When there is success in Indian education it is because of the genius of our children and youth, the deep involvement of parents, our stable families and cultures, and the efforts of thousands of dedicated unsung teachers and professors. Education is the ladder of social and economic mobility, allowing within a generation the children of labourers to become teachers, electricians, nurses and pharmacists, the children of teachers and tradesmen to become engineers, doctors and industrialists.
It is a universal task of government to make sure such ladders of learning exist to be climbed everywhere and that they’re sturdy and spacious. The ladders do not have to be government-provided; there can be as many or more privately offered alternatives too, and the choice should belong to parents and children as to which ladder of which kind they invest their hard-earned money and time in, so their families are best able to climb out of poverty or misfortune.
Education can be government financed without being government provided. For example, government can provide the parent or guardian of each school-pupil a handsome voucher to be used at any school of choice, public or private, for the child. This would allow a vast resource to be tapped which is the local knowledge that parents and pupils have about specific educational problems and opportunities in their own area.
Besides public financing of at least school education, government’s role remains one of ensuring and enforcing academic and financial discipline, so that any education provided at any level by any purported provider is worth its name. At its loftiest we may want education to nurture the child’s soul and build character, and consist of science, mathematics, literature, as well as music, sports and games. At the very least in Indian circumstances, we may insist upon a minimum of the three traditional Rs of Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic reaching every child without fail. There is a vital public interest in wanting every citizen to comprehend the world around him or her and function in it productively and thoughtfully as an adult.
Such may be Mrs Smriti Irani’s goals in her new job. The reality she faces though may be abysmal at best and appalling at worst. Throughout the system, Indian education has come close to being ruined in recent decades.
Those responsible for the situation include her predecessors in recent decades, plus bureaucrats who range from indifferent at best to corrupt at worst, and self-styled educationists and bogus “educational consultants” purveying the latest expensive educational fad, besides administrators, professors and teachers who have too often lost all sense of vocation, being interested more in the business of building and equipment contracts, private consulting, private tuition, everything but their simple job of transmission of substantial standard knowledge to young people.
The government’s own India Education Report said not long ago: “It does not require clever tools of measurement to demonstrate that there are millions of children in India who are totally deprived of any education worth the name. And it is not as if they are invisible, remote, and therefore unreached. They are everywhere in the cities: on the streets, wiping cars at traffic junctions, picking rags in mounds of waste; in the roadside eateries; in small factories, as cheap labour or domestic help; at ‘home’ completing household chores. In the villages again they are everywhere, responding to the contextual demands of family work as well as bonded labour.”
Even leaving that aspect of the tragedy aside, our schoolchildren have ranked last or near last in standardised international testing in recent years, while our best higher education and technical institutions fail to reach world standards despite their pretensions and expenditure. That individual Indian students fare very well in foreign educational systems only reinforces the idea that they must escape our own system to do so, that a “brain drain” is somehow inevitable of our finest talent who have to migrate abroad to serve foreign nations after being educated at Indian public expense.
Mrs Irani can tell her bureaucrats: “Look, I do not pretend to be a highly educated person but if you think you and your ‘educational consultants’ can bamboozle me you are wrong. I am determined to improve our systems of education and let me tell you what we are going to be doing: we are going to be putting the full power of this ministry on the side of the weakest, most powerless and voiceless stakeholders in the system. Your sole criterion for policy in each educational situation you face is going to be judging what it does for the weakest voiceless stakeholder, typically primary and secondary-age children and their parents, as well as undergraduate or postgraduate students and dedicated teachers and researchers. That’s it.”
She can tell IIT and IIM directors and university VCs and registrars: “Why are you so interested in so many buildings and computer contracts? I’m going to have specially audited all such big purchase items in the last decade and more. And top foreign varsities are putting all their courses online. Can you at least put your faculty members’ names and credentials and courses online too, as well as your syllabi, schedules and accounts? Everyone in higher education will be asked to do the same. All this may enable better informed choice by parents and students while encouraging productive faculty members and discouraging the corrupt”.
She can tell state education ministers: “I fully know your problems of schools with one teacher for 100 children, schools without water or toilets or blackboards or roofs or books, leave aside midday meals. I know your problems with teacher-training and rote learning. Please prepare a practical school-by-school wish list of all the resources you need, and I assure you whatever funding the state government gives towards achieving such a goal, the Union government will double or triple that. We have a lot of public money being wasted on foreign weapons’ systems and all sorts of subsidies leave aside corruption, and I assure you I will find whatever money you need to establish proper schooling throughout India for the first time ever, for all our children.”
If Mrs Irani seeks to even try to do something like this seriously, hope for Indian education will be revived and she’ll have earned the applause of the country.
Dr Subroto Roy was an adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in 1990-91.