09 Apr 2021 20:45 IST

Opening the door to a new future for students

What is important is not the UG degree itself, but an ability to learn new skills and adapt to a rapidly changing future

Admission season is here again. However, this year, we have some lessons from the year that has gone by. Could anyone have predicted the year 2020 that went by? This is true of all fields, but especially true for education and work.

As students appear for board exams and prepare for end of school, they deal with an increasingly unforeseen future. Not only the pressure of performance in final exams is upon them, but they also face a greater challenge of imagining an uncertain future that can confound the best students and their families. Appearing for the board exam is a known and defined situation with past data points.

The future of work and education does not rest on such certitude. In India, students have historically relied on numbers for admissions, and national competitive exams to enter professional streams of engineering and medicine. Liberalisation opened up new workspaces in the last couple decades, and many students, flush with financial support of their more affluent parents, headed to foreign lands for education and more opportunities. It has been an age of aspiration.

Undue pressure on students

However, the darker side of aspiration has been undue pressure on the student within an exam-oriented system. Over the last several years, students and families have dealt with mental health challenges, and a world of ruthless competition that may appear aspirational on the surface. It conceals the shadows of the inequities within it. Yet, a marks-based assessment system, and entrance exams based on known parameters offered some semblance of certainty and fairness as a passport to a professional future.

This has changed with the worldwide preponderance of technology. Covid-19 has only made this inherent structural shift visible. It has opened up the fault lines of inequity in every country. India is no exception.

The best minds could not have predicted the disruption to education, mobility and work the world over during 2020. Schools moved online, and students as well as educators had to cope without any time to adjust. This shift threw up questions of equity and access all over the world. India, with its large youth population and limited seats in colleges for desired programmes is yet to find the data to show the impact of Covid on students’ educational opportunities.

Extracurriculars suffered, and social interaction and peer networks disappeared for students in high schools. Yet, all over the world, definitions of success and wellness have clearly shifted. They are undergoing a transformation. Students, and adults alike, have faced mental health challenges, even as their families have had limited experience and ability to support them during this time. It is time to prioritise wellness and survival above all else.

Unseen future

As college admission season arrives, and families gather around their children when they open their decision letters, and marksheets, it is a unique point in history. They face a portal to an unseen future. This point of selection is but the first step in their marathon journey in a world that has defied prediction. It is but a first step crafting a new future for the young person. The past has not been a great indication for the future.

As think tanks, research groups and organisations put out documents and studies on the Future of Work, they are all converging on one thing: The world of work will be transformed due to digital disruptions. The jobs of the future have not yet been created, but technology will continue to change the way to do so many things and most jobs of the future have not been created yet. So, what is important is not the undergraduate degree itself, but an ability to learn new skills and adapt to a rapidly changing future. Most parents remember the cache of government jobs in the pre-liberalisation era, the emphasis on medicine and engineering as passports to economic success in the ’80s and ’90s. Then came the technology wave and young programmers started to make more money than many adults had imagined, transforming cities and towns.

A success or a failure in getting into the college of one’s dreams means something completely different in a post Covid world. Learning how to learn no matter what we are left holding in this year demands that the young take charge and think of their lives and are willing to put in the work to attain skills. A portfolio of skills, and a flexible mind is what will steer the ones who will cross this ocean of uncertainty.

What skills and learning are needed?

Wellness: the ability to care for oneself, in both body and mind has become a centering principle. Given challenges, how does a young person respond? Can parents allow the space for failure? Can they stand by and let the young learn from their own challenges and failures? Does the youth have the faith in themselves to continue on their journey and craft their own futures in a changing world? Can they discern what to hold on to, and what to let go? Can they differentiate between needs and wants? What skills and learning are required at this time?

Education is the ability to respond to changing circumstances and lead a life of wellness.

Learning to accept failure is but a small step in crafting this future. It offers a possibility to think differently. and can be a path to an unknown future far better than what we might have imagined with a pre-Covid mindset. Some scholars call this a "growth mindset." So as students receive their exam results and decisions, that success or failure is but a first door. There are opportunities to develop skills in every space and interdisciplinary education is the way to the world ahead. The journey to adulthood is fraught with fear. This is natural but it must not paralyse. Results are not the end of the world, but an opportunity to think and act with a greater imagination that includes concrete skills, the ability to learn from every situation. That attitude to learn is what will take any person forward. That is truly what education for life looks like.

(The writer is Founder and Trustee of the upcoming Plaksha University; Founder and Executive Director, Flowering Tree Inc.)