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Tuesday , September 11 , 2012
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Cat among BA pigeons: are our graduates employable?

New Delhi, Sept. 10: Kapil Sibal today suggested that a BA degree by itself did not equip a person to contribute to economic growth, stirring a debate in a country where students sometimes enrol themselves for courses in philosophy or history for want of berths elsewhere.

The Union human resource development minister did not deride or belittle the humanities. The point he was making was that a general education in the humanities needed to be combined with a skill development course.

“I do not think it is relevant to have BA degrees or BA (Hons) degrees (to) participate in the economic growth of the country. You need greater skills,” Sibal told the India-Cambridge Summit here.

He stressed two premises: one, that India will become the world’s most populous country by 2050 and two, that educated people will demand jobs. “Unless we connect education to job creation, we will not satisfy the aspiration of the people,” he concluded.

Sibal, a lawyer, later modified the tone of his statement, saying the humanities as a stream were very important.

Official statistics show that the humanities attract the largest proportion of students in the field of higher education in India. (See chart)

This, however, has as much to do with the demand among students as with the stream-wise availability of seats — and to that extent, with the government’s education policies over decades of changing realities.

For instance, the number of medical students is a fraction of those who want to study medicine; and if an overwhelming number of students decide to study science from next year, there will not be enough seats, labs or teachers.

Sibal’s views attracted mixed reactions from education experts. The Cambridge University vice-chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, felt that knowledge of the humanities was key to evaluating the needs of society.

“A great deal of importance” is laid on technology nowadays, he said, “but the acceptability and relevance of technology is based on an understanding of society. The humanities stream helps (us) understand society.”

Suranjan Das, vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, said in Calcutta in response to a question: “I agree to a certain extent that only a BA general degree is not enough for students to become employable. They also need some vocational training. But it is absurd to say that we don't need historians and philosophers. We are now celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. By making such statements, we would be going against our founding fathers like Swami Vivekananda who believed that the very purpose of education is character building. The new discourse in pedagogy is that we need holistic education and that is why big industries like IBM are creating chairs in social sciences. Economic growth without holistic education will lead to internal squabbles.”

Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, agreed with Sibal that graduate courses in the arts need to be combined with skills training. “It is accepted that a mere graduation degree is a basic education course. It is not enough to make the student a skilled worker. That is why the UGC has started a scheme for career development, under which skills are imparted to students along with their regular courses,” he said.

Janak Pandey, vice-chancellor of the Central University of Bihar, said many students take up humanities courses after failing to get seats in the streams of their choice. This trend is unhelpful to the creation of knowledge, he said.

“A few lakh students take up philosophy and history every year in India. Does the country need so many philosophers or historians every year?” Pandey, a trained clinical psychologist, asked. “In my view, students who are really serious about studying the humanities and have an aptitude for it should be encouraged to study (these courses). But many people who come (to these courses) by default fail to contribute meaningfully.”

But Bhaskar Chakraborty, professor of history at Calcutta University, said in Calcutta: “Even if the country has thousands of philosophers and historians, we will still need some more. The statement can be acceptable when the government can offer job-oriented education to all the students who aspire for higher education at affordable and reasonable cost. Most students opt for the humanities because this is the cheapest stream. Moreover, is there a guarantee that all those who get skill-based education will get jobs?”

Sir Christopher Bayly, director of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University, said humanities courses are in heavy demand in Cambridge and account for a third of its postgraduate students. “From what the minister (Sibal) said, one should not think that the era of the humanities is over. The humanities have a relevance for all time,” he said.

Linguist Pabitra Sarkar agreed. Humanities “will always be an important stream, no matter how many engineers and technology experts we produce. We need good teachers, painters and cultural personalities. We cannot discourage students from pursuing education in humanities”, Sarkar said in Calcutta.

Mousumi Ghosh, director, Future Institute of Engineering and Management and Future group of institutions and a faculty member of IIM-C, said: “Big companies are more and more wanting to recruit young people who can think independently. It doesn't matter whether a student studies BA or BSc What is more important is their creativity and innovation. It is not necessary that students will be able to develop independent thinking by pursuing a skill-based course.”

Placement professionals felt that a degree should be complemented with skill development. “What is lacking is basic mathematical aptitude and basic English grammar. It is the responsibility of all the stakeholders — the government, the education institutes and the private sector. That is the real challenge,” said V. Suresh, executive VP and national head (sales) of, a job site.

Asked if he feels the quality of employable youths have declined, Suresh said: “With mushrooming B-schools, the overall quality of output has declined. There is a deterioration in the quality of students and teachers. This is because teaching in India is not a rewarding profession, unlike in Singapore.”

But he added: “From what I have seen, it would not be right to say that a student with a science background is more competent than someone from humanities. It could as well be the other way round at times. It depends a lot on schooling at the primary level.”