Education is a word that has many deep layers that not everyone understands. The word ‘education’ includes other concepts like ‘inspirational’ and ‘useful’ besides basic literacy and numeracy. Yes, education shoots up the earnings-premium of a person and one reports puts this figure at 70 percent when compared to those who do have an education to boast about. Even school pass-outs have a much better earnings-premium attached to them and the same study places this at 30 percent as compared to school dropouts. This quote from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ helps put this concept into the right perspective: ‘Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.’ Quite obviously, education is vital. However, the fact yet remains that most people remain confused as what the real value of education is. The only certainty is that when education is neither inspirational nor useful, it ends up being tagged ‘wasteful’.

Education Post - October 2020 - Cover - illustration drawn by Arvind Passey
Education Post – October 2020 – Cover – illustration drawn by Arvind Passey

What does ‘wasteful’ education really mean?

According to the economists, whenever education fails to build human capital, it can be termed wasteful. This is because a lot of hard-earned resources go into whatever we call education today. If, despite all the expenditures involved, a child is unable to raise his or her earnings-potential, parents, and in certain cases even the society, start believing that education is wasteful.

Look at the sheer number of graduates milling around for mundane jobs. Look at even those who have some kind of a specialist education facing a similar fate. These are not wild and whirling words but based on news reports that are constantly shouting themselves hoarse about the pitiable state of employment these days.

Talking of expenditures, an article in the Financial Express a couple of years back mentioned a report by NSO that stated: ‘About 70% of rural Indians are not able to complete 10th class education; the same number stands at over 40% for urban India. In higher education, only 1 in every ten Indians has a graduate degree and above. Pursuing a college degree in general courses means average expenditure of Rs 5,240 per student in rural areas, and more than three times the rural average spends i.e, Rs 16,308 in urban areas. For those who choose to pursue medical degrees, the cost soars to over Rs 72,000 a year.

Engineering courses need an investment that is way above 60,000 per year which goes up to nearly a lakh and fifty thousand per semester in premium institutes. The investment figures do not end here. There is the pre-course coaching fees, transport expenses, and other expenses that keep adding all the time. The fee for the new batch at any of the IIMs may need an investment that could go beyond the 25 lakhs mark easily. If the average rate of increase in investment for education is pegged at a mere 20 percent, there will be courses in premium institutes that may need a crore in another five to six years. These are mind-blowing figures because the investment in education just a decade back was a fraction of what it is today. The Financial Express report says that this is a 500 percent increase in 11 years. Compare these expenses with the earning potential of a majority of people in India and you’ll be able to visualize why education needs to have a massive earnings-potential to remain viable.

If our universities and colleges are concerned about the ROIs, so are parents and wards of students. It is with this in mind that the new education policy or the NEP 2020 has certain inclusions. One of them is the concept of inter-disciplinary education at all levels.

Do we understand what inter-disciplinary means?

The concept of inter-disciplinary education is all about expanding the mind to accept other subjects as vital for job readiness. For instance, the option of mathematical and statistical concepts even for medical graduates means adding skills that will help them with reasoning and real-world decisions. The truth, however, is that I have met plenty of teachers in engineering colleges who believe that mathematics isn’t necessary at all and they even go ahead and call it an ‘unnecessary distraction’. This is ridiculous because the concept of inter-disciplinary education goes a step further to say that even English essays have the potential to teach a student critical thinking, assimilating diverse thoughts, and then reaching viable conclusions. Geometry isn’t just about straight lines and curves that distract from a serious study of computer applications or electronics – it is full of concepts that impart the principles of logic. Studying new things isn’t just about acquiring knowledge but more about learning how to think.

The concept of inter-disciplinary education expands our minds, unlocks opportunities, and often leads to lucrative employment down the line. These new concepts are not mere distractions that can be done away with. Our universities and colleges need to understand how vital this concept really is. Going beyond the scope of the main subjects is what enhances our ability to deal with real-world situations and decisions.

The ability to accept the concept of healthy inter-disciplinary learning is what has the potential to pull up the status of a college or university. For instance, the industry today needs engineers who understand the mathematical and statistical elements to be able to analyse everything from conceptualizing strategies to positioning products. They also need people who understand the geo-political implications of decisions, the psychology of acceptance by the society, the economic layering of tactical insights… and I believe you get the drift. These are the inclusions that will not just build human capital but also raise the status of an institution in the eyes of the industry.

This cycle is rather simple. When the students are helped to go beyond their routine learning they help raise the status of their institution in the eyes of the employers from the industry. When this happens, there will be more and more students opting to study at this institution. Thus the ROIs that I had mentioned earlier, come into play. The one factor that still remains to be explained is the concept that raises the status of an institution in the eyes of the industry. That concept is called ‘signalling’.

What is signalling?

In his book ‘The case against education’, Bryan Caplan writes about the concept of signalling and its relevance to education. Bryan explains that investments in education can be productive and lucrative is the earnings-potential of a student goes up. The author then points out that signalling is a concept that educational institutes need to understand because this is what bridges the gap between what the industry expects and what the colleges or the universities have the potential to give.

Bryan explains that ‘even if what a student learned in school is utterly useless, employers will happily pay extra if their scholastic achievement provides information about their productivity. Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom.’ The qualities that employers want in the people they hire include diligence, brilliance, and the ability to also do things that may be routine ones and can easily cause fiscally damaging distractions. He claims that his ‘signalling theory’ works even in the cases of a ‘significant fraction’. The factor of a ‘significant fraction’ indicates that at least a third of the students from that particular institution understand and have developed the power of brilliance and diligence. This factor alone is enough to raise the status of an institution in the eyes of employers. Thus if even a third of the pass-outs make it to good positions in the industry, it serves its purpose. The remaining students, of course, certify labour quality and are never in demand.

Over a period of time we have seen how much and in what ways the intrinsic value of degrees has deteriorated. We have observed how the jobs that were well-tackled by B.Techs now have M.Techs or M.Phils or even PhDs mentioned in the recruitment rules or RRs. The truth is that this race needs to be curbed and according to Bryan’s concept of signalling, employers in need of top-third workers will begin to opt for and appreciate a lesser degree if educational institutes begin to focus on producing at least a third of their students enrolled to go beyond the prescribed syllabus and are trained in everything that the employer needs. Bryan concludes that if this were indeed the case, ‘the quality of labor would be certified about as accurately as now—at a cost savings of four years’ of school or college per person.

The truth is that once the focus shifts to facets in education that are needed by the industry or the employer, the NSEW quotient in education will cease to matter.

The NSEW quotient in education

We are living in times when employers often connect the brilliant and diligent students with directions. This is why a ‘western education’ or an education from the ‘east’ or ‘south’ or ‘north’ is connected to certain traits in demand. This is why direction had begun to matter so much. This sounds rather demeaning to the hard work that institutes in the other ‘directions’ keep doing and in ways does not the give the correct picture. This is why we have had recruiters focusing more on directions than on the actual calibre of the students. This is something that has been going on for decades now. However, once the inter-disciplinary concepts sets in and colleges and universities realise that they need to uplift the overall standards of not just education but also the perceptions of the industry, the situation will change.

It is a mix of both subjective and objective facets that will finally be able to dissolve the NSEW quotient in education. After all, every recruiter wants to hire people with passion, motivation, teamwork, competence, communication, flexibility, problem-solving, integrity, likability, and reliability… and these are factors that can easily be broadly clubbed under these two attributes:

  1. Brilliance in understanding and applying concepts
  2. Being diligent 24×7

How does this happen?

The process isn’t half as complicated as it may sound. I will need to invoke the broad principles of NEP 2020 again because this policy does indeed have provisions that can pull up education in India to a global level. A focus on the inter-disciplinary theory needs to be cultivated with complete involvement because a surface tilling will not yield the right results. This is possible only when there is a focus on a continuous upgradation of information and knowledge for the faculty. Thus teacher training and the concept of training for the trainer are invaluable. Universities need to function like well-oiled corporate offices where every facet from punctuality to observers in classrooms is accepted because ‘getting better’ doesn’t happen over-night.

Besides the features mentioned above, the concept of ‘signalling’ needs to be understood well. NEP 2020 mentions weeding out students who have less inclination for academic brilliance and care more for skills and vocations. It isn’t as if a vocation-focus outcasts a person – in fact, it propels this person towards his level of excellence and prevents him from reaching a stage where he has no option but to flounder and drown. The aim of this weeding out exercise is to make sure that the one-third that remain there for a higher degree are the ones who redefine brilliance and diligence as the industry appreciates.

This process will give the country a one hundred percent of the one-third with the desirable higher education qualification… and also give one hundred percent of those who will have developed some skill that is just as much in demand. Believe me, this is not as harsh as it sounds in theory. In simple mathematics why have just 30 super-achievers out 100 when one can advance all 100 as super-achievers in their own area of expertise… though 70 of them will not be emerging from their student days as people with higher degrees. This is far better than living with the stigma of having 70 under-achievers in the university, right? Reaching for global standards needs this.



Note: This article was first published in Education Post, October 2020 as the cover story.

Education Post - October 2020 - Cover story - The NSEW of Education - 01
Education Post – October 2020 – Cover story – The NSEW of Education – 01
Education Post - October 2020 - Cover story - The NSEW of Education - 02
Education Post – October 2020 – Cover story – The NSEW of Education – 02
Education Post - October 2020 - Cover story - The NSEW of Education - 03
Education Post – October 2020 – Cover story – The NSEW of Education – 03




Arvind Passey
Written on 24 September 2020