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!