Today if you talk to any educated middle class urbanite in India on the system of education in the country, you will find him sharply critical of the system. And this criticism is not without valid reasons. Over the past six decades our educational institutions – from primary schools to universities have been allowed to become commercialised, bureaucratised and politicised. Instead, of allowing the rot to set in, the structure and character of these institutions should have been reformed and fine tuned to our changing requirements as a maturing democratic country.
Today, the condition is that in spite of an overall literacy level only 72 per cent, thousands of existing government owned primary and secondary schools in the country are under equipped and dropout figures stand at significant levels.
Compulsory free education is necessary up to the secondary school stage. For this, a large number of government schools in rural, semi urban and urban areas had been doing a good work over the years. But of late, much is left to be desired in the number of schools and enrollment at the existing schools. In the sixty fifth year of independence, the country’s literacy level should have been well above 90 per cent. Why is it tottering at 72 per cent? Even in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia which attained independence around the same time as India, the literacy level is close to 98 per cent.
Our educational policy, in as far as enhancing the literacy level and providing basic primary and secondary school education to the large populace inhabiting rural and urban areas has been appropriate. Recently, the enactment of Right to Education Act by the government is also a step in the right direction. But the implementation of our past education policy by State Governments has been somewhat shoddy. It is most unfortunate that corruption has not spared even this most basic and vital area of human development. The State governments are singularly responsible for failure to ensure that full sanctioned money was not actually used for investment in the education sector.
It is really in the cities that things have taken a turn for the worse after a good start in the matter of school and college education. To illustrate this point, the best example that can be cited is that of the capital city Delhi. During 1950s and 60s, the government set up hundreds of primary as well as higher secondary schools in Delhi to meet the requirements of the growing population. These schools were evenly dispersed all over the city. In early 1960s, there were few private higher secondary schools in the city but their number was not more than 40. Today Delhi’s population has grown about seven times since then but the number of private secondary schools has grown exponentially to about 900 i.e., 22 times. But this is not as important as the manner in which private schools were allowed to mushroom all over the capital city at the expense of the existing government schools, in which so much of public money had been invested. During the 60s and 70s, the government schools were the prime centres of education for middle class children but today no middle class parent is interested in sending his ward to government schools. Why has this unhealthy trend set in? Should we blame our middle class parents for this? The government is fully responsible for the neglect of its schools where you find neither outstanding teachers nor excellent students today. The practice of private tuition by school teachers has grown phenomenally over the years. This has severely affected the standards and quality of teaching in the government secondary schools, where teachers enjoy job security. Private tuitions today seem to have become a necessity or fashion or both. This trend is observable in all centres of the country. Why has this trend increased in the last 20 or 25 years? The plain answer is inadequacy of job opportunities in the market and at the same time insufficient number of seats in the available local colleges.
The scenario in the State of Uttar Pradesh during 1970 to 1990 would highlight the above issue better. Over the years, in UP the school teachers had started increasingly undertaking private tuitions including for those students who were studying in their own class at school. The teachers were willfully neglecting their job at school so that more and more of students would approach them for private tuition. Another unfortunate phenomenon that was growing was the practice of unfair means during examinations followed by the students. Kalyan Singh, who became the Chief Minister of UP in early 90s was a school teacher by profession before entering full time politics. Kalyan Singh came down very severely upon the recalcitrant student community and the errant teachers. He announced that students found adopting unfair means in their examinations shall face rustication and teachers found undertaking private tuitions shall face suspension from service. This severe punishment had a salutary effect.
There is another phenomenon that has been witnessed during the last three decades in Indian cities – that of private coaching centres for admission to professional streams in colleges. There are numerous coaching centres for admission to the IIT and other reputed Engineering Colleges, premier institutions of medical education or in general for the Engineering and Medical entrance examinations conducted by various universities. This has led to big commercialisation of secondary education, overly burdened the students and has undermined the quality of teaching in the normal curriculum of the secondary schools. It has put so much strain on the minds of young students that they have to pass through a gruelling study routine of 10-12 hrs each day to meet the demands of their normal school work and the study material provided by the coaching centres. In recent years, the standard of the entrance examination to the IITs has become so high that class 12th students visually have to study courses of Engineering undergraduation for preparing themselves for IIT Joint Entrance Examination.
What about those lower class parents who cannot afford the exorbitant fees of these coaching institutions? And what of those students who desire to join the IITs, are intelligent and industrious but are located in smaller towns where professional coaching is not available? They are at a disadvantage in this fierce competitive game. To cater to such students, some of the more popular coaching centres have established residential facilities also for students. Does it not put extra strain — physical and mental on the poor youngsters?
The syllabus and curriculum of our nursery/kindergarten primary and secondary schools needs to be thoroughly reviewed. Children of class 3rd and 4th in our urban schools are being taught subjects like Civics and Environmental Science and even foreign languages. Even the standard of Mathematics taught to primary school children is much higher than that in schools of USA, UK & Germany. And the results of continuing with this system are shocking. In a recent international testing programme, Indian school children scored lowest in verbal and mathematical skills, next only to Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan among 83 countries.
Many of the Indian colleges and universities are of world standard and possess facilities for imparting quality education. These excellent institutions can be effectively utilised for providing education to foreign students and earn valuable foreign exchange for the country. This great potential stems from the fact that cost of education is very low compared to that in the US and other developed countries and also the fact that English is the common medium of instruction at the college level in India. The government must take some serious steps to tap this great potential. It is, however, mentioned with great dismay that the present UPA government is contemplating just the opposite — planning FDI in secondary education sector, a step that is fraught with regressive consequences for the sector.
In recent years , especially after 2003, considerable numbers of private colleges and universities have been allowed to be established. This was a welcome step but the country needed a regulatory agency to streamline their working and to maintain proper standards of education, especially in professional courses like engineering, medicine and management. It is ironic and unfortunate that such a regulatory agency is yet to be set up in the Central and State governments. This is a paramount need of the hour.
It is an extremely worrying matter that the last few years are witness to sporadic cases of question paper leakage in competitive examinations to professional institutions and these include IIT and AIIMS. The incidents that have come to light may be only the tip of the iceberg. The leakage episodes have revealed a complex nexus of institution employees, students and government officials regulating these institutions.
The importance of Research and Development for Industry in the world of today and tomorrow cannot be overemphasised. Our universities should take up R&D projects for industry in a bigger way, on a wider scale. Manufacturing companies holding original R&D patents will call the shots in the business world of tomorrow. Our institutions of learning as well as those engaged in extensive research should take up this great challenge to push our indigenous manufacturing companies to the forefront in the future.
Another point to be made in connection with educational reforms is the need for de-bureaucratisation of government colleges and universities. Granting the respective institutions greater autonomy and enhancing the compensation of teachers are some of the steps called for.
Last but not the least, the role of our schools and colleges in churning out truly educated individuals with knowledge, maturity and moral sense rather than mere literates has to be understood and suitable steps, as necessary have to be taken to incorporate appropriate packages in the curricula of these institutions. Here, I would like to strongly dwell upon the need for incorporating the learning of Sanskrit as a compulsory language up to class 12 in schools. This is a step which is bound to connect our children and youth with the rich traditional culture of the Indian nation and pave the way for cultural, moral and economic resurgence of India.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])a