Gaps in the Indian Education System and the Way Forward
As Benjamin Franklin remarked, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”, the world has accepted that an educated populace is a necessary prerequisite to flourishing economically, socially, culturally, and politically. Since independence, India has attempted to make great strides in the education sector that have yielded significant fruits. For instance, as per the Census data, from a 12% literacy rate in 1947, India reached 74% in 2011. The Indian school system is one of the largest globally, with over 1.5 million schools, of which nearly two-thirds are government-run. The Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 mandates free and compulsory education as a fundamental right for every child between 6 and 14 years.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 concluded that since 2010, the enrollment rate in schools between the ages of 6 and 14 has consistently been over 96%. While this indicates the relative success of RTE in making school education more accessible, it is not a sufficient indicator of its equitability or quality. Areas of grave and urgent concern continue to mar the Indian education system.
Despite various interventions, the gaps in education at the school level are glaring and demand immediate redressal. The primary issues include lack of access and affordability, high dropout rates (particularly among girls and marginalized communities), lower enrolment ratio, high rural-urban divide in terms of quality, teacher vacancy and under-qualification, an appalling digital divide, and increasing privatization. To put it in perspective, a Centre for Civil Society study states that Jharkhand has the highest teacher vacancy at 81% at the secondary level.
While the enrolment rate in government schools has increased, this has not been met by a commensurate increase in learning outcomes. As per an ASER 2017 report, children aged 14-18 exhibit substandard competency in numerical and language skills. Further, only about half of the students studying in class 7 were able to solve class two comprehension and numerical problems. Improvements in learning outcomes cannot happen without an overhaul in the method of teaching and trying varied pedagogies. There is also the need for capacity building for teachers, most of whom are already burdened with non-academic administrative work.
India has historically been known for world-renowned educational institutions like Takshila, Nalanda, Vikramshila, etc. At the time of independence, the founders of the republic recognized the importance of education and focused their efforts on laying down a strong foundation for the young state. Since 1950, the number of universities has increased 34 times, from 20 to 677 in 2014. Despite this, issues abound. As the nation with the world’s largest youth population, it is appalling that we do not have a single university that ranks among the top 100 in the world. Firstly, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in Indian higher education as per international standard in 2020 was 29%, which is dismal when we compare it with that of countries like China (58), Malaysia (43%), Germany (74%), the USA (88%) and so on. Equity in GER is also concerning, with states like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh at a GER of 49% and 39.6%, respectively, while states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Assam at 13.6%, 18.6% and 18.7%, respectively.
To exemplify this inequity on the supply side, the number of colleges per population of 100,000 varies from 9 in Jharkhand, 7 in Bihar, and 9 in Delhi, to 45 in Andhra Pradesh, 50 in Karnataka, and 55 in Puducherry. In addition to this, higher education in India is plagued by the same issues as the school system, along with lack of resources for research and hence, deficiency in the production of quality research, unemployment and underemployment among highly qualified candidates, and political interference. Importantly, equity in education also plays out in terms of social and economic positioning of communities where SCs, STs, OBCs, and religious minorities consistently feature lower than dominant caste and religious groups in terms of accessibility to education, discrimination in academic institutions (exemplified, in recent times, in the cases of Rohit Vemula and Dr Payal Tadvi), etc.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore the failings and vulnerabilities of our educational infrastructure, not least in the arena of digital access to education, which is rife with disparities along caste, class, and urban-rural lines. For instance, according to NSSO data 2017-18, only about 9% of students enrolled in any course have access to any form of digital infrastructure. The digital divide issue does not just affect students but also teachers who are not adept in digital technologies. This problem cannot be placated by just implementing piece-meal solutions by providing digital devices. There is a need for regular electricity supply and access to internet infrastructure. The focus on digitisation as the solution will only augment the existing inequities in education.
However, this doesn’t mean that we should not push for the promotion of digital literacy. As we increasingly shift towards a knowledge-based economy, the need for digital literacy to access, assess, and safely wade through information becomes crucial. Further, the inability to develop basic digital skills essential for capacity building will only worsen the existing inequalities.
To redress these glaring imbalances, successive governments have taken measures, with the latest step being in the form of the New Education Policy 2020. It intends to integrate our education system within global patterns, focus on vocationalization and imparting “21st-century skills”, and rid the curricular structure of rote learning. Annual exams will be replaced by board exams in modular form in Grades 3, 5, 8, 10 and 12 to test students’ conceptual understanding. Keeping in mind the recommendations by various educationists, it is proposed that education till class 5, and preferably till class 8, be imparted in mother tongues for better comprehension and retention. However, this raises eyebrows in a country as diverse as India with its increased internal migration rates.
In higher education, NEP 2020 aims for 50% GER by 2035, and a single overarching body will be set up to regulate all higher education, excluding medicine and law, replacing bodies like UGC and AICTE. This over-centralisation has drawn criticism from educationists who believe that this will hamper the evolution of education, leave more scope for political interference and encourage privatization and, consequently, social inequalities, thereby impeding social mobility. Notably, although the NEP 2020 reiterates the goal to increase expenditure on education to 6% of the GDP, as recommended by the Kothari Commission, in recent years, the same has been just over 3%.
It is crucial to recognize that the problems in the education sector are not just economic but also social and regional. Policies should be geared toward a more equitable distribution of resources to enhance economic capacities on the demand side and ensure an affordable and quality common education system, free from private and political interventions on the supply end. Newer pedagogies must be explored to make way for experiential learning in addition to theoretical education. Further, budgetary allocation for education must urgently be increased. The new policies, although promising, are often marred by generic abstractions, lacking nuance; being driven by political ambitions, these policies also tend to have grand overtones, hindering their scope of implementation. Civil society institutions also need to address critical problems in education. With Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning becoming cornerstones of the digital economy, it is important to educate students about these from early on. This will only be possible if substantial steps are taken to address the prevailing digital divide.
We must unitedly attempt to tread the path shown by BR Ambedkar, who said, “It is education which is the right weapon to cut social slavery, and it is education which will enlighten the downtrodden masses to come up and gain social status, economic betterment and political freedom.”