On Tuesday, the Sevvapet police in Tiruvallur district were surprised to receive a complaint from a Class-XII graduate against her own father. Lasya*, who was applying to colleges after her board results, alleged that her father had confiscated her school certificates because she refused to join a course of his choosing for an undergraduate degree.
"Her father wants her to study BSc Physics or Chemistry and become a teacher. But, she wants to pursue Journalism or BA (Defence),” her mother Parvathi tells TNM. Her parents are separated and when the girl refused to oblige her father's wishes, he left the house with her Class 10 certificates. "He refused to give it to her despite asking for a month. He even went to her school and collected her transfer certificate," she adds.
While the police initially refused to take the complaint, they were forced to act on the case after Childline authorities intervened. On Wednesday evening, the father came to the police station and returned the certificates. Lasya is now gearing up to join a course of her choice and is collecting applications for the same.
"Her father was not giving her any option. But I support her decision to choose a course," her mother Parvathy says, "If she is not allowed to study what she wants, then she won't succeed in life."
But while Lasya's story had a happy ending, lakhs of students across the state, according to educationists, are being forced to enroll in graduate programmes that their parents have decided for them.
Is there really a choice?
According to educationist Prince Gajendra Babu, there are several factors that parents rely on while choosing a course for their ward. And it is not often that the student gets a say in it.
"In some cases, children are expected to carry the burden of their parent's unfulfilled aspirations. There is also influence from peer group and the need to get what is perceived as a respectable job in this conservative society. And the third is the market condition which affects the course you do based on your gender," says Gajendra Babu, "If it is a girl they want to ensure it is a job where she doesn't interact with too many people and doesn't have to leave the house often.”
Parvathy too explains that this is how her husband perceived the matter.
"My husband wanted Lasya to become a tuition teacher. He said she must study just enough to manage this," she tells TNM.
However, Nandhakumar, a member of the Parent-Teacher Association for Matriculation Schools in Chennai, disagrees with this claim.
"As far as Chennai is concerned at least, children are well exposed to the courses available to them and the path it will lead them through. Things have changed over the last decade," he says, "Parents are largely open to their children deciding which undergraduate degree they want to pursue. If parents disagree, it may be because of the family situation. But by and large, students have the freedom to choose."
Gajendra Babu however alleges that most students are only given the illusion of having a choice.
"Basically it is like a multiple choice paper, and while this may give you the notion of having options, at the end of the day it is still limited to what you see on that paper," he explains.
"Earlier, parents considered a teaching job to be a safe bet. Now medicine, para medical fields and engineering are the top picks because parents believe a job is immediately guaranteed. So when they say students have the freedom to choose, they mean there is choice within the options given to them," he adds.
Former diplomat TP Sreenivasan, who served as vice-chairman of Kerala Higher Education Council from 2011 to 2016, had also pointed out in a detailed interview that students are the last ones to be consulted when it comes to matters of education. "A holistic and more liberal approach must be adopted where students have the freedom to choose what they want to learn. One of the major issues here is that when it comes to matters of education and how an institution should be run, students are the last people consulted. That is wrong. The mentality that the grown-ups know better needs to go, especially when it comes to education," he told The Hindu. "That was something I tried to do during my time in Kerala Higher Education Council. Unfortunately, change is something very few are interested in," he added.
'Students not mature enough'
Jayaprakash Gandhi, an educationist who has been counselling students on career options for the last two decades however disagrees that children should be allowed to decide their course.
"A twelfth standard student doesn't know anything about a career. They just have fantasies created with the help of friends, relatives and social media," he explains. "And without knowing future economic policies and how technology will develop, these 12th standard students will decide on what they want to do. At the end of the day, people study to get jobs and for that you need to see what opportunities exist in the industry and what skill sets you require. Parents definitely need to play a major role in deciding for their children," he argues.
While agreeing with the counsellor's advice, Venkatnarayanan, a father who is looking to enroll his daughter into a journalism course in Chennai, says, "Parents must definitely be part of the decision making process. But the final call must be that of the student. What we can do, is help them eliminate options based on their strengths and explore courses that they are interested in. We may push them to do a particular course they don't have the inclination or aptitude for just to suit our needs, but they will not shine in it. Also, it will be a struggle to finish the course successfully."
'Risking mental health'
Nandhakumar of the PTA meanwhile explains that children doing courses that they are not inclined towards have a greater risk of mental health issues. A study conducted in Rizal Technology University pointed out that 'internal motivation' is one of the most important factors in a student’s success or failure in learning. It says, “Since children are forced to study a course they’re not interested in, they lack the motivation and will to learn about it. Thus, the student usually struggles in understanding and performing well in a subject. This results in low academic performance or even failing grades.”
In some cases, this leads to a change in courses and in others it brings about a risk of depression.
One study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that parents’ excessive involvement in their children’s lives yields unfavourable results. The lead author Holly Schiffrin argues, “Parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent.” This is in turn, could result in feelings of depression and dissatisfaction.
Gajendra Babu points out that schools have a large role to play in the matter. And that the problem has to be addressed at the root.
"It cannot be one size fits all as far as education is concerned," he explains, “If schools guide children and parents based on their interests, they will be able to reach a more informed decision."