India can learn from America's focus on liberal arts with emphasis on transformational process if it wants its higher education to turn out students who can serve the needs of a global economy.

“India Graduates Millions, But Too Few Are Fit to Hire” was the headline in a recent front page article in the Wall Street Journal which went on to say that only three out of 100 graduates are hireable since the rest lack basic skills in communication, critical thinking and comprehension. To put it succinctly, India might be graduating millions but the vast majority fail to meet the minimum standards for the global economy requirements expected from college graduates.

As a frequent visitor to India, I am amazed to see the effects on the street after the floodgates opened soon after the economic liberalisation policies. Consumers goods and western — particularly American — brand names have become commonplace. India has been very adept in internalising the entrapments of American culture — consumerism, pervasive presence and influence of the media in all its forms, the drive to seek the “good life,” individualism coupled with the fraying of family ties — but has turned a blind eye toward one of the core elements that fuels American success: liberal arts education.

A singular and unparalleled feature of the American cultural and economic engine is its system of higher education that is clearly focused on producing a “liberally educated” person. Mark Twain, with his characteristic wit, once said that the purpose of education is to turn a cabbage into a cauliflower. In other words, it must be a transformational process and not just producing a bigger cabbage.

Much of what is done in India is based on the premise that the sole purpose of education is to increase knowledge. The student should know more when they leave than what they knew when the came in — a bigger cabbage if you will. American educators will readily concur that increasing knowledge and skills are an integral part of the educational process. However, sole focus on this objective misses the mark entirely. The ability to communicate what one knows and be able to think critically and employ this knowledge in creatively solving problems must become objectives that are given due prominence.

Sadly, much of what happens in higher education in India has been nothing more than glorification of vocational education. Decades of such focus has led to the current condition of poorly prepared college graduates who are simply unable to serve the needs of a global economy. This realisation has not escaped the attention of the Asian countries — particularly China and Malaysia — for they are rapidly importing the notion of liberal arts to re-invent their educational system.

Lowest enrolment

The numbers, as reported by the Wall Street Journal and numerous other publications, tell a stark story. The youth bubble in India is the largest within the BRIC countries while college enrolment is lowest. Adding to this disadvantage, there is a widespread cry among the corporate HR professionals that what we do produce in terms of college graduates is sub-par to say the least. How does India find its way out of this conundrum? From a public policy perspective, educational institutions must be given greater autonomy in establishing the curriculum, outcome measures and de-centralised assessment procedures.

Similar to the accrediting agencies that have worked well in America, independent accrediting bodies should be charged to maintain quality control and be invested with the power to pull accreditation when institutions do not meet outcome measures. A much broader view of the purpose of higher education must take root… the intent to turn a cabbage into a cauliflower.

Private industry should put its money where its mouth is and become tireless advocates of educational reform. Their economic survival is clearly tied to having a well-educated workforce and so this should clearly be in their own self-interest.

Finally, this reform should be seen as an opportunity for the nation to tap into this extraordinary resource that is available and not as a threat to the status quo.

The author is a native of Chennai and currently serves as the president of Concordia College in New York.