Time has passed. Niharika with almond eyes, a lovely smile and quiet demeanour, from an earlier story, has moved ahead a marginal step. She could not make it for higher education. The trip to the computer class six kilometers away has opened her up a bit. She actually speaks a little by now. She was a first divisioner at GIC.
GIC, Government Intermediate College, an epicenter of Middle and Secondary Education, is one of the landmarks in rural India. Historically, there are records of GIC schools dating back to the early 1900s.
At the local GIC, there are free uniforms and books for Classes VI to VIII. From ninth, there is a nominal monthly fee of Rs 50/ that remains free for girls. There has been a system of getting food from Classes VI to VIII that suffered in Covid times but has been revived.
Niharika is a heart-rending inspiration for unfinished tasks of under-served youth from such schools. She was a special invitee for a counselling session at the local GIC, targeted for students in Classes X and XII. “Guardians” had been invited on special request. Counselling! Here, it is a far cry from the Career Counselling & Guidance of urban India. It can only be termed basic and desperate.
There were 56 uniformed students and Niharika was seated in the audience. Waiting with bated breath at what they would hear. In spite of sincere requests, only about ten “guardians” were present, mainly mothers. It was a formal, speech-oriented event. Different representatives tried their best to throw light on the challenges of secondary education and the move to higher education. It was impossible to decipher if any of it made sense to the students.
What did come through was that though vocational institutions have been positioned in nearby locations, much of it seemed like “news” to these students. While the representatives stated how they do not receive “enough applications” that threatened the continuance of their branch. The fact is also that there is a mismatch between the admission date deadlines and school exams. So, many can miss out in applying on time.
These “vocational” institutions are also landmarks in rural India. The ubiquitous ITI (Industrial Training Institute) and polytechnic. They are also mired in an incomprehensible bureaucratic structures that are out of tune of a youth’s mind.
In 2021, a Rajya Sabha question hour revealed that there are 14,779 affiliated ITIs in India. During Covid, 82 of them were shut down in 2020-21. These institutes have premises, staff, budgets, and are meant to provide industry-specific skillsets. On enquiry, there were bare facts. The local ITI is within a two-kilometre vicinity of the GIC. Most of the students were unaware that this ITI existed in their neighbourhood.
The computer operator course, COPA, is presently in-operational. It only has one 2-year course for an electrician. The counselling session at GIC was late. The admissions had “closed” with 11 enrolments, though the number of available seats was 24. The promise of a loan for an electrician’s shop after the course, etc., therefore, had no meaning for the batch of students present.
The story about the polytechnic was not any more heartening. They have one stream, a 3-year civil engineering diploma. For which they rarely get local admissions. This polytechnic is about seven kilometres away. The distance that Niharika often walks either to or from her computer institute.
There are reportedly over 2,000 polytechnics in India. Again, reportedly offering courses in computer/chemical/automobile engineering, fashion designing, mass communication and interior decoration. These fancy courses sound good on paper that have merrily moved hands from the Ministry of Human Resource Development to that of Skill Development & the Directorate General of Training. The bureaucratic processes obviously leave little time for such institutions to get off the ground.
A student asked if there are any courses she can follow that match with her hobbies. Clearly, her concept of hobby was not understood as her passion. It was advised to take up a serious path and continue with the “hobby” on the side.
The exposure to the Open University set up in 2005 was an eye opener even for some of the teaching staff. It offers 119 options for graduate, post-graduate degrees/diplomas/certificates in different streams. The distance learning system with flexible and innovative methods is ideal for the geographically and socially challenged region. Particularly girls like Niharika, who are denied a promising future due to deep-rooted social constraints. The professor who spoke at length, was once a GIC student. Today, he heads the Social Sciences Department at the Open University. It was a fulfilling experience for him “to serve the under-served”, as he said.
Breaking the barriers is not easy. Either students do not aspire for further education.
If they do, they are still caught in the larger perceptions of traditional systems like “attending a university”. Somehow, the socially, economically, culturally, geographically more suitable option has not caught on.
Can the students be blamed for the overall lack of enthusiasm and drive? Monthly salaries at Rs 50-60,000 for a government school-teacher, an Open University with budgets over Rs 20 crore excluding salaries. Vis-à-vis a dissipated future for a rural school pass-out. Surely, food for thought.