Why India’s education sector lags behind?

50% of 10-year-old rural children could not read at a basic level, over 60% failed to do division and half dropped out by the age 14.

– The Economist, A special report on India: Creaking, groaning, 2008.

Once was the era when Indian universities like Nalanda and Takshila were regarded as the epitome of academic excellence. That distant past has been replaced by an awful present where none of the Indian universities have been ranked in the top 200 in Times Higher rankings 2014.

There are many factors that account for this abysmal state of India’s education sector. The first is the obsolete curriculum followed in the nation. Our education system has become centered just on attending classes and memorizing the concepts taught in classrooms. Examinations are no longer a measuring stick for a student’s knowledge, but rather a redundant means of reproducing mugged-up content and scoring high figures on exam sheet to get degrees and certificates. Indian colleges are theory centric, whereas US universities are enquiry centric. What is stressed upon in most US schools of higher education is practical implementation of concepts; rather than accumulation of theoretical knowledge through cramming.

The purpose of education is imparting employability skills. What is the benefit of being educated if it does not transform us as an asset for the nation? A survey by Wheebox Employability Skills Test (WEST) in 2014 revealed that only 34% of Indian graduates are employable. The figures grow more awful when one looks at the 2005 report by Mc Kinsey stating that 75% of Indian graduates are undeserving for employment. The figures have improved slightly in the last 9 years.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Employability of graduates (Image credits: http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20130625/biz4.jpg)

This race for marks has discouraged higher-order thinking skills in students. It has set a bad precedent in the education sector, acting as a deterrent for a culture of research. This has also set a race to make money by turning education into a commercial venture. A large number of educational institutes are run by corrupt politicians and white-collar criminals. A study by National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) has lamented that private education is one of the biggest sources of black money. How can you expect such institutes that glorify mediocrity and focus on minting money, to uphold the sanctity of institution called education?

Don’t assume that politics runs only while founding an institute. Politics has trickled down all crevices of education system and has become a major problem when it comes to election of vice-chancellors and other prominent administrative positions in a university. None will deny the power a monetarily and politically strong academic holds over merit when it comes to running a scholastic organization in India.

Of late, an unhealthy trend has set in the country. Irrespective of one’s specialization, an engineer is most likely to be placed in an IT company. Obsession with IT companies and dearth of core companies in other fields are the prime driving forces behind this unfortunate development. Most of the fresh graduates are not well-versed with the foundations of IT sector, which forces them to fall short of their peers from IT-related streams. As per Nasscom’s report, out of the 37 lakh graduates walking out of colleges annually, only 25% are employable in the IT-BPO sector.

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Our universities also miss out largely on tie-ups with foreign universities and global organizations. Only a handful institutes like IIMs, IITs and a few others have collaborations with other world-class institutes that opens up a world of opportunities for students and scholars, helping people from diverse perspectives and ideas to work cohesively on same projects. Moreover, FDI in education has been a failure. By inviting foreign universities to set up their campus in India, the quality of education would certainly go up and will raise the competition level amongst institutes in India.

It is not that Indian colleges don’t have smart students. But the number of such students is quite small and even smaller number of them opts for joining the profession of teaching. Most of the teachers we have in our colleges nationwide are mostly those who have just graduated or those who have failed to get a job in any company. Population of intelligent and capable graduates taking up teaching as a career option with all enthusiasm is very little.

A very pertinent question here is how can we expect teaching to be an attractive career option, when the salaries of teachers in Indian educational academies is so low, compared to their counterparts in countries like UK, US or China or compared to people in corporate jobs?

Equally terrible is the number of young people from top of the class opting for professions like journalism, arts, history, literature etc. Professor Shyam Sundar of the Yale University has asserted that a country of 1.2 billion people can’t survive only with engineering and management institutes. India needs to breathe life into other career options and open up more avenues to make these careers lucrative.

The scarcity of multi-disciplinary universities in India is another flaw in the education system of the country. Unlike Oxford, Yale and Harvard, most Indian universities cater to a single field of study. A multi-disciplinary university is capable of building a strong foundation for all kinds of professions. That leads to creation of greater and better opportunities in non-technical courses and makes the academia more pluralistic, hence encouraging research and learning in a better fashion.

In India, the law mandates that an institute of higher education in India must be operating on a not-for profit basis. This is preventing investment by prospective entrepreneurs in the field of education. And that is escalating corruption as well. Many private equity companies have been reported to be investing in education service provider companies. The latter provide services to not-for-profit educational institutions and help the private equity companies to earn enviable profits.

The big problem with Indian education curricula is that it is not personalized, rather it is enforced over every one since childhood irrespective of whether it is suitable for all or not. Kids vary as learners. Some are quick to grasp the taught concepts, some take time. While some are visual learners, others may be auditory learners. One monolithic education system can’t accommodate all types of students.

Reservation in educational institutes for the seats is another issue choking the Indian education sector today. There is already 50% reservation in many reputed educational establishments and the rest 50% is also open to reservations like management quota, quota for migrants, disabled etc. The protests by students and discriminated groups have borne no fruit as the political parties relentlessly push for reservations to lure their vote banks. Consequently, brilliant students don’t get the colleges they deserve and the excellent institutes don’t get the students they deserve.

The world has moved over from the practice of confining pupils to four-walled classrooms to an era of technology-aided learning mechanism. Smart classrooms with lessons taught on LCD screens using tailor-made courses on DVDs are rapidly catching up in urban parts of India. But the penetration of technology for education is nearly zero when it comes to the classrooms of rural areas. This is an area where Indian education system is seriously ailing. Moreover, the model of online education through websites like EdX and Coursera, where lessons are taught by the professors of Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc. has spread wide and far in urban areas. But it has not been able to target the area where free education is required the most, the rural and remote areas. Inability to understand English language in such areas is proving to be a major hurdle.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Spending on education as a total % of government spending (Image credits: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/images/jg_ed_c2.jpg)

Why don’t we allow private capital to flow in the education sector of India? I agree that this practice will spur corruption and money laundering, as we have seen the case of private equity firms minting money. But with stringent laws put into action to check these crimes, private entities have to be allowed to enter the education sector. The Government of India is already cash-strapped and is investing merely 11.3% of its total expenditure, if we go by the data provided by World Bank on its website. That translates to just 3.3% of the GDP of the nation. Countries like New Zealand and Thailand have the figure over 7% of their GDP.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Students enrolled in Higher Education Institutes (millions) (Image credits: India: Higher Education sector Opportunities for Foreign Universities, PriceWaterhouse Coopers)

Economic Survey 2013-14 said that although with the enrollment of 28.5 million students, the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) has almost doubled from 10% in 2004-05 to 20.4% in 2011-12, there has been a fall in the fraction of schools with at least one classroom per teacher, from 76.2% in 2010 to 73.8% in 2013. The quality of education delivered in rural areas is so pathetic that the percentage of third-grade students who could solve two-digit subtraction fell to 26.1% in 2013 from 39.1% in 2009.The survey also revealed that attendance of students from 1st to 5th grade showed a decline from 72.9% in 2010 to 70.7% in 2013 in rural primary schools.

Retention of students in schools is a big issue in India today. World Bank reported that fewer than 40% of adolescents attend secondary schools. Boston Consulting affirmed that of the total workforce in India, 40% are illiterate and 40% are dropouts. These issues have brought India’s literacy rate down to 74% as compared to world’s average of 84%.

Since only 12 out of 100 kids make it to college after graduating from high schools, there is a need for 1000new universities and 40,000 colleges within easy reach of all areas of urban and rural India. Teachers’ absence from schools is another menace to be addressed. A nationwide survey found 25% of public sector teachers to be absent. A report by Kremer has stated that only about half of the teachers were teaching even during announced visits to a nationally representative sample of government primary schools.

Can you believe that the percentage of untrained teachers is 54.91% in private schools, compared to 44.88% in government schools? It is shocking to find that 25% of teaching positions are lying vacant nationwide and 57% of college professors lack either a Masters’ degree or PhD degree.

Poor conditions of infrastructural facilities add to the woes of students. A study of 188 government-run primary schools by BBC, published as “Combating India’s truant teachers”, found that 59% of the schools had no facility for drinking water and 89% of them had no toilets.

The Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan is also diseased with corrupt officials, bureaucracy and nepotism. Kapil Sibal, former HRD minister in UPA government had said, “Education reforms are based on four pillars, namely expansion, excellence, inclusion and autonomy”. With the failure of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan of 2002, Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 and 86th amendment to the Constitution of India that made free and compulsory education to children of age 6-14 a fundamental right under Article 31A, one is left to ponder how we will have fruitful educational reforms in India.

There is a lot to be done in the nation with regards to the education sector. A large number of educational institutions have to be opened to cater to urban and rural kids of all types. Corruption has to be reined in with stringent laws and reforms in place. Necessary measures have to be taken to address all the issues discussed in the article.

Nelson Mandela had said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Let’s use this tool to transform our nation as well.

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Why India’s education sector lags behind?

by Arijit Goswami time to read: 10 min
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