Eleven things that can transform education in India

I have often said that the future of India depends largely upon the future of education in our country. The demographic dividend that so many of us so proudly talk about, will actually be a mirage and also be counterproductive, if we continue with the kind of education system that we currently have in India. Along with eradication of needless delays in the judicial system and a the required massive investment in health, I would rate reforms in education as the most important vision that we need to implement in order to reap dividends out of this young demographic. And we really don’t have much time left.

After six long decades, India finally realised the importance of declaring education as our fundamental right, which was waiting its materialisation since Independence. This, I believe is not only very critical in revamping the entire education system of the nation, but also acts as the stepping stone towards education reforms. Starting with the Sarva Skhisha Abhiyaan program launched in 2001, this process has culminated in a policy that mandates free and compulsory education for all Indian children under the age of 14.

Fundamental right to education also ensures that all schools (be it private or public) have some seats reserved for the underprivileged class of society. This will ensure that all children born in India are more or less assured of at least basic education. However, we need to make sure that school under SSA should have basic infrastructure along with dedicated service providers (read: teachers). Even today there is a shortage of around 3 lakh classrooms at elementary level and 1.70 lakh classroom at secondary school level with more than half of all schools lacking basic sanitary and water facilities.

However, the above steps would reap partial results and would only benefit a single class of society if we fail to bridge gender discrimination in education. Thus, the second critical step that we need to consciously take is to invest massively in education of girls and women. Worldwide, study after study has proven that when the women are educated, the social and economic benefits that accrue to a country are enormous-including the minimization of social evils. One of the key reasons behind the state of Kerala having such envious indicators of Human Development is the high literacy rates for females.

Many state governments have already taken huge steps to encourage the education of girls, the efforts just need to be intensified.

Shortage of teachers is something that ails the entire system. Not only technical colleges like engineering and medical but even secondary education system is facing a dearth of academic staff. The third major reform step that we need to take is to educate or create educators. It has been proven time and again that the quality of pedagogy and teaching in India is abysmally poor. That is because of the ivory tower approach we have taken towards education. Teachers in our system are expected merely to mouth whatever has been prescribed in the syllabus - which itself is often completely obsolete and outdated. It is important for teachers, particularly in colleges, to keep abreast of the latest developments and trends and include them in their teaching modules. That is the only way we will produce graduates who are employable.

The fourth step is that the government needs to implement a more transparent and fair system to evaluate the performance of teachers and educators. Currently, even the worst and laziest of teachers know that they have a lifetime job guarantee with annual increments and much more. A professor at a university in India knows that he will never lose his job. This perverse system actually makes victims out of genuine hardworking teachers who suffer at the hands of absentee teachers who waste time keeping education administrators happy.

Going by official estimates, there is a shortage of 6.89 lakhs teachers for SSA programme and 6000 for Kendriya Vidhyalayas and more than 3,000 teachers for IITs and NITs. Why not have a system where students and parents rank the performance of a teacher? Next in line is a step that I would recommend as a noble one, and it is the fifth in line. We already spend tens of thousands of crores every year on schemes like the MNREGA. I would be really happy if the funds allocated for such schemes actually go towards the construction of durable school and college buildings in rural areas and small towns. Currently the work done under these schemes provide no long-term social infrastructure. The people working for schemes like the MRNEGA would have an incentive when they realise that it is their children who will eventually study in these schools and colleges.

However, the next step after executing this reform is something that is equally gigantic. Once a child crosses the primary education level, he reaches a stage where he is prepared to eventually gain the basic knowledge to attain college education and that’s the sixth step. Needless to state, reforms in the primary and secondary school education is as imperative as in higher eduction. Firstly, for the last several years, there has been a growing number of cases in our cities and towns of young students (in the age group of 14-18) taking their own lives and in an overwhelming majority of these cases, the cause of suicides has been attributed to examination or study stress. We have already started the process of ending this tragedy thanks to the plans to abolish the marks and percentage system that so bedevils our children. Recently, marks have been replaced with grades in secondary level thus reducing unnecessary pressure and inhuman competition – at a tender age. This step will further ensure that young children realise their potential in a more effective manner. However, with increasing demand for intellectual capital and specialised workforce, the reforms in higher education is extra important. Today, education is deemed incomplete without a graduation or a post-graduation degree. Thus, the next step towards attainment of our goal would be massive reforms in the higher educational set up.

Soon after independence, India was successful in setting up many high quality institutions like the IITs and IIMs. But in the current scenario, they serve a tiny percentage of the population. We need a massive increase in the number of quality institutions imparting higher education. As per National Knowledge Commission, we are short by 1,000 universities at the pan-Indian level. We have merely 500 universities for a country with more than a billion populations. The story gets grimmer for central universities like Delhi University.

The next step that needs to follow all the previous steps in order to increase the overall ambit of reform in education and above all standardized the quality of education, is to allow private sector to come into the scene. I would recommend an increase in a meaningful and nation building role by the private sector. Thanks to the peculiar regulatory system that has flourished as a relic of the license permit raj, our education system actually encourages fly by night operators rather than people committed to quality education. This eighth step has to encourage Indian entrepreneurs to invest in higher education in a big way.

The ninth step would be what many committees appointed by the government have been recommending. And that is to abolish obsolete and outdated institutions like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and replace them with bodies that reflect and respect contemporary requirements. Bodies like the AICTE have become hotbeds of corruption because of the discretionary powers they enjoy. Take away the arbitrary discretionary powers and make rules totally transparent. That one step would benefit tens of millions of young students in India who go to the private sector for education either because of choice or compulsion. Thankfully, the current government has already taken steps to address this crucial issue.

The tenth major step I would recommend, is to target education subsidies more effectively. There are millions of talented and deserving students from poor backgrounds who are forced to opt out of professional courses because they cannot afford the cost or avail bank loans despite the best intentions of the government. It is time for the government to set up a massive corpus that would provide scholarships for such deserving candidates from poor backgrounds. I would extend this facility to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs - all Indians irrespective of ethnicity or caste. This will actually enable poor students (irrespective of their caste and religion) to actually benefit from the various reservation policies that we currently have – which is quite inclined towards a special category of students.

The eleventh and most significant step that I would insist upon is - though it may sound strange - a greater role for the government. From just about 1.5% of GDP, the government needs to raise investments in education to at least 5% of GDP. Primary education is one key area where the state must play a bigger role; don’t expect the private sector to rescue the state in areas like primary education and primary health.

I am confident these 11 steps will do a lot to transform the education system in India. But I also know one more thing: in a dynamic world where things are changing ever so fast, it is crucial to keep an open mind. More important than the 11 steps is the one I would request all stakeholders in this challenge to adopt. And that is to keep an open mind!

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