iconimg Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Gita Ghosh
December 02, 2013
News about higher education at Indian institutions not featuring in top international rankings or Indian school students found wanting in international examinations have been frequent in the recent past. While these cannot be construed as a verdict on the Indian education system, it does reflect some of its lacunae.

One of the most challenging issues facing Indian education is that of infrastructure. Estimates show that within a decade India will have a far younger population than other large economies. According to the National Commission on Population, the median age in India will be 29 as compared with 37 in China and the US, 45 for West Europe and 48 in Japan. So given the country's demography, India will have 40-45 million college-ready students by 2020. To accommodate these students, India will need another 1,000 universities and 50,000 more colleges, according to government estimates.

But before getting to college, these potential students have to get through school and India not only lacks in terms of number of schools (one estimate suggests that India needs 200,000 more schools) but also lack of facilities in the existing ones, which reports like The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)  released by the NGO Pratham highlights every year.

While the physical infrastructure needs attention, quality of teaching and teachers, curriculum and delay in legislation have been other impediments in the Indian education system. Faced with such roadblocks, the government's goals, like 30% gross enrolment ratio by 2020 and skilling 500 million people by 2022, seem elusive.

A concerted effort by both the government and private players are needed to help tackle these problems.

Investment is the crucial first step towards helping Indian education realise the potential it holds. The government spend on education has been a meagre 3-4% of GDP and it's time it increased to 6%. Private players, too, have to invest in education to reap the benefits of educated manpower.

The newly amended Companies Bill states companies of a particular size have to spend at least 2% of their average net profits of the past three years on corporate social responsibility. This will hopefully increase the investment in the education sector in India. While philanthropists like Bill Gates and, closer home, Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar, have donated significant sums towards education, they are few and far between.

It has been three years since the much-talked-about Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010 was introduced and it is still awaiting approval. According to an Assocham study, over 600,000 Indian students go abroad and spend `95,000 crore annually. With the passage of the bill, students can hope to receive quality education in India and also spend less. The entry of foreign education providers in India could also partially help overcome both quantity and quality issues in higher education in India.

The Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical, Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill also proposes to empower the Centre to initiate criminal proceedings against such private institutes that charge capitation fee or cheat students through other unfair practices. These bills among others which could change the way Indian education functions also await legislation. The onus is on policymakers to think through the cost the country may have to pay with such delays.

The problem of capacity crunch in terms of physical infrastructure and quality teachers can be addressed to an extent through technology. It is both surprising and ironic that a country such as India, which has exported the best technical minds across the world, leaves much to be desired when it comes to using technology for education.

Efforts to set up National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) to provide broadband connectivity to over 200,000 gram panchayats by the government, launching Akash tablets or setting up education portals like Sakshat, to cater to the learning needs of more than 500 million people through a proposed scheme of 'National Mission in Education through Information and Communication Technology' are at a nascent stage.

Using technology can not only help cut down on the need for physical infrastructure, it will also democratise learning which could be accessed by all at affordable costs.

Skill education
The government has set itself a target of skilling 500 million people by 2022, a very steep one considering only 2% of its workforce has received any form of vocational education. Around 18 ministries and the National Skill Development Corporation have been entrusted with the responsibility of achieving this target. Better coordination among ministries will help give coherence to this goal. Vocational education suffers from an image crisis, so awareness about the programmes and the benefits associated with it have to be propagated by the government. While the government has introduced the STAR scheme during this budget to incentivise skill education, more such initiatives are needed

Monitoring outcomes
A lot of education schemes and programmes with substantial budgets are set up by the government but there is no monitoring mechanism. The Right to Education Act has not received the kind of success as was expected since there is no mechanism to monitor or measure the outcomes. Budgets allocated are often not used or misused by institutions or officials and due to lack of monitoring, any act of misappropriation cannot be penalised, hence obstructing the funds to be channelised properly. Regular audit of schemes and programmes is needed for their successful implementation.

Gita Ghosh is an education expert