Dreams Die In India

Education System : Nothing to Cheer About

Manas Joardar

November 2014, HRD minIster Ms Smriti Irani pronounced during question-answer session of Rajyasava, that in 2013-14 out of around 20.78 crore children in the 6-13 age group, an estimated 19.89 crore children were enrolled in 14.49 lakh elementary schools, including 13.79 lakh government and government aided schools providing free education to 95% of them. But Mr Madhav Chavan, CEO of Pratham, the noted NGO, clarified subsequently, quoting data provided by District Information System for Education (DISE) published by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, an organisation under the Ministry of Human Resources, that the number of children receiving free elementary education was 13.2 crore (66%). Remaining 34% had to pay for their education.

The same survey further reveals that there has been improvement in facilities like class rooms, drinking water and students' library. Pupil-teacher ratio has also dropped to many schools. But students' enrolment is almost stagnant. And attendance in both primary and upper primary schools is having a steady decline. Because of shortage of requisite number of classrooms, students of different standards are often to sit together.

After promulgation of the Right To Education (RTE) Act 2009, infrastruc-tural facilities marginally improved though, many of the essential directives still hang fire. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared constructing toilets urgently in every school. According to Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2014, prepared by Pratham, 6% of government schools do not have toilets but out of those where they exist, 28.5% are not usable. 18.8% Schools do not have girls' toilets and 26% have girls' toilets either locked or not usable. Meeting this target could have been relatively simple, should the PMO's national level high profile did so desire. But if earlier experience is anything to go by, substantial success of PM's assurance may not hold much water.

Having come to power, the MHRD stressed on a number of academic projects with specific objectives in view which include—

Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat : To create interest among children in reading, writing and mathematics,

Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya National Mission for Teachers' Training : To set up 100 centres for providing better teachers' training;

Kaushal Kendras : To set up 100 Deen Dayal Upadhyay Centres for 'Knowledge Acquisition and Upgradation of Skilled Human Abilities and Livelihood' (KAUSHAL) through collaboration of higher education system and industry;

SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds): Initiative for a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on a national platform with a comprehensive academic structure;

GIAN (Global Initiative for Academic Network) : To promote scientific and technological potential of India in collaboration with other countries.

Besides, quite a few new higher educational centres of excellence like IITs, IIMs, central universities, NITs, IISERs etc would be constructed. UGC and AICTE would be restructured and reorganised. Laws for governance of IITs, IIMs and Central universities would be amended and drafts there for have been in circulation. Proposals during the UPA-II government for more universities remain unaltered. All central universities—about 46 in number—will be made similar in form and activities through an Act of parliament.

For a huge country like India with so much of social and cultural differences, a proposition for strict uniformity is not quite wise. All India Federation of College and University Teachers' Organisations, Federation of Central University Teachers' Association and others have been protesting against Academic Performance Indicator (API), Choice Based Credit System(CBCS) and other centralisation of higher education related issues.

While addressing the first joint sitting of Parliament after the last Lok Sabha polls, President Pranab Mukherjee in June, 2014 said—the new government would formulate a National Education Policy and set up IITs and IIMs in every state. The state of affairs however, is so dismal that the eight IITs announced by the UPA government during 2008-12 were being operated from out of temporary campuses. Even in old IITs a good number of faculty positions remain vacant. Increase in the number of State-funded colleges and universities was handicapped by fund crunch and other entanglements all over the country. Facilities in the existing ones are also sub-standard.

Only a few private higher educational institutes were in operation in India during first few decades after independence. With government encouragement, privatisation of education—specially for professional subjects having a good market demand—expanded thereafter interminably with all associated vices. Furthermore, Government endeavoured to expand education through Public Private Partnership (PPP) programmes—another surreptitious way of siphoning public asset to private entities and their mentors.

The Modi-government document ‘Themes and questions for Policy Consultation on Higher Education', left to circulation for public opinion explicitly declares—‘our policy and regulatory framework should provide for necessary enabling framework to attract private investment and Public Private Partnership (PPP) in higher and technical education sector.'

Total fund allotted to school education and higher education sectors for 2015-16 is Rs 69,074.76 crore (Table-1). In the revised estimate for 2014-15, it was Rs 70,505.00 crore. The education sector under the new Union Budget therefore faces an overall 2% cut in the outlay. The cut is, however, about 16.54% if compared with the actual outlay for the previous financial year. Interestingly, school education sector has been picked up as the victim of this cut.

Quality of primary education needs improvement in a systematic manner. This applies as much to curriculum as it does to facilities. It requires a huge financial provision which unfortunately, is lacking in the education budget for the financial year 2015-16.

Quality of Education
For a developed India, its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a high vision for technical education and that resulted in the formation of institutes of excellence like the IITs and others.

Earlier, Dr Manmohan Singh tried hard to uplift quality of education—higher education in particular—and established a number of centres of excellence. He liked to call the 11th five-year plan as the Education Plan. Private initiative was also accorded a hearty welcome. But quality of education could hardly be maintained, even in the so-called world class centres of excellence—IITs, IIMs etc, let alone the ordinary State-aided higher educational institutes. Inadequate number of teachers, among others, has been posing a big problem even in the IITs.

Elementary education, right from the beginning, suffered utter neglect. Prof Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their book (2013) "An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions", commented that it is for the perennial neglect in duty of the responsible sectors that a "quarter of the Indians remain effectively illiterate."

At the elementary level, shortage of proper infrastructure and of qualified teachers, lack of proper monitoring of teaching-learning process, increasing social gap between teachers and students, attraction of English as a medium of instruction, desire to climb up higher in social status through type of school wards get admitted etc have caused exodus of students to the high fee-charging private schools.

Popularity of private schools, as per ASER, has been increasing everywhere. In rural India, enrolment of all 6-14 old children to private schools increased from 18.7% in 2006, to 24.3% in 2010, to about 29% in 2013 and to 30.8% in 2014. In Manipur (73.3%), Kerala (62.2%), Haryana (54.2%), UP (51.79%) and Meghalaya (51.7%) primary enrolment to private schools exceeded 50% during 2014.

Quality of education imparted in the schools, especially in government-run ones, is much below standard. The ASER reports that in 2014, only 48% of all rural students reading in standard V could read a standard II text-book and 26% only could successfully divide a 3-digit number by a single digit one.

The private sector is quite an indomitable group of education providers now, constituting about 43 percent of all schools up to the higher secondary level. "If you add to this number, government school children who go to private tutors, especially in the eastern states of India, the proportion of children accessing private schooling or tutoring inputs will rise to just under 50%"—writes Mr Chavan. Not too many of them maintain a good academic standard. A huge bulk of teachers are ill-paid.

Government-run higher educational centres have a score of allegations in relation to deteriorating quality of education there. In most of the private higher educational institutes too, conducting professional subjects in the main, profiteering predominates over quality.

At the international level, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been measuring the performance of 15 year olds in reading, math and science under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The programme—an academic Olympics of sorts—arranged once in three years since 2009, is a global evaluation process. Indian students, with a poor presence from two states only, stood second last in 2009 among 73 countries, only beating Kyrgyzstan. India had, after the embarrassing show in 2009, stayed away from the assessment process in 2012. This year too India shied away from the evaluation round as government officials felt—say sources—Indian children were not prepared for such a test!

It is however, amazing to note that all the five top positions were occupied by Asian countries—Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The UK is in 2Oth place, and the US in 28.

‘Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat' and many other catchy slogans are nothing new here. But, initiative in achieving them has still been moving at the same old pace of business as usual.

India, a much publicised growing economy, is also a giant member of the BRICS community. But in consideration of the parameters (2013) such as Life Expectancy at Birth (LEB), Mean Years of Schooling, per capita Gross National Income (GNI), which help construct Human Development Index (HDI) of a country, India performs abysmally not only among BRICS group and Sri Lanka, but in comparison to known laggard countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan too. (Table 2). India lagging behind both of them in two out of three indicators. Then Mean Years of Schooling is disgracefully low. What a pitiful fate of so many ambitious and well articulated projects having been run through so many years!

Data provided by 'Child Rights and You' (CRY) indicate that, in India, there are around 10 million child labourers—a majority being school drop-outs. India's Child Labour Amendment Bill was cleared by the cabinet in 2015. Out of 18, only four industries will now be considered hazardous for employing children below 14 and in some cases below 18. Indubitably, the law is going to boost the child-labour market.

State Control
State control—Central or Provincial—appears to be an inseparable part of India's higher education system.

During the present NDA regime, newly elected though, quite a few unwarranted cases of State intervention irritated the public mind. A few examples:

In July, 2012 Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen was appointed the first Chancellor of the Nalanda International University for three years . Much progress could be made during his tenure. But Prof Sen submitted his letter of resignation in February, 2015, a few months before expiry of his tenure. He was given to understand that the Board of Governors' unanimous opinion taken in a meeting held in January, 2015, to offer him a second term, was not liked by the new power-centre.

In the letter he expressed—"I am also sad, at a more general level, that academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling Government, when it chooses to make political use of the special provisions. Even though the Nalanda University Act passed by the Parliament did not, I believe, envisage political interference in academic matters, it is formally the case—given the legal provisions (some of them surviving from colonial days)—that the Government can turn an academic issue into a matter of political dispensation, if it feels unrestrained about interfering.... .

Ms Irani's scant respect for intellectual excellence could be observed in many other key appointments she made. Early in her term, she appointed Y S Rao as the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research(ICHR). Prof Ramchandra Guha, the noted historian, was highly disappointed with the appointment. In an article he commented—"Rao's name was unknown to the community of professional historians; not surprising, since he has not published one peer-reviewed paper in his life. While his scholarly pedigree is obscure, Rao has been a longstanding fellow-traveller of the RSS. Since taking office, he has assured world that the Vedas are "the best evidence" for reconstructing the past, and that the Mahabharata is the anchor for the history of Bharat".

In April, 2015 the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student outfit comprising a large number of dalit members of the IIT-Madras was established to promote the thoughts of Ambedkar and Periyar.

They were critical over some of the action programmes undertaken by the Narendra Modi government. The IIT-M authorities felt uncomfortable. The APSC was derecognised immediately. It was a show of utter impatience and great blow on constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. On the face of students' agitation and severe criticism from various quarters, ban on APSC was lifted on June 7. IIT-M authorities had to back out.

Students of the Film and Television Institute of India have long been agitating against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, allegedly a BJP man, as the chairman. There could have been dozens of more competent persons to choose from.

Nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar resigned as the chairman of the board of governors of IIT-Bombay. He refused to be a party of the too casual an approach Smriti Irani-led HRO Ministry adopted during selection of some IIT directors.

During selection in key academic positions, Ms Irani's preference for "our-man-formula", leaving aside the question of intellectual excellence, may appear too rampant, but nothing new and has been happening all over the country since long. People of West Bengal have been used to seeing it extensively during last few decades. All-powerful party-political considerations make 'autonomy' a ludicrous concept.

The rulers try to establish propriety of their action through public utterances borrowed from the adage—'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. One may humbly ask—'whose fund are you paying from, honourable minister'? Would they also kindly remember what Radhakrishnan Commission advised: '...State aid is not to be confused with State control over academic policies and practices'?

"India does have many achievements in the success of a relatively small group of privileged people well trained in higher education and specialised expertise. Yet our educational system remains deeply unjust. Among other bad consequences, the low coverage and low quality of school education in India extracts a heavy price in the pattern of our economic development," said Amartya Sen in 2011. This neglect resulted in a far less educated general labour force than countries like China—he also commented. Many other shortcomings need be addressed in right earnest.

The Indian Parliament expressed its commitment to the Common School System(CSS) where all students get access to education of a comparable quality irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex. The system has been very much in use, in some form or other, in the USA, France, Canada, Japan, UK, the Scandinavian countries etc.

Introduction of the CSS was suggested in the country as a matter of policy a number of times—first in the 1968 Education Policy, thereafter in 1986 and 1992. But determination for implementation was rather weak. With time it further weakened. Political will to improve government education system went on declining, perhaps because there was a lack of interest among the political leadership, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia to whom sending their own children to the private schools appeared all-satisfying.

Legitimisation of privatisation and commercialisation granted to education at all levels resulted separatism and disempowerment of the vast majority of Indian people.

Education in India is rapidly going beyond the reach of the underprivileged community. Secondary and tertiary education can flourish only on a sound base of elementary education. Well formulated academic policy backed by supply of fund can make education available to all.

For all practical purposes including economic development, a strong political will for a serious revision of the present educational system is urgent. Government or party-political control or, for that matter, "our-man-formula", that seems to have acquired a new dimension in the NDA regime, must stay away from academic arena.

It is imperative for the government to ensure a public education system that promotes democracy, secularism, egalitarianism and social justice. Not that political guardians in India unaware of all this. It is also pretty well known to all what Prof Romila Thapar observes in the article "From universities to coaching shops" (The Hindu, May 29, 2015) in context of too many obscurantist activities during recent times in the academic field—"Development needs well-educated people or else it goes nowhere. Do politicians fear an educated citizenry?"

Table–1: Education Budget (Rs in crore)

School Edn
Higher Edn

Source : India Budget 2015

Table 2: HDI Data

Mean yrs of schooling
GNI per capita
HDI Value in
HDI Value in
Russian Fed.
Sri Lanka
South Africa

Source : NDP Human Development Report, 2014.
Note : GNI (Gross National Income) is based on 2011 dollar purchasing power parity

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015