Reimagining the Indian education system for the 21st century

Master in Business Analytics & Big Data student Saurav Ghosh Roy looks into how innovative reforms to the Indian education system could strengthen the talent and prospects of the country’s next generation.

The Indian education system has intrigued me since I started getting to know it—first as a primary school teacher in an under-resourced public school in Mumbai, and later as an EdTech entrepreneur.

Fresh perspectives of business concepts and the world, which I gathered from my professors and classmates at IE Business School, reinforced my belief that the future of the next generation in India is unpredictable—and the current Indian education system is leaving students unprepared to face it. As I start my second degree, the Master in Business Analytics & Big Data at IE School of Human Sciences & Technology, I’ve started to try to pick apart the reasons behind this predicament.

Where do we stand?

Modern education systems—in India and globally—have been upended by globalization, technology, and the COVID-19 pandemic: 

With over 230 million students enrolled across 1.4 million schools, the Indian education system is the largest in the world. As such, it’s crucial that such a vast group of students be trained well. Yet, that’s not exactly the case. 

We measure our students’ level of learning through their Reading, wRriting and aRrithmetic abilities (the 3Rs). While solid prerequisites, these skills are not enough to excel as professionals in 2020. In fact, this archaic and basic learning system holds no real meaning in terms of knowledge.

The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you do with what you know

— Tony Wagner (Fellow at Harvard University)

As a result, students of the Indian education system are not able to demonstrate a correlation between being qualified and performing well at work. For example, if we  look at engineering, one of the most sought-after degrees in India, a staggering 81% of engineering graduates in India are not considered employable in the jobs they trained for.

In India, most engineering graduates cannot solve problems through cross application of concepts, nor can they apply the concepts they’ve learned to practical problems. This is one example of how graduates have not been prepared for what lies ahead and are not equipped with the skills required to thrive in the modern workforce.

The new world of work comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities:

  • Technology is evolving and will continue to evolve faster than ever before. AI will transform businesses and the work people do. Process-oriented and mechanized work, which middle management currently engages in, will simply disappear.
  • A multicultural existence is a reality that the present generation is already dealing with.
  • Global issues, such as climate change, are real problems. If there is a solution, it lies with the next generation.
  • The 4th Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and it will see the reign of innovators, entrepreneurs and creators.

These modern challenges and opportunities demand multiple areas of competency in an individual. It requires the ability to collaborate effectively with others, work independently with little to no supervision, solve problems using critical thinking, deliver innovative solutions to real problems, and communicate clearly with stakeholders and peers. Hence, we need to equip our students with a new, extended skill set they can use to apply their academic learnings to new situations and overcome day-to-day challenges in their lives and society.

Research since the early 2000s has indicated a number of skills that will be relevant in the 21st century. More specifically, there are four skills that have remained prevalent in all discussions and were referred to by the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (P21) as the “4Cs”:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

Each of these skills is highly valued by potential employers and will help educators transform their students into thinkers, innovators and creators.

What does this mean for young India?

In India we are at a crucial stage, where the nation’s population could surpass that of China around 2024 and is projected to touch 1.5 billion in 2030. Already, in 2020, the average age in India is 29 years, compared to 37 in China and 48 in Japan. But a younger population doesn’t automatically translate into an opportunity, unless we’re prepared to face and solve the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Point in case: In 2016, more than 1.5 million people applied for 1,500 vacancies with a state-owned bank; more than 9 million took entrance exams for fewer than 100,000 posts in the railways; and more than 19,000 applied for 114 jobs as municipal street sweepers (stats from The Guardian). The sheer number of young people has yet to become an asset: now only 2.3% of the Indian workforce has had formal training in skills (compared to 96% in South Korea) and less than a fifth of Indian graduates are immediately employable.

The Indian education system must be totally reformed if it intends to harness the potential of its young population.

At the same time, India has some critical decisions to make and tough problems to solve. For example, one of the many challenges that lie ahead for the most populous nation is the fact it has only 2.41% of the world’s land area to support over 18% of the world’s population. At this juncture, India will require investments of about $4.5 trillion by 2040 to develop infrastructure, which will improve economic growth and societal well-being. With its current population, India stands at number four for highest carbon emissions in the world, and bringing this under control will only get more arduous with a larger population.

Given this grim picture, the young minds we educate today will be the ones most-affected by these issues and who will be responsible for solving them. It is their understanding and implementation of the 4Cs that will help them turn these challenges into opportunities.

Take the example of the Indian marketer, whose digital media spends stands at a mere 15% of media budgets. Marketers in India are still focusing on traditional media when formulating strategy and setting budgets, because they never developed skills in critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation.

Soon they’ll realize that this age-old structure isn’t sustainable, and instead they need to be able to analyze the shift in consumer behavior on a month-by-month basis and evolve accordingly. That is, if the brand doesn’t go out of business first.

Where do we want to be and how do we get there?

Before we begin reimagining our education system to inculcate the 4Cs, we should endeavor to understand where we stand and how we get to our ultimate goal. We need a uniform evaluation system that can properly assess students across the country on their 21st-century skills. 

To do this, the first steps would be to:

  • Define the 4Cs in the Indian context by considering the demographic reality of the Indian education system
  • Develop a national database of 21st-century skill levels in Indian students for benchmarking purposes
  • Develop a robust assessment methodology to measure these 4 skills in a standardized manner across India—regardless of the education board and language of learning

The data gathered from this assessment would be used as a focal point in the next phase. 

At a policy level, it would help in determining how to make 21st-century skills an integral part of academic success. It will identify how we can integrate practices that develop these skills in the curriculum across the country. 

This assessment will also help in developing teacher training and relevant teaching strategies. 

Finally, it will allow us to reimagine the learning experience in the 21st century.

The new world of work is promising for those who are prepared for it. Let’s tackle it together.


Saurav Ghosh Roy is a Dual Degree student the International MBA at IE Business School and the Master in Big Data & Business Analytics at IE School of Human Sciences & Technology. He has over 7 years of entrepreneurial experience in the EdTech sector and 2 years of hands-on teaching experience as a Teach for India fellow. He enjoys exploring new cultures and discovering the causes behind global trends.