Saturday, May 18, 2024

We must end the life-altering power of a college-degree

There are allegations that two college degrees held by Narendra Modi are not authentic. But the Prime Minister is not in trouble, because somehow he is never in trouble. In this particular case, even if the degrees he is said to hold are fake, I am glad he will not face its consequences.

The way people scorn politicians for not going to college, it is as though they possessed some great intelligence or skill to walk into college. It is particularly amusing when those who scorn are graduates in the humanities. It takes little effort to get an arts degree. Most people got into college because they filled an application form and paid fees. And most emerged from college with no special skill or knowledge. You may argue that the controversy is not over the value of college, but in the deception, if any. But any Indian faking an arts degree is only responding to an evil force. The prestige attached to college degrees is a caste system. Educated Indians are complicit in this, for it is they who manufactured the stigma for college-illiterates, which is one of two reasons that millions of Indians are forced to produce fake certificates. The other reason is the absurd requirement of a college degree for so many jobs that do not require such education.

The contempt for Modi’s possible lack of education is, in part, a reaction to his party’s growing reputation for suppressing dissent with disproportionate force. But the glorification of college education by the sort of people whose only achievement is that their parents sent them to college is also a form of bullying. Maybe of a worse kind because it has the sheen of virtue.

In its campaign to make Modi pay for his probable fake degrees, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has resorted to calling him “illiterate”. AAP’s campaigns are usually very sharp and effective, but this is going to work against the party. It is influenced by the high educational qualifications of Arvind Kejriwal, who is an engineer, and his party’s success in improving the quality of government schools. But calling Modi “Illiterate” is the same as making fun of most Indians. It reinforces the shame of poverty or poor exam-taking skills.

Often, when organizations ask for a college degree, they only seek an easy way to disqualify most job applicants. This is unfair because most Indians get a bad start in life and their educational levels, especially if they have been to school, do not represent their ability to do a particular job. Why then must India promote a system that rewards people for their mere luck?

If AAP were truly a humanitarian force, it would continue to provide high-quality free education to the poor, and also campaign to end the requirement of college education for government jobs that do not require college education. The US has begun to do exactly this. A few days ago, Barack Obama tweeted, “Here’s an example of a smart policy that gets rid of unnecessary college degree requirements and reduces barriers to good paying jobs. I hope other states follow suit.” He linked an article which points out some US states are easing requirements and opening up opportunities for non-college-educated workers. America used to be a place where a person who did not go to college could still earn a decent living on a factory floor and find social respect, too. Also, he had an opportunity to rise in his company. But then, the rise of tech and jobs that required people to appear sophisticated, and a job shortage that led to new ways of eliminating applicants resulted in a huge rush for college degrees, which eventually increased the cost of higher education. American politicians and private companies are responding to end the absurdity.

Many US tech majors have got rid of the need for college degrees in some positions. Since 2011, American billionaire Peter Thiel has run a grant that bribes young people to drop out of college and start a business.

India’s new education policy has elements that are bold and smart. It widens the meaning of education beyond sciences and languages, which have long put many at a disadvantage. The policy has brought some actual skills like carpentry into the ambit of mainstream school education. Also, it proposes to enable a person to leave college midterm and resume the pursuit of a degree later. But what India needs to do is eliminate the life-altering power of a piece of paper called the college degree.

There can be some arguments against this. Thousands apply for every vacancy in India. We have heard stories of how hundreds of post-graduates, even engineers, applied for the job of a peon. If that is the case, there may be mayhem if the filter of a college degree is removed. But then, this is not a fair reason to discriminate against those who could not attend college. Let there be mayhem. If 1,000 postgraduates apply for a job, let 10,000 school dropouts apply too. In the end, for jobs that require some aptitude and not technical knowledge, employers must devise effective ways of picking candidates instead of creating a meaningless caste system.

Another argument can be that if people have an incentive to go to college, they may discover something useful. What is so great about the world outside college? Most jobs are joyless. College, for all its flaws, is less dreary than the typical entry-level job. So what is so wrong in sending Indians in pursuit of a piece of paper if this pursuit is better than what they would endure otherwise?

Ideally, a society should fully fund the pursuit of knowledge, but separate it from the job market. The joy of discovery or even idleness in college has value, but that does not justify granting an unfair advantage to some who get to go there.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, Decoupled.

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