State of education

For quality and equality

Print edition : July 08, 2016

At Vyasarpadi in Chennai, a 2008 picture. Access to school education has become near universal, but children from certain sections of the population have not been able to take full benefit of the educational opportunities. Photo: V. Ganesan

Inside a classroom at a government school in a slum on the outskirts of Jammu. A 2010 picture. Photo: Mukesh Gupta /REUTERS

While issues of accessibility and enrolment have improved dramatically in the past decades, issues relating to the quality of education at both school and higher levels have not been addressed adequately either in policy or in practice.

To many people, the picture showing scenes of flagrant mass copying at examination centres in Bihar defined the state of Indian education in 2015. Again, the details of the “topper” scam in recent weeks symbolise the deterioration in the examination system. Is this only a Bihar phenomenon? What is the state of education in India?

The Indian education system is among the largest in the world, with about 26 crore children enrolled in Classes I to XII located in 36 States and Union Territories, 683 districts, about 7,300 blocks and more than 82,000 clusters, covering more than 15 lakh schools; the total number of teachers functioning in the system (in public and private schools) is of the order of 80 lakh. This does not include the enrolment in higher education institutions, which cover more than three crore students. In many senses, this is one of the largest areas of direct contact between the state and the citizen, with nearly one-fifth of the population directly involved daily in the teaching or learning process.

Education in India is currently provided by the public sector as well as the private sector. The Central and most State boards uniformly follow the “10+2+3” pattern of education. In this pattern, study of 12 years is done in schools and/or in colleges, and then three years of graduation for a bachelor’s degree. The first 10 years are further subdivided into five years of primary education, three years of upper primary and two years of high school. This pattern originated from the recommendation of the Kothari Education Commission of 1964-66.

The National Education Policies of 1968, and 1986 as modified in 1992, had endorsed a norm of 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) as the minimum expenditure on education. However, this target has never been met. The expenditure by Education Departments of the Centre and the States has never risen above 4.3 per cent of the GDP, and is currently around 3.5 per cent.

As compared to 12 per cent in 1947, the overall literacy rate in India in 2011 was 74 per cent, with a male literacy rate of 82.1 per cent and a female literacy rate of 65.5 per cent. However, it is well below the world average literacy rate of 84 per cent, and India currently has the largest illiterate population in the world. Kerala is the most literate State in India, with 93.91 per cent literacy, while Bihar is the least literate State with a literacy rate of 63.82 per cent.

Elementary education (Classes I-VIII)

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme for universalisation of education (Education for All), along with the no-detention policy, has resulted in a significant enhancement both in the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) to over 95 per cent, and in the enrolment of girls.

Its precursor, the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), was launched in 1994 with the aim of universalising primary education in India. With 85 per cent funding by the Central government, the DPEP had opened 1.6 lakh new schools, including 84,000 alternative education schools delivering alternative education to approximately 35 lakh children. In 2014-15, there were 14 lakh schools in the country imparting elementary education, with a total enrolment of 19.77 crore. Of these, government schools numbering 11 lakh accounted for an enrolment of 11.9 crore students at the elementary level, while three lakh private schools catered to 8.56 crore students.

Large numbers of children continue to leave school before completing elementary education. In 2014-15, the retention rate at the primary level was 83.7 per cent and it was as low as 67.4 per cent at the elementary level. Roughly, four in every 10 children enrolled in Class I were leaving school before completing Class VIII (U-DISE, 2014-15).

Quality of education

Currently, two large-scale nationwide learning assessment surveys have been conducted in India at the elementary stage. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has conducted National Achievement Surveys (NAS) periodically since 2001 for Classes III, V and VIII. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 survey found that nearly half of the Class V students were not able to read at Class II level; nearly the same proportion of Class V students did not have basic arithmetic skills, which they should have learned by the end of Class II (ASER 2015). It is also necessary to refer to Gunotsav, a mass assessment process, first introduced in Gujarat in 2009, which is now being implemented with variations in some other States as well.

All the surveys indicate that, quantitatively, India is inching closer to the constitutional and Right to Education (RTE) Act guarantee of universal access and participation in elementary education. Encouragingly, at the all-India level, the percentage of older girls (in the 11-14 age group) not enrolled in school has dropped from 10 per cent in 2006 to close to 5 per cent in 2014. Except for Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the figure has dropped significantly for many States, with Bihar showing the steepest decline from 17.6 per cent in 2006 to 5.7 per cent in 2014. Further, visits to government schools on randomly selected days show an attendance rate of about 71 per cent of enrolled children, though these figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, the quality of education, in terms of learning outcomes, is undeniably poor, particularly in the government school system. This is a matter of serious concern because approximately 80 per cent of all recognised schools at the elementary stage are government-run or supported. Reading is a foundational skill; without being able to read well, a child cannot progress in the education system. However, reading outcomes are unacceptably poor, particularly in government and rural schools.

For example, ASER 2014 found that over 75 per cent of all children in Class III, over 50 per cent in Class V and over 25 per cent in Class VIII could not read texts meant for the Class II level. At the all-India level, the number of children in rural schools in Class II who could not even recognise letters of the alphabet increased from 13.4 per cent in 2010 to 32.5 per cent in 2014. In the last year of their primary education in Class V, almost 20 per cent of children could only read letters or were not literate even at this level; 14 per cent could read words but not sentences; and 19 per cent could read sentences but not longer texts. Further, reading levels for children enrolled in government schools in Class V showed a decline between 2010 and 2012. While reading levels in Class V in private schools were also not high, the gap in reading levels between children in government schools and private schools appears to be growing over time.

Early childhood years are critically important, when a child’s mental and physical development are at their highest, and when many lifelong characteristics are developed; this is when basic skills are acquired for subsequent development. Without a strong foundation in the early years, the child’s future progress, mental and physical, is highly circumscribed. The criticality of addressing the child’s mental and physical growth in the early years has not been adequately understood or addressed. Available data indicate that in 2014, nearly 20 per cent of children in Class II did not recognise numbers from 1 to 9 and nearly 40 per cent of children in Class III were unable to recognise numbers till 100. More disturbingly, these proportions have grown progressively and substantially since 2010, indicating that learning outcomes are deteriorating rapidly at the primary stage.

In sum, half of all children in Class V have not yet learned basic skills that they should have learned by Class II. Close to half of all children will finish eight years of schooling but will still not have learned basic skills in arithmetic. However, it is also important to note in this context that the basic human material in India is as good as any in the world; the Indian child, given the opportunity, is a fast learner—a fact which cuts across every district in every corner of India. The failure to provide the opportunity for a decent education to every child, even seven decades after Independence, is a severe indictment of our governance standards.

It is noteworthy that the poor quality of education in government schools has been underlined by a recent directive from the Allahabad High Court ordering all government servants in Uttar Pradesh to send their children only to public schools run by the State Basic Education Board.

Secondary & higher secondary education (Classes IX to XII)

At the secondary stage, the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) is the most important programme rolled out by the Human Resource Development Ministry. It has the twin aims of enhancing access to and improving the quality of secondary education in the country.

Enrolment is sought to be increased by providing a secondary school within a reasonable distance of all habitations and by removing gender, socio-economic and disability barriers to education. The prescribed infrastructural and physical facilities include adequate number of classrooms, laboratories, libraries, art and crafts rooms, toilet blocks, drinking water availability, electricity connection, telephone and Internet connectivity and disabled-friendly amenities. However, the fact on the ground is that even minimum infrastructure standards are not observed in most schools, particularly in the hinterland—basic amenities are indeed not available in most locations.

Equity aspects are sought to be addressed by according special focus on micro-planning and preference in opening schools in areas with concentrations of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Minorities. Undertaking a special enrolment drive for the weaker sections, providing more female teachers in schools and separate toilet blocks for girls are some of the significant strategies.

The RMSA aims at achieving a GER of 100 per cent by 2017 and universal retention by 2020. While the first target could be seriously addressed, it is highly doubtful if it would be realistic to retain the “retention” target by 2020, even if major remedial steps are urgently undertaken.

Over the years, there has been significant and rapid increased participation of the private sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in secondary education. Currently, approximately 51 per cent of the secondary schools and 58 per cent of the higher secondary schools are privately managed.

With the rapid expansion of the school system, access to school education has become near universal; however, children from certain sections of the population, for reasons arising out of poverty, the need to work, and social restrictions or lack of belief in usefulness of education, have not been able to take full benefit of the educational opportunities. Many girls are not sent to school, and many who complete primary level are not able to pursue their studies at the secondary level and in colleges.

Moreover, social and income disparities continue to be reflected in gaps in learning levels, which remain large and seem to be growing. Children from historically disadvantaged and economically weaker sections of society and first-generation learners exhibit significantly lower learning outcomes and are more likely to fall behind and drop out of school.

The spread of secondary education throughout the country remains uneven. Regional disparities continue as do differences in access depending on the socio-economic background of students. Absence of teachers, lack of incentives, and low academic standards in government schools have contributed to the rise of the private sector in secondary school education.

Higher education

There has been an upsurge in the demand for higher education after Independence, resulting in a virtual explosion in the number of universities and colleges in the country. Many students join university courses merely to obtain a degree, which has come to be considered as a sine qua non for white (and even blue) collar employment and social status.

There are at present 46 Central universities and 128 deemed-to-be universities in the country (UGC Annual Report 2014-15). The Indian higher education system, which includes technical education, is one of the largest in the world. The number of universities has grown from 27 in 1950-51 to 621 in 2010-11 and further to 712 in 2013-14. The number of institutes has grown from 11,095 in 2010-11 to 11,443 in 2012-13.

The number of colleges has shown phenomenal growth, from 578 in 1950-51 to 32,974 in 2010-11; 34,852 in 2011-12; and 35,829 in 2012-13. In 2014-15, there were 711 universities, 40,760 colleges (UGC Annual Report 2014-15) and 11,922 stand-alone institutions in higher education sector in India (AISHE 2014-15). As against two lakh students in 1950-51, the total enrolment in higher education in 2014-15 was 3.33 crore, comprising 1.79 crore boys and 1.54 crore girls. The number of teachers stood at 14 lakh, with 39 per cent female teachers.

The private sector has played a major role in the growth of colleges and institutions in India. In 2011-12, 63.9 per cent of the total number of colleges and institutes were in the private sector and 58.9 per cent of the total number of students were enrolled in private colleges and institutes. State institutes accounted for 35.6 per cent and Central institutes for 0.5 per cent of the total number of colleges and institutes. Enrolment in these institutions was 38.6 per cent and 2.6 per cent respectively.

Regional disparities have increased with the expansion of higher education in India. Inter-State disparities in GER are large and have increased over time.

The utility of higher education in assuring employment is questionable. Many graduate and postgraduate students do not get jobs in their respective fields even after spending several years in acquiring higher education. While the problem of educated unemployed youth remains acute, there is also, paradoxically, a shortage of skilled manpower in the labour market. There is a clear gap between the focus and quality of education in academia and the actual skills required by industry.

The global ranking of universities is a useful indicator of their institutional performance, based on a relative assessment in the areas of research and teaching, reputation of faculty members, reputation among employers, resource availability, share of international students and activities and other factors. Indian universities do not find a place in the top 200 positions in the global ranking of universities. Even the top-ranking institutions in India figure only in the lower echelons of global rankings.

In conclusion, the most noteworthy point that emerges is that while issues of accessibility and enrolment have dramatically improved in the past decades and much progress has been made in relation to equity in opportunities, issues relating to quality of education at both school and higher levels have not been addressed adequately either in policy or in practice; indeed, there is a secular decline in the overall quality of education. Necessarily, issues of equity, as also of quality have to be the main focus of any new national policy.

Serious reforms are imperative and brook no delay. Major new directions now need to be taken. Issues of immediate concern and administrative constraints should not be allowed to override the medium- and long-term measures essential for major reforms. The country is now looking to the Government of India to give a new direction in the field of education. The steps taken now will determine if India will be a leading nation in the world this century.

T.S.R. Subramanian is a former Cabinet Secretary. He headed the Drafting Committee for framing the New Education Policy.

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