Education policy during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been dominated by some big initiatives in higher education. Among these have been plans for new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and several central universities.
The attention the UPA has devoted to primary education has been relatively obscured. Its predecessor, the National Democratic Alliance, in 2001, launched a programme for universalizing primary education, named Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan.
The UPA has displayed political maturity by avoiding partisanship and not soft-pedalling this initiative. That some of the funding was international, and earmarked for building assets, may have provided a financial incentive. Outcomes, of course, are an altogether different matter.
As initiatives must be judged by outcomes, so must be the actions of the government of the day. And outcome in the educational policy is judged by the advancement of learning. Governments in India have generally steered away from this indicator, preferring that of provisioning. Thus, official agencies purvey indicators of enrolment, the teacher-student ratio and school infrastructure. It may be said that the first two indicators have shown some improvement. However, the teacher-student ratio in Indian schools has shown a secular worsening since independence, and there is no evidence that a permanent reversal of this trend has even been initiated. Anyway, the teacher-student ratio is yet not an indicator of learning.
As the Union government does not provide data on this, we must rely on that provided by private agencies. Non-governmental organization Pratham publishes an annual report on the state of education, and the most recent one shows unacceptably low learning outcomes in the country.
Our public schooling system is shown to be grossly deficient, with students unable to read, write or solve arithmetic problems prescribed for far lower grades. Private schools have shown to improve upon these miserable results only marginally, rendering non-credible the stance that privatization is the answer here. The missing element in the mix is governance.
In the context of the public schooling system, it is the ability to get teachers to first make an appearance in class and then to demonstrate acceptable levels of learning among their wards. As for government-aided private schools, which predominate in some states, the measure of governance is, once again, whether learning is fostered. It is not clear that the governance of the school system has advanced much during the tenure of the UPA government. Of course, it must be borne in mind that education being on the concurrent list, the Central government’s ability to turn things round is limited. State governments have been happy to take the money and hesitant to ruffle the feathers of their constituencies, the bureaucracy of the states’ education department and the teachers. On the other hand, in higher education—via the archipelago of central institutions—the Union government has not just greater leeway, but pretty much complete control. The UPA government has not hesitated to use this to the hilt. The initiatives have mostly had to do with expansion, almost wilfully ignoring quality.
Undoubtedly, the most widely noticed of the initiatives in higher education during the past five years has been the expansion in the annual intake of the IITs and the IIMs. Technically, a move applicable to all Central government institutions, attention has tended to get focused on the plan for these two institutions, reflecting a certain cynicism in Indian society. It could not have escaped anyone’s notice that degrees from these institutes are the most prized in the job market. Considering that the government could have introduced reservation for candidates from so-called other backward castes without increasing the number of seats, academics have been left with the sense that the government was not for a moment concerned with the impact on the quality of education that expansion could contribute to. It would be naive to imagine this dissension is some elitist rant. While politicians squabbled over the location of the next IIT or IIM, we may want to draw the right conclusion from the low number of applications for student and faculty positions in the first of the institutions that have been started so far. The public may have seen the expansion coming at the cost of quality.
We are at the end of a disappointing decade for India’s education sector, especially its higher echelon. At end of the UPA’s term, the same sense of helplessness that had marked the rule of the NDA pervades the ranks of India’s few remaining independent-minded academics. India ranks well below most developing countries in the Educational Development Index of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This pertains mostly to basic education. When it comes to imparting knowledge, there are no universally accepted indicators, but we know that India is not today a source of knowledge for the world, which it was historically. This situation requires an imaginative response from the government. At a meeting of vice chancellors in 2008, minister for human resource development Arjun Singh spoke candidly when he said that higher education in India was a "sick child". Alas, his medicine has proved to be mostly worse than the disease.
Pulapre Balakrishnan is an independent economist and currently a senior fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. He has held appointments at the University of Oxford, the World Bank and taught for a decade at IIM Kozhikode.