CHENNAI: The third edition of the ThinkEdu Conclave organised by The New Indian Express on February 20 and 21 at ITC Grand Chola in the city lived up to the high standards set by the previous editions in finding solutions to problems plaguing the Indian education system. With ThinkEdu 2015 themed around Building Skills for India’s Future, Prabhu Chawla, Editorial Director of The New Indian Express, stressed on the need to focus on imparting skills. The Conclave, as he said, provided a medium through which students could listen to academicians, politicians and those involved in policy making, and even question them on a subject that affects their development.
Harsh Vardhan, Minister for Science and Technology sent cheers through the crowd when he said he was introduced to the Indian Express through his grandfather, who told him “this would help you improve your language.” Sharing the dais with Dr Vardhan for the inaugural address was K Radhakrishnan, former ISRO Chairman, who was affectionately introduced as the ‘MARS Man’ by Chawla.
“Take a leaf out of ISRO’s books; be self-reliant, work as a team in developing skill sets,” advised Radhakrishnan. Referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make In India’ campaign’s success, Radhakrishnan said we need to reduce imports and score on exports, which would be possible if all areas like Engineering, Management, Computing and IT had adequate infrastructure support. To make his point, he listed examples: Switzerland (known for its watch-making expertise for centuries) used to import HMT watches. Bharat Electricals too drew attention all over the world. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, he said, stressing the need to become self-reliant.
Dr Vardhan rooted for value-driven education instead of rote learning. “Education must be more than just scoring marks or gaining degrees. We need to make honest human beings out of our students,” he said. Mohandas Pai, Chairman, Manipal Global Educational Services, and Congress leader Sachin Pilot agreed that our universities need to be given more autonomy. Calling for political interference in education to be minimised, Pilot said progress was possible only if we expand our IITs and IIMs without Government control. Another panelist, Nooraine Fazal, co-founder Inventure Academy, said our education system has to be based on smart policies.
The Conclave then explored the value of a liberal arts education and if India could benefit from it. We can’t teach Science without Arts and therefore Liberal Arts education is much needed, said Aditya Mukherjee of JNU. Liberal Arts is not just about studying a bunch of varied subjects, but also about imparting values, said C Raj Kumar, VC of OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana, NCR Region. Geetha Narayanan of Srishti School of Art, called for Liberal Arts to be taught from the perspective of Indian Arts. Actor-banker R Ravichander brought the audience’s attention to the varied career options for a Liberal Arts graduate.
Congress leader MM Pallam Raju was called upon to speak on the Conclave’s central theme ‘Building Skills for India’s Future’ in a discussion with Dr L Narendranath, Director, Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad. Stating that skilling was imperative for India’s progress, Raju highlighted the goals of the National Skill Development Corporation. Drawing from his experiences, Dr Narendranath said a dynamic curriculum was needed.
The problem of unskilled trainers came up repeatedly. When some speakers said technology could possibly replace redundant teachers, Lux Rao of HP Future Cities, pointed out that technology can only aid teachers, never replace them. Making comparisons with the ancient Gurukul system, Chhavi Rajwat, the Sarpanch of Soda village in Rajasthan, said teachers must make learning joyful for students. Bringing in motivated teachers was the suggestion of Shailendra Sharma of Pratham Education Foundation. Making teachers accountable was the solution Nick Argent, Director of The British Council, envisaged.
People tend to value education based on its return on investment. But the speakers Deepak Phatak, computer science professor from IIT-Bombay, Krishnakumar Natrajan, Managing Director and CEO of Mindtree, Lalitha Balakrishnan, Principal of MOP Vaishnav College and Uday Desai, Director of IIT-Hyderabad, explained why employment alone cannot be the key focus of education; it has a higher goal.
On the touchy topic, ‘Does our education system nurture nationalism?’, S Vaidhyasubramaniam, Dean-Planning, SASTRA University, said students are not being educated about India’s heritage and that is why they take pride in leaving India. RSS senior Dattatreya Hosabale raised pertinent issues. He pointed out that Sanskrit was being taught in English and that even with an MA in Sanskrit, students are not able to write two sentences in the language.
The loudest cheers were reserved for Pawan Agrawal, Management guru, who was the closing act of day one. Using the Mumbai dabbawalas as an outstanding example of professionalism, despite none of them being formally educated, he gave everyone food for thought, even as he presented tiny tiffin box souvenirs to dignitaries.
The second day of the conclave opened on a spiritual note. His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the 1,000-year-old Drukpa order based in the Himalayas, said it was sad that parents start charting their children’s future the minute they are born, and he pointed out that “education these days led to too much in the head and too little in the heart.” It should instead teach us to become better humans and respect nature, he opined.
Self-made achievers Designer JJ Valaya, Vasuli MD Manju Bhatia, ITC Executive Chef Nikhil Nagpal and entrepreneur Shvetha Jaishankar spoke on how one learns more from experience — which hones skills — than from academics.
The conference hall picked up numbers when National Conference leader Omar Abdullah and Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore took to the stage. Abdullah had the audience floored with his wisecracks, and his charm stayed on through the evening as he chaired an all-woman panel later in the day. Speaking on whether “Sports can be a tool in a country’s development” the former Chief Minister, a cricket enthusiast and a father of two, said there was nothing to disagree on. Sports help build character, perspective, teamwork, discipline, and physical and mental health, the duo opined. With suggestions of bringing the BCCI under the RTI scanner to handing over sports federations to sportspersons, the animated discussion set the bar high.
“Is our curriculum anti-women?” Woman power was writ large on the stage when actor-politician Khushbu Sundar and Members of Parliament Kavitha Kalvakuntla, Supriya Sule and Sushmita Dev drew attention to the fact that few female freedom fighters were talked about in our textbooks and that sex education still remained a hush-hush affair. The stereotypical portrayal of women doing ‘soft’ jobs still continued and needed an immediate change with more contemporary role models to look up to, they concluded. Even women’s reservation was discussed, with a student in the audience questioning why women were only seeking 33 per cent and not 50. Sule quipped, “Give us 50, and we’ll take 100!”
India despite being home to the world’s oldest university, today sees a large number of students study abroad. Why? Speakers pointed out that it was because our university education was hollow, mediocre and redundant. Amit Shovon Ray of Centre for Development Studies, T’puram; Dr Jayaprakash Narayan of Lok Satta party and Nitin Pai of Takshashila Institution concurred that cross pollination of ideas, exchange of cultures, and allowing access to best sources of knowledge across the world without being parochial was the way to go.
After listening to the who’s who of politics and industry, the young took to the stage for an inter-collegiate debate on ‘Skill Building is the raison d’etre of education’. Ujjwala Varma from Chettinad Hospital and Research Institute took away the first prize arguing that skill building was not the sole purpose of education and that it should also foster critical thinking, innovation and intellectual pursuit.
The Conclave reached its crescendo in the last session as political heavyweights like Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Minister of State for Commerce, MP Ritabrata Banerjee of CPIM, senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid, political leader Arif Mohammed Khan and HRD minister Smriti Irani discussed the impact of politics on education Left, Right and Centre, both literally and figuratively. Students were left mesmerised by Irani who announced a horde of schemes for their benefit.