In one of my articles during 2013, I had qualified myself as a selfish academic and requested the finance minister for more budgetary allocations for education. I now rebrand myself as an academic activist. It needs reasonable activism than prolonged patience for education to get its due. The Annual School Education Reports (ASER), the gross neglect of higher education reflected in the battle for power between UGC and AICTE, curtailed research grants in the name of fiscal discipline, etc. are pointers calling for a tectonic shift in the thought process of policymakers. The fundamental unit in the education value chain is school education. Let us begin there first.
The ASER and PISA reports on the status of Indian school education are reduced to innocuous annual rituals—the media reports, policymakers react, readers read and the nation forgets in the noise generated by the high-decibel chest-thumpers who at the drop of the hat claim that Right to Education (RTE) as the sarva roga nivarana (cure for all diseases) for school education. RTE has definitely increased enrolment and UNESCO compliments India for that. But has it increased enlightenment? Indian school education system needs, in Clay Christensen’s words, “disruptive action”. Here are some disruptive ideas that need sustained and genuine activism from concerned stakeholders.
Government schools despite receiving the largest proportion from budget allocations are still struggling. Why should students attending government schools be victims of systemic inefficiency? They certainly deserve good education considering the salaries teachers get or they be provided with alternate pathways for private school education. The ongoing teacher recruitment and disproportionately huge salaries or the RTE rhetoric is certainly not the right solution. There are two quick solutions.
Using my good friend Prof. R Vaidyanathan’s analogy, educational loans in India must follow the housing loan policy—not in the interest rates or repayment terms, but in the extent of coverage. A housing loan covers the entire house, beginning from foundation to terrace. There is no housing loan for a new house meant only for the first or second floor. Unfortunately, educational loans in India are only for the first and second floors. Not for the foundation. The gap between the costs of government and private school education is definitely huge. While higher education is important for a country’s economic progress, isn’t school education also equally, if not more, important? The Government of India is careful in ensuring that no student is deprived of higher education (public or private) for want of finances. In similar measure, no student must be deprived of private school education for want of finance and hence must have access to interest-free bank loans for school education. Such interest-waiver is definitely not a burden to the government but an investment for India’ future.
ASER reports are time and again critical of the poor teacher attendance and the resultant student output in government schools. The Government of India must announce a zero income tax for all school teachers (public and private) and such income tax waivers must be linked with teacher performance. Teacher performance shall be measured by a fool-proof mechanism that tests four critical parameters—student output, self-development, contribution to school and contribution to community. A teacher who satisfies all the four dimensions shall be eligible for full income tax waiver and this system needs to be administered diligently.
When corporate India asked for more, UPA (I & II) gave them a waiver of over Rs 35,00,000 crore (Government of India’s foregone revenue). It’s asking time now. I have asked. Will other academic activists join me?