Not so long ago, the Indian media was engaged in a debate over whether some form of formal education is necessary for one’s effective functioning. It all started with a raging controversy over the educational qualification of the new HRD minister. Those who argued against formal education were highlighting the examples of the highly successful Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mukesh Ambani and other famous college dropouts.
Formal education, as universally understood, is the process of learning and acquiring problem-solving skills through formal schooling or study in colleges and universities. With its organised institutional arrangements, formal education has occupied the central position in the formation of modern civilisations. Progressive vibrant societies have emphasised the role of structured formal systems of education and few people would question the need for a formal education system. Formal education is a producer of creativity and helps in positive social and economic changes.
The main argument supporting the benefits of formal education is based on its direct economic effects. Many estimates suggest that a year of education raises earnings by about 10 per cent. Formal education opens up employment opportunities that otherwise would not be available to one. It can increase one’s self esteem and personal development crucial in job search and success in interviews. In the contemporary society, knowledge is power and one’s learning through formal education is the most powerful tool for success. Unless we have a solid education job opportunities will be limited and without a job we will have to struggle for the rest of our life. Formal education can produce qualifications and credentials that are essential for most types of better paying jobs. It has the power to make one an expert on the job of one’s choice. Most companies prefer only college educated graduates and the applications of graduates in the distance education mode are often rejected.
The formal education system is central to the progress of a nation. It has several benefits other than labour market productivity and the income it generates. It is through formal education that societies pass on knowledge and expertise from one generation to the next. An educated population offers a more valuable human capital base to the economy. A developed economy has the maximum concentration of jobs in the tertiary sector (service sector) that requires a highly skilled work force which has expertise in specific fields. The US, the most developed country, has the most efficient human resources in the world. In India, too, the service sector dominates in contributing to GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The manpower supply required in the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) industries is the product of the formal education system that we have. Again the formal education system is the generator of our skilled manpower supply to the rest of the world.
Social benefits of formal education include a more educated and better informed electorate, lower rates of crime and violence, lower rates of poverty, better health and nutrition, and generally a more smoothly functioning society. Formal education is instrumental in changing the perspectives and mindsets of people. It helps eradicate superstitions and augment scientific temper. It strengthens networks and institutions necessary for individual and group interactions. In several nations formal education has created an environment for better distributive justice and reductions in socio-economic inequality.
When social problems threaten the very fabric of society, education is seen as a powerful solution. Formal education equips citizens with basic functional skills, it also trains them to become responsible and capable members of society. Countries like the US saw education as the great solution to social evils like poverty and crime. And at an elementary school level itself the idea of responsible citizenship and love of country were instilled in American children.
Formal education has its influence in improving the health status of the population. Recent researches in the US reported an additional four years of education lowers five-year mortality by 1.8 percentage points; it also reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percentage points, and risk of diabetes by 1.3 points. As David Culter and Adriana Lleras-Muney say, “people value health highly. We value health both for its own sake and its contribution to the production of other goods. As a result, the health returns to education can outweigh even financial returns. One more year of education increases life expectancy by 0.6 years. The health returns to education increase the total returns to education by at least 15 per cent. The better educated have healthier behaviours on health risk factors such as smoking, drinking, diet/exercise, use of illegal drugs, household safety, use of preventive medical care, and care for hypertension and diabetes.”
The argument that several school/college dropouts have succeeded in their chosen fields is not a strong one to downsize the importance of formal education. As an exception there may be politicians and businessmen who have succeeded without any formal education. According to a research study conducted by North Eastern University on the effects of dropping out of school in America, “on any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.” “The dropout rate is driving the nation’s increasing prison population and it is a drag on America’s economic competitiveness,” says Marc H Morial, the former New Orleans mayor.
As Raghuram Rajan said in 2011, “higher education is the key to one’s well-being and education is a leveller, a game changer. But India’s formal education system is failing and if the country needs to improve in the field of education we need to have more organisational training.” He was highlighting the need for a stronger institutional set-up for formal education.
India with one of the largest and most complex education systems faces the challenge of upgrading formal education. Though with the Constitution Amendment Act, 1976, education is listed on the concurrent list and both the central and state governments have joint responsibility for education, educational policy planning is under the overall charge of the central MHRD. The immediate need is to address crucial problems in our formal education system such as teacher absenteeism, high teacher-pupil ratios; and inadequate teaching material and infrastructural facilities, particularly in rural areas.
The writer is professor of economics at Christ University, Bangalore, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org