Making prosperity accessible to all

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

At a government-run primary school near Patancheru in Hyderabad. Funds provided for education mean the advent of a revolution in areas such as health, drinking water provision, housing and roads. - MOHAMMED YOUSUF

At a government-run primary school near Patancheru in Hyderabad. Funds provided for education mean the advent of a revolution in areas such as health, drinking water provision, housing and roads. - MOHAMMED YOUSUF

For the prosperity that comes with India's economic advancement to be healthy and universal, the educational system needs to be strengthened qualitatively.

LET us begin with a set of truisms. The first: India's gross domestic product (GDP) is growing significantly, and the world over this country is being acclaimed as a future economic superpower. The second: the visible economic prosperity is in the urban areas, and among the better-educated, professional classes. And the third: India has a huge number of young people with degrees from universities, but no jobs.

These three factors represent the skewed nature of the prosperity that is coming to the country. They are not the only ones, but they will serve. Any notion that may exist that the advent of prosperity means prosperity across the board belongs to the realm of myth and fantasy. Prosperity may come - one hopes it will - but it will necessarily come to those who have a particular kind of education, meaning not only good degrees from a handful of the `top' universities in the country, but also degrees from professional institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management.

Well, there will be others who will, indeed, already are, sharing in the growing prosperity. There are the thousands of young men and women in the call centres, who earn handsome salaries, and are, in turn, setting off a spending boom that is bringing prosperity to a host of concerns dealing with consumer goods, from clothes to shoes to electronic goods and cars. They are, again, only an example. Many others are finding very lucrative employment in concerns in the Information Technology sector; all it takes is a diploma from one of the many institutions that are churning out computer literate young people.

And yet there are these long queues of young men and women in the employment exchanges across the country, many with degrees from universities, who are unable to find employment. And there are the millions who do not have university degrees; and the millions who live in villages and small towns, underemployed and poverty-stricken, who have done a few years in schools but then have left, either to earn some money or because their families could not afford to keep them there.

It would be easy to say that the prosperity that is slowly coming is going to remain only with a privileged few and create, over time, new classes - the rich and comfortably placed and the poor and disadvantaged. It would also be easy to see these as classes that will never change, but remain immutable. One would, however, be wrong in looking at the situation in that way, very wrong.

The situation is more fluid than it would seem, and the fluidity is provided by the educational system. Many young people from families of modest, at times very modest, means do well in their schools and colleges, and then take professional degrees, or diplomas from the very many institutions training students in the ways of computers and the software they use, and then they go on to earn fair amounts, becoming part of the wave of economic prosperity that is, so far, still a gentle, rather small wave but one that promises to grow.

So what prevents the other graduates, those who fill the private institutions teaching all kinds of skills, from moving onwards? Just one factor, the one that is a blight on our whole education system - mediocre cognitive abilities. It is something that has been tolerated ever since the state has concerned itself with educating the young - third class teaching and a system that makes most youngsters go through school and college, learning by rote pages of text they do not understand at all and then mindlessly pouring it out in examination papers. At some stage the separation between the wheat and the chaff is inevitably made, and then, to all those found wanting, the years spent in what they were told was education turn out to have been a terrible, enduring waste.

These are the unemployable ones; made so by a system which was for decades obsessed by figures - the percentage of those in college, the number of graduates, and so on - and congratulating themselves over and over again on a job well done. It is only in recent years that it has dawned on the authorities that all is not well; the hundreds of thousands of graduates and school leavers have not meant a truly educated class of people, of employable people; they may have got degrees and certificates of having passed their school leaving examinations, but they were in fact no better than illiterate. It is very easy to test this; one has only to ask one of the many waiting listlessly outside employment exchanges, young people with B.A. or B.Sc. degrees, some basic questions which would make their levels of comprehension clear.

In a report giving an overview of the Education For All (EFA) programme in this region, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has said: "The EFA goal... implies not only that all children have access to school and complete it, but also, and equally importantly, that they receive an education of good quality. Only in these conditions can people enjoy the range of individual and societal benefits that quality education provides... . A significant proportion of school leavers do not achieve minimum mastery levels, (and) results from national and international assessments suggest that pupils from rural areas and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are particularly vulnerable."

The report then goes on to point out that, while there may be no agreement on what determines the quality of education, studies conducted in developing countries point to "significant relationships between cognitive achievement and school expenditure, teacher education and school facilities." The report mentions an experiment in India, which demonstrated the positive impact on learning of reducing class size, providing child-friendly teaching and providing remedial teaching.

So poor results are not inevitable for the majority of students; factors can change that, and they, too, can share in the wealth that is spreading gradually in the country. The fact is that the authorities know what the problems are: teacher quality, teacher absenteeism, facilities in schools and colleges, and above all, the crying need to provide for more funds. When asked why adequate funds are not provided, it is usual for the authorities to say that there are so many competing demands on the limited funds available - health, drinking water, housing, roads and other vital areas of development. This is true enough, but the fact is that funds provided for education mean the advent of a revolution in all these fields. Good education - which means the development of the ability to think, to comprehend - will inevitably affect what is done by tomorrow's engineers and doctors in all fields; not just the few who are being produced today of whom a third seek the good life in foreign countries, but the thousands and thousands who will not leave, but stay and work at home because their circumstances make it necessary for them to stay here.

"Human history," wrote H.G. Wells in The Outline of History, "becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." We have symptoms of what may be in store as we create more and more uneducated young people who carry with them diplomas and degrees, find no worthwhile employment and join the millions of resentful persons who take up whatever employment they can get or do nothing - just waste their time and their parents' money. In them are the seeds of violence and chaos, just as H.G. Wells feared. That catastrophe he foresaw will, without a doubt, negate all the crores being spent on drinking water, roads, housing and health; and what is not destroyed will be corroded from within for the same reason, atrophied cognition, warped comprehension, which will make for bad engineers and dangerously bad doctors, among others.

There may still be time to avert that, and ensure that the prosperity that comes with India's economic advancement is not only healthy but becomes universal.

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