By Amit Dasgupta
A recent report tabled in parliament that over 100,000 schools in India have just one teacher is an alarming wake-up call for the government and all stakeholders. However, it also offers a genuine opportunity to transform India’s archaic education landscape now that a new policy is under discussion.
Four significant challenges confront the education system: a rapidly globalising environment driven largely by the internet revolution; a serious supply-demand constraint in terms of larger numbers of potential students and a sharp decline in the availability of teachers; the emergence of changing technologies; and an evolving marketplace that is constantly placing new demands.
The government is tasked not only with the right to education of its citizens but, more importantly, the right to quality education. To navigate this terrain requires a dramatic shift in mindsets and the introduction of substantive policy interventions that are innovative, disruptive and immediate.
For around a decade, Indians have celebrated the fact that we are a young nation. As per current statistics, around 600 million Indians are under 25. At a time when countries like China, Japan, Australia, Germany and many others are facing the uncertainty that accompanies a rapidly-aging population, India seemed to hold the key as the growth driver through its increasing reservoir of youth. We call this the demographic dividend.
But age alone cannot be the sole criteria for India to emerge as the global talent pool. Indeed, unless the population is employable, the demographic dividend can rapidly degenerate into a demographic liability. This requires that the quality of education is as important as the availability of education opportunities.
India’s education system is facing a real crisis, which is entirely of our own making. Furthermore, the crisis is so severe that only transformational overhauling would address the fundamental structural and systemic constraints it faces.
In the prevailing situation in India, education delivery is essentially mechanical where an over-worked and over-stretched system delivers an antiquated product to a customer who is denied the right of choice. This needs to be replaced by one that is dynamic and constantly evolving and, furthermore, specifically created to cater to the needs and requirements of the customer. It is only when the “why” of education policy is understood that the “how” (or strategy) would follow. Such a fundamental shift requires clarity on what education is meant to achieve.
The student needs to become the starting point because at the end of the schooling period, she/he would do a job that is yet to be created. This would redefine the role of education because never before in human history have new technologies, changing market needs, rapid globalisation and consumer aspirations continuously and dramatically impacted the external landscape — in both our social and work sphere.
To create the right environment for change, the significant supply constraint and the huge pressure it imposes on infrastructure need to be addressed. This is a three-fold constraint. First, even if India were to succeed in its target of 30 per cent gross enrolment rate by 2020 in the tertiary sector, 100 million qualified students would still not have places at university and, thereby, would be forced to join programmes that they would not have otherwise opted for.
The second supply constraint is the acute paucity of qualified teachers. Furthermore, the problem is not restricted to higher education but begins from the primary and secondary schooling stage. This combination creates the dramatic crisis where the infrastructure itself collapses.
Improving the functioning of our educational institutions requires that the approach towards education and consequently, its management is comprehensively recast. Without embedding efficiencies in its functioning, there would be no incentive to improve, as is currently the case. How many of our teachers, for instance, go through regular training programmes that enable them to keep up-to-date with the latest literature or teaching techniques? Choice and competition lie at the heart of improved performance.
By preventing outside players and platforms from entering the arena, the situation is perpetuated domestically and vested interests create their own dynamics. A rapid increase in the footprint of the delivery platforms by opening up to new partners — especially world-class international providers and the embrace of technology, through online and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) platforms, including virtual learning — would dramatically transform the education landscape and immediately impact the supply constraint.
None of this would be particularly appealing to the existing players. Indeed, as was the case in the 1990s when India decided to embark on economic reforms, there would be predictable resistance from domestic constituencies which would see it as a threat to their business survival.
By 2020, it is also estimated that India would require 1,000 new universities to cater to the galloping demand. China faced a similar situation. Anticipating the significant challenge, the government opted for a massive programme to fund overseas education for its nationals and thereby, short-circuited the creation of new educational institutions. This has proved to be a far more efficient response financially and administratively than the expected process of constructing new universities. In addition, the experience of studying abroad enabled the Chinese to think globally. This has proved to be a game changer.
It is this kind of thinking outside the box that will address the crisis that confronts India in the education sector. This is not an either-or-situation — nothing ever is — but one where every available resource is channelled into combatting the crisis that has the potential of adversely impacting India’s aspirational surge. It also requires acknowledging the urgency that confronts us.
History would be unforgiving if the government does not see this significant challenge as an extraordinary opportunity of changing education’s DNA. As is often foretold, the future can hold promise only when we dare to seize it.
(Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, is the India country director for the University of New South Wales. The views expressed are personal.)