Mr Hazlitt, a renowned if controversial economist, has pointed out that even great economists tend to commit two kinds of errors: one, argue in favour of immediate gain even if that be at the expense of future profit; and two, favour an in-group at the expense of wider benefit. As a political party, the Congress has evidently decided that it is worth its while to accept these two errors. It is thinking of immediate political gain and for the same reason desires to favour a few sections of the Indian society. It is doing so in the name of ‘social justice’. Indian education is a victim of that policy.
Indian school education has many flaws of which the following are the most prominent: As the Planning Commission has reported, nearly half the children cannot read a sentence nor do a simple division of a two digit number even after several years of education; many teachers in state-run schools play truant most of the time; very few schools have water supply or toilets.
For these reasons, practically no politician will send his/her child to a school funded by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Almost all middle class (and even upper poor) families send their children to private schools or to those managed by the central government. For the same reason, children from most poor families either drop out or are so poorly educated that few of them can join universities.
As a remedy to this situation, the government offers reservation — not to poor children — but to members of the backward castes. The benefit has gone mostly to the growing middle classes in those communities rather than to the poor.
At the other extreme, the government allows the very rich to send their children to study abroad. It has been estimated that the country loses $5 billion a year in the process. At the same time, both the government and the judiciary are strongly opposed to high fees in the private colleges within the country. Thus, state policy favours middle class, backward castes and the very rich. The poor get some substandard sops in the form of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. The richer middle classes get practically no benefit unless they belong to backward groups.
As for higher education, both the Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal Committee Report are concerned about the functioning of the UGC and of the AICTE. They like to replace both of them with a single regulatory mechanism that will regulate education from the pre-primary to the university level. The minister strongly supported this move but the view within the UGC is nothing drastic will happen. On this issue the options are still open.
A few years ago, the then finance minister talked about the need to measure outcomes rather than inputs. Those days seem to be over. The present policy is to increase inputs to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, to special institutions like the IITs and to enforce reservation both in admission of students and in recruitment of faculty.
Politically, the government is probably wise and can secure large dividends five years hence. It might do so even though the benefits of the present policy to the poor are marginal; the benefits of reservation at the university level will help only a small section of the population and the benefits to the very rich will cost heavily in foreign exchange.
Therefore, the main problems with Indian education are: very poor quality of education in most state-run schools; loss of educational opportunities to most poor children; irregular admissions to (as also poor teaching in) many colleges; Poor availability of competent teachers.
In state-run schools, the biggest bugbear is that of the transfer of teachers. The power to transfer leads to considerable corruption. It is not unknown for MLAs to be given a quota of transfers for which they can demand money — either to transfer or to halt a transfer. Transfer prevents teachers from building a rapport or reputation with the local community. Countries like France have prospered without using the system of transfers. Evidently, it is not essential.
The Central government has the constitutional responsibility of ensuring standards in education. For that reason, it may take on the education of the top 10 per cent of the student population. As of now, in central schools, the Central government is looking after transferable government employees as also a few among village children in Navodaya Schools. It can extend the programme to the education of the top 10 per cent of the children either directly or through public-private partnership in charter schools. (In the US, the government gives a charter to private managements to run government schools with greater freedom of management in return for assured quality.)
Till the ’60s, England used to have a system known as Eleven-Plus by which children would take a nationwide examination for admission to ‘Grammar Schools’. The then Labour government abolished the system on the ground that it was unfair to ‘late developers’. As a result, richer families withdrew their children from government schools. According to the Economist, of the top 100 schools in the country, only three are managed by the government and even they are in the tail of the hundred. Further, the top professions, which, till the ’90s, used to be quite democratic, have now become the preserve of the upper classes.
The reasons appear to be: In the Eleven-Plus system, poorer children had to compete with richer ones after five years of separate education. Now, they do so after 12 years of poor education. Hence, they have less ability to compete, and; apparently, the presence of upper class children improves education quality probably because of the pressure brought by their parents.
If a test is held similar to eleven-plus — not nationwide — but independently in every tehsil, and the top students are selected for education in quality schools, a large number of poor children and children from the lower classes are likely to qualify. Studying in good schools alongside children of the upper classes, they will be able to compete on their own without the crutch of the reservation system.
The Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal Committee Report want to democratise higher education by increasing admissions. They forget that there is already consider-able unemployment (and underemployment) of college graduates. It would be best for each college to have a close link with those who employ their students and limit admissions to the number the economy will support. An eighth-standard pass student can be a sincere and happy bus driver but a graduate in the same job will not be. We are wasting money and time by over-educating our children beyond the capacity of our economy to employ them.
The government’s education policy will fetch votes but will probably not make Indian education good.