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Education-An Ambitious Aspiration


Education : An Ambitious Aspiration

Would it not be wiser to concentrate on school education and on raising the quality of higher education and gearing it more effectively to the country’s needs? Should we not use the excellent strategies in the plan presented by the Minister to gear education to facilitate the country’s advance in the global economy before we talk of making India the Education Super Power of the Future 

TTA conference on education entitled “Educationext-The Way Forward” held in Delhi earlier this year, the Minister for Human Resources Development Shri Kapil Sibal, in his inaugural address, launched the idea of India as "the Education Super Power of the Future". I could see that if used successfully these strategies could transform education in the country and make it the strong and powerful engine of advance that the country desperately needs in order to be able to forge ahead in today’s highly competitive global economy.

A four point program was outlined in the conference : (i) increasing enrolment in higher education from the existing 12.2 per cent of the population of the relevant age group to 30 per cent by 2025. (ii) the introduction of hundreds of new courses. (iii) the massive use of modern technologies for the delivery of education. And (iv) the inclusion of private players and the corporate sector as partners in the provision of education.

The principal strength of the plan is the idea of making an extensive use of technology. The five point program which runs as follows:

(1) Low cost devices such as tablets and mobile telephones
(2) The proliferation of cloud computing.
(3) Open education, provided through information technology highways.
(4) The provision of hundreds of courses with the idea of giving students extensive choice and the freedom to make combinations of their choice-for instance music and mathematics
(5) The creation of a communications structure designed to give students exposures such as hands on work experience, laboratory experimentation and research.
Finally to start with, 2.5 lakh villages will be connected with the use of fiber optics to create a powerful information highway.

The second major strength of the plan is the inclusive spirit in which private bodies and the corporate sector have been invited to partner the Government’s efforts - “….it is not the sole responsibility of the Government to offer quality education at all levels, private institutions and corporates should also pitch in, partner and share the mammoth task of providing quality education to all.” the minister says. The private sector has been a provider from the times the British Government started providing education in India. Its contribution has been taken for granted without ever being acknowledged in the manner deserved. On the contrary, the functioning of private institutions is encumbered by rigid, often anachronistic and poorly administered rules and requirements on the part of the Government. The corporate sector is a relative newcomer to education. It has a great deal to offer. As one sees in the case of some of the education ventures of the Tatas, such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay or the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, this sector has a capacity for fresh vision and initiatives and apart from, and in addition to funding, it can bring new management skills to the building and administration of educational institutions. Both the private sector and the corporate sector can do a great deal for education. But only if the Minister’s warm invitation to these sectors to share the task of providing education for the country is followed up by honest and careful efforts on the part of the Government to enable them to do this effectively.

It is evident that the plan is promising. But it is challenging and we need to be aware of the challenges involved. It is not possible to list them comprehensively within the space of this paper, but it should be possible to briefly identify those which come with each of the four points in the plan. In the paragraphs that follow I have attempted this.

First, about the target to increase enrolment from 12 percent to 30 per cent in higher education by 2025. The demand for higher education has been growing by leaps-latest official statistics reveal that within the last four years enrolment has increased from 12 percent to 20 percent-and therefore, the achievement of this target should not be difficult. The Minister mentioned that a total of 800 universities and 50,000 colleges will have to be added to the system to accommodate the growth. In addition, there will be open universities. This should not be difficult either. Over the course of the last decade the phenomenal growth in the demand for higher education has stimulated an equally phenomenal growth of private entrepreneurship in education and private bodies will happily set up the institutions needed. However, managing the growth will be a major challenge. Experience indicates that many private bodies establishing and running institutions for higher education in the country are merely gold diggers eager to reap profits from the demand for education without any commitment either to their students or to the country’s needs. The first challenge will be to keep such educators out. Another major challenge will be to find qualified faculty and administrators for the new institutions. Already, many positions at colleges and university departments lie vacant for want of suitable personnel.

However, by far the bigger and more difficult challenge will be to gear education to market needs and to improve quality.

 At present 70 percent of the graduates from the technical stream and 85 percent from the general stream are either unemployed or under employed. At the same time scores of positions in industry, in government and other sectors of employment lie vacant for want of suitably qualified personnel. The simple explanation for this sad and ironical situation is that there is a serious mismatch between what educational institutions produce and what the market needs.

When facilities for higher education in the country are expanded this problem will have to be carefully addressed.

As one can imagine this challenge is extremely complex to deal with. Changes in market needs follow changes in the economy and these are difficult to anticipate and to track. Moreover, rapid developments in knowledge in the developed world lead to rapid flows of new technologies in the market - as is easily visible in fields such as information technology, communications, medicine or engineering. Because of globalization these technologies flood our markets in rapid flows. So far educators in the country are unable to develop courses at the pace required to keep in step with the rapidity with which new technologies keep coming. The challenge is to overcome this inadequacy.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the mismatch between the qualifications of graduates and market needs is not the only explanation for their unemployment and under employment. Graduates are often rejected for the simple reason that the quality of their education is not on par with market needs. It is common knowledge that with the mushrooming of institutions of higher education in the country the overall quality of higher education has dropped, often miserably. Cognitive skills and the ability to think independently and creatively is not adequately developed. Nor is the ability to respond to or critique ideas. As a consequence degrees and diplomas are often certificates without substance. Thus, while our standards ought to be internationally comparable, as we compete in a global society even the best of our institutions such as the IITs. and IIMs are not world class, as one gathers from the concern voiced by the President of India, when, at a convocation address that he delivered in July this year, he expressed concern that not a single Indian university had made it to the list of the top 200 universities across the globe in the QS World University Rankings report recently released. The challenge is to understand why overall standards have been declining so severely, find out how they can be lifted and lift them. Unless this is done, growth in terms of an increase in enrolment and the addition of institutions will be empty.

This brings me to the second point made by the Minister. He has spoken of “hundreds of new courses”. The challenge is evident from what has been stated above-which is to ensure that these courses are geared to market needs and that they are sound in quality. To ensure that education is geared to market needs it will be necessary to devise mechanisms that keep educational institutions informed about these needs. Because students should be in a position to make informed choices while planning their careers it is important to keep them informed about market needs and to counsel them on how these needs translate into opportunities for employment including self employment. Since educational institutions are demand driven, informing students about market needs will also indirectly guide institutional growth in the right direction. Improving standards is likely to be more difficult. Strategies will have to be carefully worked out.

Finally, gearing higher education to the needs of the market and improving quality are only part of the challenge. Institutions for higher education, particularly Universities are expected to function as vehicles of discovery, as centers for the interaction and generation of ideas, for the growth of new knowledge and for the development of new skills and technologies. Our institutions for higher education do not measure up to this expectation. Lifting them firmly up to a level that they meet this expectation must be part of the agenda for “hundreds of new courses”

The Minister’s third point is the planned use of sophisticated technologies to deliver education. The technologies are available and we have the competence to use them. However, building the infrastructure for the employment of the strategies on the scale proposed, maintaining it and operationalising the programs proposed will be a big challenge. Further, we are told that the budget for higher education in the Twelfth Plan will be five times what it was in the Eleventh. But is that enough given the ambitious plans for the use of technology ?.

The fourth point is the Minister’s call to the private and the corporate sectors to be partners of the Government. Such a partnership is the best thing that can happen to higher education in the country as I have already commented on and explained. But the Government will have to make a concerted effort to make this happen. I have had the opportunity to observe privately run colleges and I know how harassed they feel with Government or even UGC requirements which are often mechanical and rigid and which curb initiatives. I have also seen how difficult it is for those who have no political or other influential connections to start an institution. Moreover, it is almost impossible to do so without having to make several visits to the Government offices for the same job, suffering long delays and greasing palms in these offices at different points all the way.

I have identified only some of the challenges. There are many others. But the country desperately needs the plan to work and the Government must move on with the plan. Meanwhile, there is a more basic question to consider viz the poor state of school education in the country and where this problem figures in the Minister’s plan. The poor level of education in our workforce as compared to China’s provides a valuable clue to the state of school education in the country. The statistics are as given in the table.

Level of Education in The Work Force Compared To China

Above Secondary
47 Percent
32 Percent
16 Percent
5.5 Percent
18 Percent
34 Percent
45 Percent
3 Percent

Modern and modernizing economies require a work force that is minimally primary school and preferably secondary school educated. Going by the figures stated in the table, we are in extremely poor shape on that count. As much as 79 percent of the Chinese workforce belongs to that category as compared to 48 percent of the Indian. A shocking 47 percent of our work force is illiterate as compared to 18 percent of China’s. We urgently need to improve schooling in the country.  

Since the Minister talked about linking 2.5 lakh villages to create a communication highway for education, improving school education is obviously on his agenda. However, because school education has not been mentioned specifically in the plan one fears that it will be left behind while higher education is given priority. The point is that, need to improve school education is vital, first because the need to have a properly school educated workforce is urgent and second because school education is the base for higher education and must be put into proper shape before we go about increasing enrolment in higher education. To give as much importance as the Minister’s plan does to increasing enrolment in higher education when school education is as poor as it is, is akin to building the apex of a pyramid while its base is unfinished and weak.

Perhaps it is advisable to reconsider the plan proposed by the Minister in a way that shifts its focus from increasing enrolment in higher education to building school education and to improving the quality of higher education and of making it sharply relevant to market needs. Enrolment in higher education is poised to increase anyway. And there is an ample growth of colleges through private enterprise. There is no need for the Government to invest in these activities. It needs only to invest in the management of the growth and in ensuring that the administration of higher education is free of corruption and of the many other malpractices that exist. Also, that Government offices give the private sector and the corporate sector all the help they need to function as good partners. Towards advocating the suggested revision of the plan presented by the Minister particularly in terms of bringing school education into it, have presented some basic facts about school education in the country.

Article 45 of the Constitution of India, established in 1951, promises “the State shall endeavor within ten years from the commencement of this Constitution free and compulsory education to all children until the age of fourteen”. Despite renewed efforts, promises and legal interventions from one decade to the next, this promise could not be realized even by the end of the century. Consequently, the Right to Education Act, making education free and compulsory up to the age of 14 a legal right, was passed in 2009. Despite this, only 95 percent of the population in this age group is in school today. And although 95 percent enter school barely 73 percent attend school. Only 40 percent make it to middle school and less than 20 per cent make it to secondary school.

Following the Constitutional commitment to education, the Government aids schools financially. Only 80 percent of the schools in the country take this aid. By their own choice the remaining 20 percent remain unaided Government aided schools, serving the low and middle income population. They account for 73 percent of the children in school and constitute the back bone of school education in the country. Some unaided schools are passable, even good, but most of them, particularly those serving the rural population and the urban poor are riddled with inadequacies. These were first reported in the Probe Report in 1999. The report talks about schools without maps, blackboards, toilets, playgrounds, drinking water... the list goes on. Only 53 percent of the teachers were teaching in the schools visited. Many were outside their classrooms chatting with each other, just standing outside their classes or engaged in some other activity not related to their classrooms.
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Nationally, there is a decline in the ability to do maths-across all classes. Standards are poor in every other way. For instance children in Class V cannot read texts meant for Class II. Not even one in five children can recognize numbers 11 to 99. Overall, after five years of schooling, 50 percent of the children are barely at Class II level. In the latest data on PISA tests administered to assess the performance of secondary school students, India ranked 71st among the 73 countries in which the tests were administered. Can the country then afford to invest in increasing enrolment in higher education before the school system that is the backbone of education in the country is put into proper shape? Would it not be wiser to concentrate on school education and on raising the quality of higher education and gearing it more effectively to the country’s needs? Should we not use the excellent strategies in the plan presented by the Minister to gear education to facilitate the country’s advance in the global economy before we talk of making India the Education Super Power of the Future?  

Suma Chitnis;  The author was Vice Chancellor of S.N.D.T Women's university between 1900 and 1996. Prior to that she was Professor and Head of the Unit for Research in the Sociology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. she has also served as Director of the J.N.Tata Endowment for the Higher Education of Indians.


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