Question: “What did the Soviet socialists use for light before candles?” The answer: “Electricity.” As jokes often do, this one also points to a disconcerting truth: that societies can regress due to bad government policies. Another question: “What were Indians like before the British and the Indian governments took control of education?” Answer: “Educated.”
We must remember that policies, good and bad, are made by people. And that people are motivated by numerous concerns, many of which are self-seeking and often short-sighted. Just like the rest of us, politicians and bureaucrats are not selfless, enlightened beings concerned only with that which is good and in the public interest. Unsurprisingly, too frequently the policies they implement are good for them but not for the general welfare. Nowhere this is more true than in the case of Indian education policies.
Historical data show that literacy rates in India were higher before the British took over than when they left. One would have hoped that self-rule would have liberated the education sector from the stranglehold of the government. Unfortunately, the financial rewards that accompany the power to control are too tempting. Power tends to corrupt, as the English historian Lord Acton noted. What the British started for their own purposes — exploitative rule over a colonised people — was continued by their successors with the same dire results: India has a failed education system that is riddled with corruption.
Consider for a moment what your station in life would be if you could not read or write. In the contemporary world, illiteracy is as terrible a handicap as blindness. But, any average person can be made literate and numerate in just a few years. Yet nearly seven decades after political independence, the shameful fact is that about one out of every two illiterate persons in the world is an Indian. If a society cannot even manage to become fully literate — leave aside becoming reasonably educated — its future is bleak.
India is near the bottom in terms of educational attainment among nations. The most important barrier to education in India is government control of education, and the perverse incentives it gives rise to for the creation and perpetuation of a severely dysfunctional system. Let’s examine the baleful effects of government control over education even in an advanced nation like the US. The Program for International Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading in 65 countries.
The US ranked 36th overall in their 2012 report. (Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, and Korea occupy the top five positions.) Yet in 2012 the US spent on average $12,000 per student per year on K-12 education, about 40 per cent more than the OECD average. US K-12 education is almost entirely state controlled and performs dismally.
Contrast that with US higher education. Eight American universities figure in the “World’s 10 most prestigious universities 2016” in the World University Ranking (WUR). In the top 50 spots, 26 are US universities. US higher education is the best in the world — and it is not government controlled, and is only partially government funded.
The lesson is hard not to learn that government control has seriously deleterious effects on education, as it does on all other spheres. I know from personal experience, having spent 28 years in schools and universities in India and the US — including IIT Kanpur, Rutgers University, UC Berkeley and Stanford. (I have bragging rights: Stanford and Berkeley are ranked 3rd and 6th most prestigious universities in the world respectively.) My professional interest in education arises from the fact that education is among the most significant causal factors in economic development.
India’s education system — elementary, secondary and tertiary — is entirely controlled by the government. And therefore it is no surprise that it has failed so spectacularly that 7th grade students are not able to read at 2nd grade level; that only one out of four graduates are employable. No Indian university ranks in the top 250 in the WUR, and only 17 make it in the range 251-800.
The US case in the argument against state control of education is instructive but not conclusive, as all anecdotal cases are. A compelling case requires analytical support, but space limitations preclude that here. Indians have to urgently ask and honestly answer the questions, “Why has the Indian education system failed; what needs to be changed; and why the obstinate resistance to change?”
My submission is that government control is implicated in India’s failed education system. It must be liberalised so that there are no barriers to entry in the education sector. The reason that the barriers exist is that it enables the controllers to extract and exploit the natural drive of the people to be educated.
Atanu dey is an economist and author of Transforming India
Follow him on Twitter @atanudey