A clarion call to higher education

We now know a significant lot about securing world-leading school education for our children, with or without schools. Yet, schools, every one of them, must transform; play their part in what is in their DNA and support global-scale socio-economic transformations as we are ushered into the knowledge age.

Interestingly, the pace, scope and quality of school reformation will remain incremental unless and until higher education goes back to the drawing board. No less than a revolution in higher education can set the school system on the right path. This may seem like giving up hope of new-age school education, but that is what it is.

Indeed, the most crippling affliction of the school education system is its complete subordinate position to higher education and that the higher education could not care less about its debilitating effect on school education’s organic existence and vibrancy. Unfortunately, this understanding of their relationship is one of those unuttered realities that have faith-like sanctions.

School goals - conspicuous by their absence

School education goals have always staunchly reflected their social roots, schools being a critical social infrastructure. Naturally, when the current format of school education started to mass-scale in the 19th century, it set sights on powering the industrial revolution (a humanity-level transformation).

It is no surprise that schools are unique organisations — their goals are telescopically viewed. School goals magnify and present the things far beyond the school's scope and sphere of influence. If it sounds unreal, here is a mission statement of a randomly picked 'good school' - "To provide a learner-centric education for children so they can achieve their full potential in the respective fields of education they pursue and build a better world."

School years - light only at the end of the tunnel

Pertinently, this distant-goal affliction manifests in at least five undesirable ways in school education:

  1. (Parents of) Children in pre-primary see through the school years into higher education (most Indian parents know their 4-year-old has to grow to be a computer engineer, doctor, lawyer, MBA, or economist) - as if school years are just pre-designed career prep schools for children.
  2. Pre-primary, primary and middle schools have nominal educational milestones of their own - it is all about achievement in secondary school.
  3. In many societies across the world, childhood itself is just 'waiting to be adult', school years are just a mandatory passing phase.
  4. Parents and governments are pushing schools to focus on overall development, because employers are placing a premium on 'soft skills' (at the cost of academic quality, only so much is possible in a day's timetable and with limited resources).
  5. The worst is the lack of clarity and commitment of the school education system to 'year-on-year value addition' in the development of the students; schools are designed for 'K-12' outcomes, not grade-wise development milestones! Even parents and governments don't seek grade-wise achievement assurance from schools, secondary school outcomes are what schools are for.

Consequently, in most schools, the processes and resources are by default dictated by highly empirical educational framework and evidences, rather than theoretically well-founded or deductive educational framework. The school education system is disappointingly low-tech.

This is not to say that we know all about how we learn or parents do their part of the deal in educating children, but schools must own up and become serious in their approach to education in practice.

School education revolution in waiting - microscopic view of goals

If only schools could be re-designed for sound and sharp yearly developmental milestones to be achieved for every student, then every family would have happy children. We just need schools to be schools. Not 'waiting lounges' for the flight to higher education.

Ironically, if only schools can be 14 years of development, higher education won't be necessary for most students.

Higher education - let the truth be told

Higher education system has hugely benefited by the way schools are goaled, auto-fuelling an ever-growing demand of its services! But higher education has not tried to improve the school education system, after all, higher education is the seat of research and continuous development.

In fact, higher education has exacted a heavy price from school education for its own sake! Higher education deliberately and consistently kept nibbling at alternatives to higher education, such as hugely valuable and regarded formal apprentice systems, to build professional competencies. Till date, finance offers very powerful apprentice and open-certification routes to most attractive career opportunities, but such higher education routes are stifled.

It is time that we cut the umbilical chord between school education and higher education, it is the chord that lets higher education feed off the school education system.

Higher education - crisis of their own creation

Higher education is not preparing students to be job-ready and it not a guaranteeing return on educational investments. A Harvard Business Review article indicates that around 40% of 25 to 34-year-olds in OECD countries and nearly 50% of 25 to 34-year-olds in America are not out rightly job-ready. College grads are not as employable as demanded by employers.

Higher education may be the most critical case study of the classical 'innovator's dilemma' – not disrupting its current services and business models to be relevant to students, organisations and society-at-large in these times of ubiquitous disruption. Who would have believed that campus life and ‘taught degrees’ would still be relevant in the late 2020s? Worse still, even during the pandemic, ‘online education’ has been priced at the same tuition-fee levels as on-campus education. Such is the price for not having ‘learnt to learn’ in school.

What should parents do?

We can only do two things.

First, we must raise our voices on the urgency of higher education reform with a new conviction; schools will not change unless higher education is transformed. And schools must change NOW. Higher education takes initiative for effecting transformation in schools.

For the record, the reforms in higher education that we may seek is simple, and just one reform will trigger an avalanche — opening the ‘semester exams’ of all higher education institutions to ‘private students’ (with whatever broad criteria for eligibility). No student should be denied educational qualification for not being part of the ‘lecture theatres, or peer group on campus’.

And to be fair to universities/colleges, the award of the degrees to the deserving private students must record the fact of them being ‘not regular students.’ Choice must be with the students – to learn on site or offsite. Higher education must truly serve the cause of the institutional existence.

Second, we can definitely focus on school years as an end in themselves, and not worry at all about higher education of our children. In fact, we must focus on defining and securing gaols for each grade and each ‘subject’. To be true, we must focus on the joy and learning of the child, everyday.

Show higher education its place – make it entirely a post-school exploration – and you will experience the joy of parenting and the most amazing educational progress of your children that is beyond dreams. Stay focused on every moment in the now.

If it helps, also believe that higher education will be liberalised sooner than later, and you do not want to be regretting for not anchoring yourself off the higher education bandwagon in time.

Excerpted from the book ‘You, The Unsung Hero’ by G S Madhav Rao, Sandeep Srivastava, Saloni Srivastava