In India, degrees more important than skills

Last Updated: Sat, May 04, 2013 00:36 hrs

In July last year, the Bangalore police arrested a senior manager from IBM who had landed the job on the basis of forged mark sheets. At the time of the arrest, he was drawing a whopping Rs 24 lakh.

The point about the arrest was not the fake certificates. India's business process outsourcing sector is drowning in cooked mark sheets. As The Caravan reports in its April issue, 23 per cent of all resumes in India are falsified. What drew comment was the the senior position the executive held. Information technology companies run rigorous background checks on new recruits. Not only did the man in question evade detection, he was clearly good enough to command an extraordinary pay package.

Which brings us to a more sinister question: Is India's education system, already straining under the weight of a burgeoning population, incapable of supplying credentials to the deserving? Are we forcing the merely good and bright to take recourse to unethical practices because the system is designed to welcome only the best and brightest?

As a common admission test (CAT) trainer, I come across this problem frequently. Owing to the stiff competition, a number of Indian Institutes of Management now consider class X, class XII and graduation scores to shortlist candidates. That's apart from CAT whose toughness is much vaunted. Earlier, when there was less competition, it was enough to perform well in CAT. Now, it is important to have led a perfect life with stellar credentials right from the time you were out of diapers.

This is not a symptom limited to the Master of Business Administration. Our societal set-up lays great store by an engineering or medical degree for which most students start preparing right from middle school. Indian Institute of Technology and All India Institute of Medical Sciences entrance coaching is a business running into crores. Its clientele includes eager parents who push their teenage wards into rote learning. By the time these young boys and girls cross class X, they are set on building serious careers with little choice in the matter.

Forget the long-term damage this monomaniacal devotion entails. Worse, the system does not allow for outliers. If you are genuinely interested in the arts, you had better fail in science, otherwise your decision would be forever questioned. "Who opts for literature when they can get Math?" you will be told. If you do not perform well in either board exam - because you, well, are growing up, and teenage is a messy time as it is - you better be prepared for defending your poor performance for the rest of your days.

I wish to cite here the case of two of my students at the CAT training institute. One is a little lost, somewhat unsure. He tries to belong to a crowd by getting himself interested. The other is a loner, stays by himself, and only seems to do what interests him.

In preparing them for an extempore the other day, I asked each of them to speak about a jeweller whose hoardings have dotted Mumbai for a month. I expected the first one - the one who tries to belong - to know. Since he comes across as someone who is out and about, I expected him to have followed the story. He did not know. He conceded he had seen the hoardings, but that was about it.

The other student - the loner - knew all about the jeweller. He had read up on the south-based company that was entering the Mumbai market with a bang, and spoke confidently for a minute. Now to me, this was surprising. The loner is more receptive to things, I noted. Or he knew what it takes to succeed at the extempore round: a deep knowledge of things, focused preparation, and an ability to tie different argumentative strands together. In contrast to my expectations, I grant happily, he is sure to get into a top B-school.

But, and this is an important distinction, I still feel the first student - the crowd-seeking, self-investing character - will make a better manager. The level of rigour required to clear India's national tests comes naturally to someone who has, to use a colloquial expression, had no life. A successful corporate person, on the other hand, is someone who can look at things wholesomely, and allow for uncertainty and ambiguity to influence their judgement - a troublesome trait for those who have spent a lifetime narrowing their gaze on elements of academic success.

This dichotomy disturbs me, in a way that can't be resolved. In this scenario, why blame someone like the IBM employee who was sacked? There is many a corporate man who might have been unable to muster the best academic credentials but is as good, if not better, a worker as the next person. Why point fingers at someone who works the system for sure, but at least reaps the fruits of his own labours, which is more than can be said for other forms of entrenched corruption in India?

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