Over the last 20 years India has made tremendous progress in educating her young people. Nearly 200 million children are in school, children out of school are less than one per cent, while nearly all those in school get a hot midday meal. But the dropout rate continues to be high with only around 60 per cent completing Class X. The quality of teaching in most government schools is indifferent at best, and even the poor are making a beeline to private schools. The middle class and government servants in any case send their children to private schools. Most people who espouse common schooling for all and who are in charge of school education in the states make sure that their own children go to private schools- a case of classic Indian hypocrisy.
This waste of talent needs to be remedied immediately, through two means which could get quick results in addition to other ever growing efforts of improving school education. The first is freely allowing brownfield expansion of existing good schools, both private and public, so that they double/treble their capacity in the short run and more children get a good education. But governments are just not interested in doing so as they will lose control and the benefits of patronage.
The second is the use of technology. Today we can get a good tablet for around Rs 5000, and most textbooks and teaching materials are available in multimedia and electronic form. If school children are given a tablet in class V with all their lessons loaded, in addition to access to the Web through 3G telephony, it will set off a revolution and enable students to self learn and discover knowledge. To some extent this will mitigate the challenge of absentee teachers and expose the child to a new world! Of course teachers should be pushed to continuously improve standards, but the child will have an alternative and there will be a massive improvement in standards.
Even in higher education India has made good progress. We have today over 500 Universities and 25,000 colleges with a Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) of 13 per cent. Compared to the past we have done well, but given the need and compared to other emerging markets we are faring poorly. We need to increase the GER to 30 per cent over the next five years. Even this figure is behind that of many countries. Our quality continues to be poor with even the fabled IIT's not faring well globally. Over 70 per cent of our graduates are in Humanities, there is a 30 per cent vacancy in faculty in the state Universities with research almost non-existent. Yet our students have done well through their innate brilliance. Our brightest continue to pursue their Masters and Ph.D's overseas but now they are positive about coming back to India.
We suffer because of over-centralisation, lack of autonomy for our Universities, muddled policies and bad ideology. The recent move to derecognise 44 deemed universities on untenable grounds is an example of bad policy. They are decent universities, with a better track record than most state Universities yet suffer because of unfair comparisons. There is also widespread corruption in the system, stifled by controls and patronage.
We need liberalisation of policy with new universities being allowed to open freely subject to reasonable criteria, older Universities and colleges being allowed to expand freely without the need for permission from governments, and the grant of full autonomy to all state Universities. We need a National Scholarship Programme so that no student is deprived of higher education because of want of means. This has to be coupled with a National Research Foundation for making liberal grants to foster research in these institutions.
Innumerable reports exist with suggestions on how to improve standards, innumerable debates and meetings have been held, innumerable ministers have spoken about the need for reforms but not much has been done. Our leaders mistake rhetoric for action. Today 12 legislative Bills relating to education are being held up in Parliament. Much reform can be carried out by executive action, by executive decisions and by a change in the decision making process and in attitudes, but we continue to suffer bad policy and lack of decisions.
Overall we have progress but the future is uncertain. The gap between reality and existing potential continues to widen. Globally we continue to slide backwards. We refuse to act, to remedy, to reform in the most critical area of all for our country- education!The author is Chairman, Manipal Global Education Services
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