Dev 360: Get education right, rest will follow

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India’s new HRD minister Prakash Javadekar has his work cut out. He has taken charge of a critical ministry at a critical time. As we all know, a nation’s human capital determines its progress and development. Education is not only critical for economic growth but also for social stability. If India is serious about becoming a global power, it has to get education right. In times of economic uncertainty, there is pressure on governments to reduce public investment in education. But this is short- termism as it can hamper long-term growth and development. For India, the key issues in education are quality and equity. As in healthcare, there is a virtual caste system in the country’s education sector. There are excellent, world-class institutions for those willing and able to pay a steep price; but the vast majority among the rest are condemned to shoddiness.
Such glaring disparities can be a significant drag on growth. Additionally, as scholars have noted, a disparity in education that synchronises with social, political, and economic fault lines can fuel resentments, leading to violence, conflict and instability. Mr Javadekar’s public persona is not bellicose — a huge positive at a time of campus turbulence. The minister, a former students’ union activist, has been saying the right things. Soon after taking over, he said India lacked in innovation in education as children are discouraged from asking questions in schools. “Innovation is a process of rebellion essentially. Unless you rebel, unless you challenge the status quo, how can you innovate anything?” It is good to know that the minister sees merit in rebellion.
Mr Javadekar has also invited public feedback on the draft new education policy that is now on his ministry’s website. One of his early moves was to attend a meeting on this draft with an RSS-affiliated think tank. But he managed to deflect criticism by saying that he wanted to listen to all points of view. However, the crux of the matter is not the talk, but walking the talk. Mr Javadekar’s affable nature is a strategic asset in negotiating difficult dialogues, but that alone will not be enough to usher in the radical changes that India needs. Here are some harsh facts about India’s education scenario.
Take primary education. Various government programmes have helped increase enrolment even in remote areas. However, numerous surveys have sledgehammered home the disturbing reality of poor learning outcomes. As a paper by Urvashi Sahni (Primary Education in India: Progress and Challenges, Brookings) points out, “India now has 1.4 million schools and 7.7 million teachers so that 98 per cent of habitations have a primary school (Class 1-5) within 1 km and 92 per cent have an upper primary school (Class 6-8) within a 3-km walking distance.” But, as Sahni goes on to observe, “dropout rates continue to be high”.
India continues to be among the top five nations for out-of-schoolchildren of primary school age, with 1.4 million 6 to 11-year-olds not attending school. Schools are simply not geared up to deal with the challenges they face — shortage of teachers, lack of functional girls’ toilets, access to drinking water, to name just a few.
It is no surprise to learn then that children are not achieving class-appropriate learning levels. The HRD ministry’s website tells you that the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014, brought out by the NGO Pratham, has expressed concern regarding learning levels of children in English reading and Mathematics at elementary level. India can’t leverage its demographic dividend with just a small slice of its youth accessing quality education as they are the only ones whose parents can pay for it. Mr Javadekar could start with addressing this basic problem. Government-run schools need proper infrastructure. But they equally need good teaching and teachers. Till teacher accountability becomes a political priority, little is likely to change on the ground.
Strengthening school education should be India’s top priority. But there is also much to do in higher education. India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education is 23.6 per cent, one of the lowest in the world. There is also a gender imbalance in higher education that needs to be rectified. There is a strong case for private investment in higher education. But education, like health, can’t be allowed to become a just-for-profit enterprise.
An Assocham study in April pointed out that barring the Indian Institutes of Management and a few others, most of the 5,500 business schools in the country are producing sub-par graduates who are largely unemployable, resulting in these pass-outs earning less than Rs 10,000 a month, if they find placements at all.
The State can’t abdicate its responsibility when it comes to laying down and enforcing basic guidelines on quality and standardisation of higher education.
If that happens, we will get more of the sub-par MBAs that the Assocham study spoke about. This doesn’t mean that the HRD ministry should take a stifling Big Brother attitude. Educational institutions need autonomy to design their own courses and recruit faculty. And students are key stakeholders in the debate around higher education in the country. Treating students, or for that matter anyone who has a different point of view, as an enemy is the easiest way to stifle the spirit of critical enquiry that Indian youth so desperately needs. So what lies ahead?
India should seek inspiration from itself and from across the world when it comes to education. One great example is Finland, an educational superpower. Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardised test given to 15-year-olds around the world. What did Finland do? It built its education system not just on the principles of efficiency but also equity. In the 1960s, Finland decided it would provide free quality education to all. Even university education is free of charge in that country. In contrast, India is moving towards the American model of students taking loans for higher education. In theory, a lot can be said both for and against this model, but in practice it is not easy to implement in a poor country. The complaint by many IIT entrants that banks are refusing interest-free loans points to a problem that the ministry needs to address urgently. The government does provide free education for schoolchildren but it has done little by way of ensuring the other crucial component — quality. Modern teacher training and far more careful teacher recruitments are really the need of the hour.

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