Indian students go through education encountering indifferent teachers at school, badly-run public universities or unscrupulous private educators.
In the season of examination results and college admissions, we are again reminded of the dismal condition of the Indian education system.
The Punjab School Education Board has, in an act of benevolence, granted 30 grace marks to Class 12 students. This helped 145,937 students — who would have otherwise failed — get past the grade and it also lifted the state’s pass percentage from 54% to 76%. In Gujarat, the pass percentage in Class 10 dropped from 73% in 2014-15 to 63% this year — which the state education minister attributes to the installation of CCTV cameras in examination centres that have checked cheating. Many Class 10 students in Gujarat could not answer elementary questions in a retest, despite securing over 80% in the objective section of the mathematics paper.
These are just some aspects of the crisis in education in India. A committee appointed by the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) to come up with ideas for a new education policy has offered a compelling picture of the situation. Its report expresses “serious concerns about the quality of education in India at all levels”. There is a sore lack of competent teachers in government schools while absenteeism is rife, estimated to be over 25% every day. Teachers are, in general, trained badly as “most teacher education courses have little substance”. There is widespread corruption related to teacher appointments; teachers often lack motivation or the capacity to teach. As a result, dropout rates remain high and learning outcomes of school students are often poor. Roughly four out of 10 students enrolled in Class 1 leave school before completing Class 8.
Millions of students with a weak learning base make their way into colleges and encounter a higher education system that has been wrecked by political interference over the decades. The committee admits that most vice-chancellors are political appointees. University administrators are inevitably more sensitive to political diktats than the imperatives of professionalisation.
Political interference also means education regulators like the University Grants Commission are unable to enforce norms and standards (and often make matters worse by introducing unreasonable metrics to judge academic performance). Meanwhile, the demand for education has led to the mushrooming of private higher educational institutions across the country. Nearly 60% of students are enrolled in private institutions, many of which “operate under political patronage and take advantage of a lax or corrupt regulatory environment to run courses and offer ‘degrees’ which are of little use in the employment market”.
A majority of Indian students are thus likely to go through education encountering indifferent teachers at school, badly-run public universities or unscrupulous private educators. Barring a small minority that has access to good education, millions unsurprisingly enter the job market without requisite skills. Business federations have said only 20% of India’s engineering graduates are employable. Colleges are clearly unable to make up for the failures of schools and as a result, the country’s research base and capacities are not enhanced. Academics, meanwhile, neither get the recognition nor the pay that their counterparts in the West do and they have to cope with difficult university bureaucracies in addition. All this makes it challenging to retain academic talent.
What we are seeing in India’s education is nothing less than a live spectacle of cultural decline, where the country has little capacity to meet the demands for education, where the quality of teaching in schools is compromised and where the political instinct for control undermines the autonomy of universities in general.
This has implications for India’s great power ambitions and internal stability. With 65% of the population under 35 years, 290 million students in schools and universities and large sections of the middle class incurring student debt, the lack of quality education in India’s public institutions will prove to be a severe political problem for governments in the future.