perfection must be a skill that must be taught at home and at school. The infamously Indian “chalta hai” attitude will not “chalega anymore”! Work with your kids to teach them perfection in whatever they do. This has to be imbibed right since early childhood if we intend to prepare India to lead the world. 

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

I recently read a note on the management guru Tom Peters' blog about the inability of Asians to develop creativity in their kids whereas the Americans find it difficult to suppress their child's creativity. He also goes on to mention this as the reason why America has produced so many entrepreneurs and Nobel Prize winners compared to Asia. I am not sure if he includes India in his reference to Asians but I was surely shocked!  Keeping all subjectivity aside, I wondered if there is an iota of truth in his statement.

In India, learning by rote (also called learning by heart, mugging up, memorizing etc.) is a very common practice with schools and children. Even now my Mom ridicules me about my habit of memorizing solutions to Mathematics problems during my school days. Honestly, our school system encouraged rote learning and left very little for application and creativity. 

You disagree? Let me test you!

Answer the following question. You have 30 seconds. You are driving down the road. At a traffic signal, the red light blinks once in every 2 seconds; the yellow light blinks once in every 3 seconds and the green light blinks once in every 5 seconds. The question: In a minute, how many times will they blink together? If you have the answer, post it in the comments section first. Then, come back to read the rest of this post. If you don’t have the answer, continue reading. 

Now let me ask you another question. What is the Lowest Common Multiple (LCM) of 2, 3 and 5?

Between these two questions, I bet most of you answered the second question easily. Some of you may also have realized that the first question and the second question are similar except that the first one is application based whereas the second one is concept based. You may also treat this as a logical googly question: how can all three lights in a traffic signal glow together?

Unfortunately, many graduate students in India can neither solve it right nor figure out the googly in this question. Our schools have taught them the concepts well but have not trained them enough on applications. In other words, they have all learnt something that they neither know how to use nor where to use! This is possibly a reason why many students do not do well in research and business. Research and business, as you would agree, requires enormous amount of application of concepts and that ability is unfortunately missing in many of India’s graduate students.

Institutions must review their curriculum and explore possibilities of incorporating a great deal of application orientation. For the number of PhDs that India produces, we must be developing enormous research insights that can have a phenomenal impact on several sectors. The absence of such an impact only confirms the poor quality of PhD research that is currently underway in Indian Universities. Such a system does not augur well for the development of Indian academia.

Tagore’s statement is a warning bell for educational institutions. Such focus on rote learning without any application orientation across educational institutions will only bury the future generations in the dreary desert sand of dead habits. As parents, we must strive to keep our kids away from rote learning. Allow them to learn by doing and experimenting – you will be doing a great service to future generations.

Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Education must always strive to expand the horizons for every student both in thought and action. Only such an education can lead us to our next freedom – a freedom that will make the whole world a single classroom and every student a global citizen.

Tagore’s words are not just relevant in education. These words will have a strong relevance across all domains, be it business, politics, society or family. In fact, this poem is has eternal relevance. Such is the beauty of this masterpiece! I now see the true meaning of this poem and it will forever be etched in my memory.

What does the poem mean to you? Read it in silence and you will be able to see the relevance.

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Now, do you relate to the poem? What do you see in it? Let me know!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Don't Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine - Bill Taylor - Harvard Business Review

Don't Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine - Bill Taylor - Harvard Business Review

Wonderful article especially for those who have immense experience in a particular industry and may not realise the blind spot they have developed towards innovation owing to their experience.

Monday, December 5, 2011

India’s education blues!

While searching for some old files on my computer, I stumbled upon this letter that I had written to the then Indian President, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in the year 2007. I had written about three areas that the Government must focus on for India to become a developed nation by 2020 – Education, Health & Oil! Today, I tried re-visiting my suggestions, particularly related to education, and decided to evaluate where the country stands on these parameters.

My latest comments are added in blue.

Dear Dr. Kalam,

As the time of completion of your Presidential term draws closer, I would like to bring to your notice, some of the pressing issues that need your immediate attention.  Your vision of transforming India into a developed nation by 2020 holds immense value to me. I think there are certain key areas that require immediate focus in the process of achieving the goals set as part of Vision 2020. I wish to highlight the importance and potential of these areas to aid in the nation’s development. 

Uncle.. Do I have a right to education?
You will agree that lack of education is the biggest hindrance to the development of the country. There is a huge imbalance in the Indian education system since it does very little to improve primary education situation in the country. I would like to bring to your notice a few statistics on the status of government schools in the country. The primary education system in India is still strongly dominated by government schools with nearly 85% of the total enrolments happening in government primary schools. While this fact needs to be appreciated, it also makes immense sense to understand the status of these primary schools and the quality of teaching in these schools. The following data pertains to the year 2005 and is picked up from the report published by the Department of Education. 

  • Nearly 18% of the primary schools in the country are single teacher schools which cater to approximately 12.5% of the total primary school 
  • Only 40% of the teachers of primary schools are graduates or more. The rest of the teachers have not even completed their graduation. The statistics goes to about 50% when we include all the government and private schools in the country.
  • About 4% of the primary schools do not have a building and these schools cater to nearly 2.7% of the total primary school enrolments.
  • Nearly 20% of the primary schools do not have drinking water facility in the school.
  • Of the primary schools that have drinking water facility, more than 50% of the primary schools have only a hand pump to provide water.
  • Only 17% of the primary schools have electricity connection in the school. 
  • Nearly 7% of the primary schools do not have a blackboard and these schools cater to nearly 5.28% of total primary school enrolments.

The first two points clearly showcase the paucity of quality teachers in the schools. Having done my entire schooling in private schools, I can appreciate the need for the basic necessities in a school. If minimum necessities of the students are not met it would be very difficult for a student to concentrate on his studies. Eventually, poor teaching and insufficient facilities result in higher dropout rates ranging from 30% during primary schooling to 62% during higher secondary schooling (data pertains to 2003-2004).

The government spends nearly 50% of the total education expenditure (nearly 1.8% of India’s GDP) on primary education. However, this is not sufficient to bridge the gaps in the system. The education cess levied by the government adds a little more fund to be spent on education. However, at a larger context, a series of drastic policy changes need to be done to address some part of the issue.  The Right to Education Act will do a lot of good to the infrastructure woes mentioned above.
The Right to Education Act can make a positive difference
to the infrastructure of such schools.
Photograph taken at
Patan, Jabalpur Dist., Madhya Pradesh on 24th June 2009.

[The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) that came into effect in 2010 is a laudable effort. However, this Act stresses much more on the infrastructure requirements for a school than on the learning itself. I firmly believe that for learning to be effective, attention has to be given to three aspects: content, pedagogy and infrastructure. Content refers to the syllabus, text books and other learning resources that are fundamental requirements of the learning process. Pedagogy includes the teaching methodology, quality of teachers, teaching and learning aids etc. These two components are the true learning enablers for every student. If adequate attention is not given to these two factors, nothing much can be done to improve the student’s learning.

More than just being an eye-wash to set minimum standards, the RTE must aim to boldly tackle the issues of learning and retention. Strict performance measures must be implemented to ensure that teachers focus on learning. Better pedagogical methods must be implemented; teachers must be trained to use such methods thereby enabling them to consciously move away from advocating the rote learning methodology. Such a stronger learning-focused system can ensure that the products of this educational system are better prepared to meet the challenges of the nation and the world.]

First and foremost, the government has to address the need for quality teachers across the schooling system in the country. While we have some of the best institutions in the country for technology, management and science, it is unfortunate that we do not have a similar institution for teaching and education. The conventional Bachelor of Education programme offered by Universities has its own limitations in terms of content and pedagogy.

[Unfortunately, in states like MP & UP, admission to B.Ed is a huge money making racket in itself. Students who have the least interest and capability to become good teachers get into B.Ed. since it offers an assured employment in a government school. Hefty bribes are paid to the selection committee members and school principals to ensure a confirmed admission. With the sixth pay commission revising the pay grades, there is an even larger group of people wanting to become teachers since it assures them of a permanent job with good salary. Ultimately, teaching takes a back seat, resulting in disappointing standards of education. The Pratham ASER (Annual Status of Education Report published by a leading NGO, Pratham) 2010 report states that less than 30% of Standard III students in Tamil Nadu and less than 40% of Standard III students in UP, Rajasthan and Bihar can read a Standard I text. ( Not a very rosy situation, to say the least!]

The government must start an Indian Institute of Education to train students who wish to make a career in teaching. There is a pressing need to revamp the B. Ed syllabus and methodology. It is necessary to incorporate hands-on training in the area of teaching and training. The programme must admit students who have a passion for teaching and not students who take up teaching out of compulsion. As part of the programme, students will be required to teach at various schooling levels to ensure that they gain complete exposure to teaching at various levels. On completion of the programme, they can be placed at various government or private schools across the country, thus providing a guaranteed employment. Some of the students can be persuaded to start their own schools to address the educational needs of needy areas.

The government must also explore possibilities of public private partnerships to enhance the primary education levels in the country. The government can look at creating special education zones where private sector can set up educational institutions. However, the education departments must start quicker processing of private sector requests for clearances to start educational institutions. 

The government’s decision to permit foreign universities and institutions to start their campus in India is a laudable one. This will ensure that some more needy students get admissions to the top Indian institutions.

[The foreign universities bill was approved by the Union Cabinet in March 2010. However, the bill has still not been brought into force. Once done, it can have the same impact that economic liberalisation had on the Indian industry in the 90s. However, the efficacy of such a bill entirely rests on the Indian bureaucracy’s willingness and ability to implement it.]

Another aspect of educational reforms revolves around the faculty.  Despite increasing demand for quality teachers, the salaries tend to remain much lower compared to what other professions pay. This is ironical since the students whom these teachers prepare get paid much more than what these teachers earn. Invariably, many of the good teachers quit teaching to pursue other professions. Since many of the teacher’s salaries are dictated by the government bodies, I would urge you to re-look at the same. This will ensure that we have some more talented people taking up a career in teaching.

The sixth pay commission has brought a sigh of relief to many central government staff including the teachers. Compensation levels have doubled and are a cause of jubilation among the staff. This has also increased the number of people applying for a teacher’s position thus increasing the choice of candidates available for selection. This can only be effective if proper selection methodologies, purely based on merit and capability, are employed by the selection committee.

One of the other areas that the government must focus on is the use of technology for taking education to the remotest parts of the country. India is the only country in the world that has a dedicated satellite for education. The Edusat was launched in September 2004 and has a life span on 7 years which has already ended in September 2011. Unfortunately, what could have potentially changed the face of the technology enabled education system in India has lived an under-utilised life thanks to the lack of clear vision and cumbersome bureaucracy. While majority of the access was provided by ISRO to government bodies and agencies, the private players were kept away from utilizing the services of Edusat. On hindsight, opening up Edusat to private players would have helped the government recover some cost while also ensuring that the satellite is used to its full capacity.

With internet and mobile penetration moving up drastically in India, the country must now plan to utilise these media to enhance the reach of education. A clear plan of action in this direction is the need of the hour. No longer can universities depend only on correspondence programmes. They must find ways to use technology to enhance the learning in these programmes. No longer can universities continue the archaic paper based examination formats. They must evolve to incorporate online and mobile testing methodologies in their curriculum. Technology is here to stay and it is upto the educational institutions and government to figure out how best they can utilise it for the benefit of the population.

Note: I do not claim to have influenced the government's decisions or to have played any role in the government’s implementation of new schemes. The letter drafted to be sent to Dr. Kalam was NEVER sent! 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Is there an age to study?

My GRE starts in the next one hour and what better way to relax than to type in a quick blog post!

My test was scheduled to start at 9:00 AM but was rescheduled to 10:00 AM to suit the convenience of the test centre staff. I did not mind it. The security guard at the test centre looked at me curiously and then asked me if I am the test taker. When I concurred, he asked, with a very dismissive attitude, "Why do you want to write this at THIS age?" I did not expect such a question, to say the least!

Although I have quite a lot of white hair on my head, I have never visualised me as an "old" man yet. Brushing aside his sarcastic question as a meaningless comment, I started wondering if there is any age at all to study? Should education be restricted only to one's early years of life? Or should it be lifelong?

I think education should be lifelong but has to necessarily tie-in with your skill sets. In today's dynamic and globalised scenario, skills become obsolete so quickly that a person who is not re-skilling himself will necessarily fall out. Take the case of a computer. The configuration that you have today may become archaic two years from now and it is necessary to upgrade your system to function effectively. The same is true for human beings too.

While your early education (including your post graduation) decisions were influenced by many people including your parents, re-skilling decisions can be independently taken.Working professionals and entrepreneurs are better equipped to understand the employment and business scenario and hence will be able to make an informed choice on the skills that they would like to re-tool themselves with.

The learning while going through such re-skilling programmes can also be immense since you can bring in enormous value addition to the class based on your real-life experiences. Most re-skilling programmes also let you interact with a highly experienced peer group resulting in a much higher usable learning. The networking that you build at this stage will help make a huge difference to the rest of your career.

India, unfortunately, does not have enough re-skilling programmes for experienced professionals in different domains. While there are many business management programmes that exist, there are hardly any for the other areas such as education, technology, economics etc. While that gives me a business idea, for now, I am going to focus on getting myself re-skilled and be relevant to the market place. As far as I am concerned,  my age will never be a deterrent to learning. As an old tamil saying goes, "What I have learnt is the size of a stone and what remains to be learnt is the size of the world!"

GRE.. here I come!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why this Kolaveri?

Alright! I know this song is a rage across audiences and I am no exception to that! But what prompted me to write a post is the use of this song for education!

Frankly speaking, I wouldn't have imagined anything distantly educative about this song. Incidentally, I am taking my GRE tomorrow and was browsing through websites that could help build my vocabulary, albeit temporarily for a day and I landed on this video link through one of the online learning sites. Take a look!

For those who are now keen on taking the test to see if you have learnt any of the words flashed in-between, please visit I took the test and did pretty well and I am sure most of you would score well too.

What impressed me about this was the ability of a seemingly simple song to make a deep impact on one's learning. This way of learning is much more immersive and interesting thereby ensuring higher retention. It is not just about the song but also about the creativity of the person who was able to visualize an educative way to use this song. Hats off to this effort! 

For now, let me enjoy the learning and the music! Going forward, let there be more educative and immersive kolaveris!

Note: The videos, songs, lyrics are the respective copyrights of the respective parties. I do not claim any copyright over any of these!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Does free education have value?

Over the last few months, I have been helping an education company expand its offerings to students and working professionals across the country. One of the ingenious ideas that we wanted to experiment was to offer a couple of courses absolutely free to learners. Our assumption was that these free courses would encourage trials and then we could go ahead and convert them into paid students for various advanced programmes that we have. While experimenting with this idea, I was curious to understand if an education programme offered free has any value at all in the mind of the student. I decided to delve into my experiences in education to see if there is an answer.

My own personal experiences could be a good starting point to understand the value proposition of free programmes in the minds of students. Since I was the State Topper in the higher secondary examinations in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Nadu Government offered me a financial scholarship to cover my graduation expenses. Since I decided to pursue my graduation in commerce and the college expenses for the same were meagre (my annual college fees was around Rs. 1000/- while I studied at a college in Maharashtra), I did not put a heavy burden on the TN exchequer. The expenses of my college education were paid for by the Government of Tamil Nadu which meant that my education was "free". That did not in anyway reduce my seriousness to the programme. The education being free was immaterial to me since a graduation is an essential requisite in any education system. I therefore could not see a direct link between free education and seriousness in my case.

Interestingly, I also noticed that higher education was totally free for girls in Maharashtra. However, that did not have any impact on the attendance of girl students in my class. In fact, most days I used to be the only boy in the class attending classes with 120 girls! Although the girls' attendance dwindled as we moved to the second and final year, girls would still outnumber the boys in the class. The sincere and studious ones would always be there in every class and that number was almost half of the class size. In this case, while free education did increase the number of students enrolling in the programme, I am not sure if it reduced the seriousness or perceived value in the minds of students. This could again be due to the essential requirement for a basic graduation among the Indian population.

Later during my career, I have dabbled with the idea of free education across different sectors with varying responses. Noteworthy are the ones that I have tried with technology enabled finishing school programmes for engineering graduates. We have tried offering programmes on communication skills, Spoken English and aptitude training to prepare undergraduate students for a career. We have experimented with offering a few complimentary sessions to students to give them an overview of the challenges they may face during placements and to provide basic inputs to prepare themselves for placements. These were not received very well. The interest levels of students attending these programmes were low and the drop out rates were very high. One of the fundamental observations that we noticed was that these students have still not realised the need to prepare themselves for placements. Surprisingly, many students do not realise their lacunae even after they complete their graduation. When there is no realisation of need, no product can service these customers, even if offered free.

Another interesting response to free education is worth mentioning here. Over the last two years, I have set up 7 vocational training institutes for school dropouts in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh & Rajasthan. In order to promote our training programmes, we did extensive rural marketing activities in the interiors of these states. One such area is the Bundelkhand region, which always looks to the Central Government's assistance due to its highly drought prone nature. During visits to villages in this region, we have faced stiff resistance from the villagers for any paid programmes. During one of my first visits, a few villagers rounded me up and were keen to know how much WE WILL PAY THEM to undergo the programme! Unfortunately, a flurry of NGOs have made it a habit to pay the villagers and conduct programmes as an eyewash. While these NGOs go back and claim these as genuine rural vocational training programmes, the truth is far from reality. The villagers are happy because they get paid for doing nothing and the NGO is happy since they can claim to have run a successful programme and pocket more funds. No education happens at the end of the day!

This culture of giving it free had spoiled the mindsets of people across these areas. We struggled hard to educate them that real learning can pay them forever as income. We also resorted to conducting some free sessions, albeit with an objective of generating interest in the subject. These free workshops were conducted across all our 7 branches and they elicited a very good response. Students eager to learn a skill spent nearly 3 days with our faculty to learn something they can go back and use in their day-to-day lives. We did see a glimmer of hope when students diligently worked to learn the skill despite it being a free programme. Here too, the need was too strong for them to learn a skill since they lived in one of the so-called "poorly industrialized" and "backward" states of the country.

I could see a common line of reasoning behind the success of some of these experiments. If there exists a strong need  for a skill, a student may see value and show sincerity even to free programmes. However, if there is an iota of doubt on the usefulness of a programme, free programmes will only be a waste of time and resources. Given the skill shortages that exist in India, the Government must consider setting up Skill colleges that focus on ensuring skill training rather than just be a degree mill. If such skill college programmes are offered free, I can see a different India, adequately skilled and ready to take on the world!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Notes from an Outlaw!

Imagine waking up one morning to find that you have just been declared an outlaw by virtue of misinterpretation of an archaic law by some bureaucrat of the Government! Now that I have experienced this, I felt compelled to share my extra-ordinary experience. In my case, it was the vocational training institution that we have been operating in Madhya Pradesh that was made an outlaw.

It all began with a write-up in a not-so-widely-read newspaper in Jabalpur (a city in Eastern Madhya Pradesh) about the Madhya Pradesh Government's decision to clamp down on "farji" ("fraud" in English) institutions that are operating in Madhya Pradesh. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the name of our institution in the list of these so-called "farji" institutes. The only consolation was the presence of larger institutions such as Aptech and NIIT also in the list. I dismissed this as a gimmick by the newspaper to garner some advertisement revenues from the educational institutions that do not favor this newspaper in their marketing budgets.  I also noticed an error in the way our name was mentioned and convinced my team - "This is not us!"

A day or two later, we realized that it was really "US"! We received a show-cause notice from the Higher Education Department of Government of Madhya Pradesh asking us as to  why our institution should not be shut down since it contravenes the section 7 (2) of The MP Universities Act 1973. This section specifies that no other state or national University has a right to offer any courses within the jurisdiction of the local or regional university and if they wish to do so they need to procure a no-objection certificate from the Commissioner of Higher Education of Government of Madhya Pradesh. Simply put, any other University headquartered outside Madhya Pradesh cannot offer any courses in Madhya Pradesh without the express permission of the Government of Madhya Pradesh.

We retorted explaining that we are not a college and we do not offer any programmes of other Universities. More importantly, we are not higher education providers; instead we are a vocational skill development institution preparing school dropouts for employability or self-employment. So, technically, we should not be covered in the ambit of this clause and must be allowed to pursue our activities. 

In order to clarify issues, I had the opportunity to meet a few bureaucrats over the last few days. These meetings have given me a whole new perspective of the complete absence of "mind" or "matter" amongst a few bureaucrats of the Government of Madhya Pradesh.

The bureaucrat who had issued the notice refused to divulge any precedence or explanation for the notice. On insistence he curtly replied, "I am not here to answer your questions. You are supposed to answer my questions and you better do that!" These were his introductory lines when I walked in to his crumbling room.

When it comes to a question of survival or passion, you tend to ignore negativity and are prepared to tolerate a certain amount of humiliation. So, ignoring his opening remarks, I informed him that we are registered with IGNOU which is a mandated University of the Government of India and has jurisdiction across the entire country. He answered - "It does not matter! Even if God wants to teach something in MP, he cannot do so without our permission!"I did not expect such a response from one of the senior bureaucrats of the Higher Education department.  Here is a person charged with one of the most important duties of the Government – that of ensuring quality higher education across the state of MP – making inane statements that only ruins education further rather than improvising it.

We were also told to either submit our no-objection certificate before 4 PM or submit an affidavit from the court mentioning that we have shut down our institution. While I was not sure if he was serious about filing an FIR with the police for non-compliance, we were still under tremendous stress. All our struggle to set up an institution suddenly coming to a naught and a deadline given to close 'everything' that we believed will provide a new future for the school dropouts of MP. So much for choosing to make a difference in MP! So much for wishing to help in the development of MP!

While we were trying to find a solution to this issue, I came across the case of another large private institute that had recently shut down 24 of its branches in MP. In a similar case, they had been asked to shut down by the Government of MP after a short confrontation at the High Court of MP. Keen to know the details of the case, I fetched out the same through a dubious advocate. Their case history was similar to ours – starting with a notice from the Government to shut down their institution. The institution had filed a writ petition in the Jabalpur High Court to restrain the Government from taking any punitive action since the institute was well within the law to offer these courses in MP. The High Court gave a fortnight's time to the Government of MP to file a response. The Government's response confirmed my assumptions that there is more than one dim-wit in the corridors of bureaucracy.

The Government in its response has stated that any Private company cannot be an institution. It also reiterates that, in India, education is done as a "charity" and not as a "company" or "business". Well, if that is the case, let the Government provide education free of cost to every individual in the country. Let the IIMs not charge a six figure fee from the students. Let the Government ban all the private Engineering and Management Colleges which not only charge a hefty fee for their regular students but also charge a higher fees for "management quota" seats. Let the Government stop the sale of engineering, medical and ITI seats in Government colleges by the corrupt Principals and management of these institutions. Let the Government abolish the quota raj and make higher education available to one and all. If such a situation emerges, then education will truly be a charity and not a business.

Another statement of the Government raised a much more fundamental issue of employability of the students. The Government insists that students who undergo training from private institutions gain nothing during such training conveniently ignoring the knowledge and value addition part. The response categorically states that the certificates and diplomas issued by the private institutions have no meaning since they are neither accepted by Government organizations nor by private organizations. The Government further states that since it does not lead to any meaningful employment, these institutions should be banned!

There are two facets of this response. One – the Government seems to have done very little or no research before categorically stating that students of these institutions do not get any employment in the private sector. Wouldn't it have made more sense for the bureaucrats to do a detailed study of students passing out of these institutions before making such a strong statement?  

The other facet is that of employability. Does every student who has undergone a higher education programme gain meaningful employment?  If everybody who goes through a higher education programme needs to be gainfully employed, how do you justify the scores of students who pass out of all the government and private degree colleges across the country are still unemployed? Should we then ban all these institutions too in an effort to clamp down on spurious institutions?

In today's competitive job market, a degree does not guarantee a job. Hence students need additional skills that can help them compete in the job market. Institutions such as ours work towards bridging the skill gap between what the companies look for and what the education system provides. Before issuing a blanket ban on these institutions, the government must make sure that these skill sets are included in the curriculum of higher education institutions.

While this will address the issue of  students capable of pursuing higher education, what happens to students who drop out of schools at the high or higher secondary level?  These students cannot look for any education in the conventional higher education system since they do not meet the eligibility criteria. The Government does not have an alternative vocational training system that takes care of this category of students. If institutions such as ours are banned, it will only lead to higher unemployment among this population.

Most importantly, in this globalised world, we need newer skill sets across all sectors. If the Government is not quick enough to train students on these newer skill sets and if private sector participation is not allowed in such areas, development will take a beating. Even now, there is a huge dearth of talent in the state of MP across all sectors. If the Government decides to implement a blanket ban, this dearth will only worsen and lead to unbridled opportunism.

I strongly subscribe to the view that the Government must act as a regulator and guide for all such private institutions in the interest of students. Just a no-objection certificate issued by the Government has no meaning. Instead, the Government should provide guidelines for such private vocational institutes and only those institutes that meet these guidelines should be permitted to operate in the state. The Government should also bear in mind that these are not full-fledged colleges and hence standards applicable to colleges will not be applicable here.  The Government must exercise a certain amount of leniency in framing guidelines for these private skill development institutions.

I have personally felt that MP is a fantastic state with rich natural resources and a great potential to become one of the best states in the country. For me, MP is more like a child that needs to be disciplined while being guided if it wishes to excel as one of the best among its peers. Education is the very foundation of any state's excellence and if the Government is lackadaisical or arrogant towards this sector, excellence may never see the light of day.

While the Honorable CM of MP, Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan dreams of making MP as the "No. 1" state in the country, I will not be surprised if the 'babus' in his Government drive it to the other extreme. If such an attitude towards education exists in the corridors of power, trust me, 'even God can't save this state!'

Epilogue: While I write this, we are still an "illegal" institution as deemed by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. Nevertheless, we are determined to establish ourselves as a legal entity and continue our mission of making a change in the lives of school dropouts in MP. While our travails and tribulations will continue for some more time, you are welcome to come back here for more updates.