Monday, December 5, 2011

India’s education blues!

While searching for some old files on my computer, I stumbled upon this letter that I had written to the then Indian President, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in the year 2007. I had written about three areas that the Government must focus on for India to become a developed nation by 2020 – Education, Health & Oil! Today, I tried re-visiting my suggestions, particularly related to education, and decided to evaluate where the country stands on these parameters.

My latest comments are added in blue.

Dear Dr. Kalam,

As the time of completion of your Presidential term draws closer, I would like to bring to your notice, some of the pressing issues that need your immediate attention.  Your vision of transforming India into a developed nation by 2020 holds immense value to me. I think there are certain key areas that require immediate focus in the process of achieving the goals set as part of Vision 2020. I wish to highlight the importance and potential of these areas to aid in the nation’s development. 

Uncle.. Do I have a right to education?
You will agree that lack of education is the biggest hindrance to the development of the country. There is a huge imbalance in the Indian education system since it does very little to improve primary education situation in the country. I would like to bring to your notice a few statistics on the status of government schools in the country. The primary education system in India is still strongly dominated by government schools with nearly 85% of the total enrolments happening in government primary schools. While this fact needs to be appreciated, it also makes immense sense to understand the status of these primary schools and the quality of teaching in these schools. The following data pertains to the year 2005 and is picked up from the report published by the Department of Education. 

  • Nearly 18% of the primary schools in the country are single teacher schools which cater to approximately 12.5% of the total primary school 
  • Only 40% of the teachers of primary schools are graduates or more. The rest of the teachers have not even completed their graduation. The statistics goes to about 50% when we include all the government and private schools in the country.
  • About 4% of the primary schools do not have a building and these schools cater to nearly 2.7% of the total primary school enrolments.
  • Nearly 20% of the primary schools do not have drinking water facility in the school.
  • Of the primary schools that have drinking water facility, more than 50% of the primary schools have only a hand pump to provide water.
  • Only 17% of the primary schools have electricity connection in the school. 
  • Nearly 7% of the primary schools do not have a blackboard and these schools cater to nearly 5.28% of total primary school enrolments.

The first two points clearly showcase the paucity of quality teachers in the schools. Having done my entire schooling in private schools, I can appreciate the need for the basic necessities in a school. If minimum necessities of the students are not met it would be very difficult for a student to concentrate on his studies. Eventually, poor teaching and insufficient facilities result in higher dropout rates ranging from 30% during primary schooling to 62% during higher secondary schooling (data pertains to 2003-2004).

The government spends nearly 50% of the total education expenditure (nearly 1.8% of India’s GDP) on primary education. However, this is not sufficient to bridge the gaps in the system. The education cess levied by the government adds a little more fund to be spent on education. However, at a larger context, a series of drastic policy changes need to be done to address some part of the issue.  The Right to Education Act will do a lot of good to the infrastructure woes mentioned above.
The Right to Education Act can make a positive difference
to the infrastructure of such schools.
Photograph taken at
Patan, Jabalpur Dist., Madhya Pradesh on 24th June 2009.

[The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) that came into effect in 2010 is a laudable effort. However, this Act stresses much more on the infrastructure requirements for a school than on the learning itself. I firmly believe that for learning to be effective, attention has to be given to three aspects: content, pedagogy and infrastructure. Content refers to the syllabus, text books and other learning resources that are fundamental requirements of the learning process. Pedagogy includes the teaching methodology, quality of teachers, teaching and learning aids etc. These two components are the true learning enablers for every student. If adequate attention is not given to these two factors, nothing much can be done to improve the student’s learning.

More than just being an eye-wash to set minimum standards, the RTE must aim to boldly tackle the issues of learning and retention. Strict performance measures must be implemented to ensure that teachers focus on learning. Better pedagogical methods must be implemented; teachers must be trained to use such methods thereby enabling them to consciously move away from advocating the rote learning methodology. Such a stronger learning-focused system can ensure that the products of this educational system are better prepared to meet the challenges of the nation and the world.]

First and foremost, the government has to address the need for quality teachers across the schooling system in the country. While we have some of the best institutions in the country for technology, management and science, it is unfortunate that we do not have a similar institution for teaching and education. The conventional Bachelor of Education programme offered by Universities has its own limitations in terms of content and pedagogy.

[Unfortunately, in states like MP & UP, admission to B.Ed is a huge money making racket in itself. Students who have the least interest and capability to become good teachers get into B.Ed. since it offers an assured employment in a government school. Hefty bribes are paid to the selection committee members and school principals to ensure a confirmed admission. With the sixth pay commission revising the pay grades, there is an even larger group of people wanting to become teachers since it assures them of a permanent job with good salary. Ultimately, teaching takes a back seat, resulting in disappointing standards of education. The Pratham ASER (Annual Status of Education Report published by a leading NGO, Pratham) 2010 report states that less than 30% of Standard III students in Tamil Nadu and less than 40% of Standard III students in UP, Rajasthan and Bihar can read a Standard I text. ( Not a very rosy situation, to say the least!]

The government must start an Indian Institute of Education to train students who wish to make a career in teaching. There is a pressing need to revamp the B. Ed syllabus and methodology. It is necessary to incorporate hands-on training in the area of teaching and training. The programme must admit students who have a passion for teaching and not students who take up teaching out of compulsion. As part of the programme, students will be required to teach at various schooling levels to ensure that they gain complete exposure to teaching at various levels. On completion of the programme, they can be placed at various government or private schools across the country, thus providing a guaranteed employment. Some of the students can be persuaded to start their own schools to address the educational needs of needy areas.

The government must also explore possibilities of public private partnerships to enhance the primary education levels in the country. The government can look at creating special education zones where private sector can set up educational institutions. However, the education departments must start quicker processing of private sector requests for clearances to start educational institutions. 

The government’s decision to permit foreign universities and institutions to start their campus in India is a laudable one. This will ensure that some more needy students get admissions to the top Indian institutions.

[The foreign universities bill was approved by the Union Cabinet in March 2010. However, the bill has still not been brought into force. Once done, it can have the same impact that economic liberalisation had on the Indian industry in the 90s. However, the efficacy of such a bill entirely rests on the Indian bureaucracy’s willingness and ability to implement it.]

Another aspect of educational reforms revolves around the faculty.  Despite increasing demand for quality teachers, the salaries tend to remain much lower compared to what other professions pay. This is ironical since the students whom these teachers prepare get paid much more than what these teachers earn. Invariably, many of the good teachers quit teaching to pursue other professions. Since many of the teacher’s salaries are dictated by the government bodies, I would urge you to re-look at the same. This will ensure that we have some more talented people taking up a career in teaching.

The sixth pay commission has brought a sigh of relief to many central government staff including the teachers. Compensation levels have doubled and are a cause of jubilation among the staff. This has also increased the number of people applying for a teacher’s position thus increasing the choice of candidates available for selection. This can only be effective if proper selection methodologies, purely based on merit and capability, are employed by the selection committee.

One of the other areas that the government must focus on is the use of technology for taking education to the remotest parts of the country. India is the only country in the world that has a dedicated satellite for education. The Edusat was launched in September 2004 and has a life span on 7 years which has already ended in September 2011. Unfortunately, what could have potentially changed the face of the technology enabled education system in India has lived an under-utilised life thanks to the lack of clear vision and cumbersome bureaucracy. While majority of the access was provided by ISRO to government bodies and agencies, the private players were kept away from utilizing the services of Edusat. On hindsight, opening up Edusat to private players would have helped the government recover some cost while also ensuring that the satellite is used to its full capacity.

With internet and mobile penetration moving up drastically in India, the country must now plan to utilise these media to enhance the reach of education. A clear plan of action in this direction is the need of the hour. No longer can universities depend only on correspondence programmes. They must find ways to use technology to enhance the learning in these programmes. No longer can universities continue the archaic paper based examination formats. They must evolve to incorporate online and mobile testing methodologies in their curriculum. Technology is here to stay and it is upto the educational institutions and government to figure out how best they can utilise it for the benefit of the population.

Note: I do not claim to have influenced the government's decisions or to have played any role in the government’s implementation of new schemes. The letter drafted to be sent to Dr. Kalam was NEVER sent! 


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