A long way to go

Print edition : January 15, 2010


THE rhetoric of successive Central governments in India with respect to education has always been unimpeachable. This is evident in the Constitution, which enshrined free compulsory school education as a directive principle of state policy and committed the Government of India to ensure it within a decade. It is even more marked in successive education policies, which have stressed the need for urgent action to provide good-quality education at different levels to all segments of society, to expand the system to cater to the needs of both the economy and society and to ensure inclusiveness through various kinds of interventions.

Self-help KHAMMAM-

Yet this democratic rhetoric has generally not been matched by commensurate action that would actually achieve the stated goals. What is more surprising is that even this under-achievement has been accompanied by almost continuous self-knowledge, as the Central government has serially appointed commissions to analyse the situation and suggest policies for its improvement.

The landmark in this regard is the Report of the Education Commission (1964-66), otherwise known as the Kothari Commission Report, which still serves as the benchmark for all official policy goals and action. This report clearly linked education to the task of nation building and the development project: The destiny of India is now being shaped in her classrooms. This we believe is no mere rhetoric. In a world based on science and technology it is education that determines the level of prosperity, welfare and security of people. On the quality and number of persons coming out of our schools and colleges will depend our success in the great enterprise of national construction whose principal objective is to raise the standard of living of our people.

No chairs BANGALORE-

In consequence of that report, the National Education Policy of 1968 was announced with very lofty objectives: The Government of India is convinced that a radical reconstruction of education on the broad lines recommended by the education commission is essential for economic and cultural development of the country, for national integration and for realising the ideal of a socialistic pattern of society. This will involve a transformation of the system to relate it more closely to the life of the people; a continuous effort to expand educational opportunity; a sustained and intensive effort to raise the quality of education at all stages; an emphasis on the development of science and technology; and the cultivation of moral and social values. The educational system must produce young men and women of character and ability committed to national service and development.

This was to be achieved by adhering to the following principles:

Free and compulsory education, by enacting and enforcing the required legislation;

Free breakfast TRICHY-

A focus on the status, emoluments and education of teachers, who were seen as constituting the most important factor determining the quality of education;

The energetic development of Indian languages and a three-language formula for schooling;

Equalisation of educational opportunity, by correcting regional and urban-rural imbalances, putting in place a Common Schooling System, and having special focus on girls and students from backward classes and tribal communities, and providing special facilities for handicapped and other disadvantaged students;

Identification of talent at an early stage and subsequent nurture;

SSA coaching camp VELLORE-

Bringing together school and community through work experience and national service;

Priority to science education and research, as well as to technical training;

Special emphasis on the development of education for agriculture and industry;

Primary school KERALA-

Improving the reliability and validity of examinations, and making evaluation a continuous process aimed at improving achievement rather than at certifying the quality of performance at any given time; and

Liquidation of mass illiteracy, and spread of adult education.

Nearly two decades after this policy was announced, in the year that Frontline began publication, it was painfully obvious that these laudable goals were nowhere near being met and that neither fiscal allocation nor actual policy intentions were close to adequate to meet this challenge.

One reason was inadequate fixing of Central responsibility. Until 1976 (when the Constitution was amended to move education from the State List to the Concurrent List, thereby allowing more direct intervention by the Central government), State governments were largely held responsible, for providing school education in particular. This led to widely different outcomes across States, reflecting not only historical legacy but also the ability and willingness of State governments to spend on school education. This tended to reinforce existing spatial inequalities. In any case, governments in the poorer and more backward States tended to have fewer fiscal resources to enable the required expansion, much less to ensure quality.

But even after 1976, there was little real progress because the urgency of ensuring universal quality schooling and expansion of the overall education system was simply not made a policy priority. Even illiteracy rates remained shockingly high. Higher education received a disproportionate share of Central funds for education, but even here the growth stalled. The Nehruvian period generated some institutions of higher learning (new universities and professional institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management) that have now come to symbolise the future potential of the country, but after the initial spurt, there was no push to ensure the required rates of gradual but consistent expansion.

So the 25 years since then should ideally have been marked by a complete transformation in terms of state policy, and a drastic increase in both public funding for education as well as different interventions to ensure better quality and more inclusive education at all levels. To what extent has this happened?

There has been some improvement in certain indicators, but the progress thus far is still uncertain, unbalanced and far from satisfactory. The table shows that the period after 1980-81 witnessed a significant expansion in all levels of educational institutions, even though the numbers are still far from what is required.

The failure to pass, much less implement, legislation for free and compulsory schooling at the Central level and the lack of any assumption of financial responsibility for this by the Centre certainly constituted a major impediment to the extension of education. It is shocking to note that despite more than six decades of official pronouncements, it was only in 2009 that the right to education finally became law. However, one important change was brought about by the greater involvement of the Centre in providing financing for expansion of school education first in the 1990s through the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) in some districts, and then through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), under which the Centre provided 75 per cent of the funds with the goal of universalising primary education. This has led to a greater expansion of the school system, especially in States that previously could not or would not provide more resources for such growth. The Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2008 finds that the share of children not in school has fallen considerably: the proportion of seven-10- year-olds not in school was 2.7 per cent, and the proportion of 11-14-year-olds not in school was 6.3 per cent. However, the pressure to increase enrolment has been associated with the dilution of quality norms, in that schools or rather educational centres have been permitted to come up, based on single (often untrained or minimally trained) and underpaid local teachers handling multigrade classes with poor facilities and occasionally no buildings or other basic infrastructure. Quality not only is influenced by spending but certainly does play an essential role, and, therefore, it is crucial for public intervention not to try and deliver this human right on the cheap.

Partly because of public miserliness, and also other problems with the government school system such as teacher absenteeism in certain places, there has been a growing reliance on private education even for schooling. This is no longer a phenomenon common among the rich and the middle classes: ASER 2008 finds that there was a 37 per cent increase in private school enrolment just between 2005 and 2008. Among all six-14-year-olds, the proportion of children attending private schools increased from 16.4 per cent in 2005 to 22.5 per cent in 2008, and the increase is particularly striking in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The same shift towards more private provision is reflected also in secondary and higher education and if anything, the move has been even sharper and mostly concentrated in the past decade. Charts 1 and 2 provide evidence of the extent to which private suppliers have grown in terms of both the number of institutions and the share of enrolment.

These are, if anything, underestimates of the current situation, since there is much evidence pointing to a significant increase in the number of private deemed universities and institutions recognised by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in the past three years. Not only have private institutions grown rapidly in number, but the bulk of such institutions are unaided. While commercial activity in higher education (that is, for profit) is still illegal in India, many of these are actually profit-making institutions by another name.

Enrolment in the public higher education system is now likely to be less than one-third of total such enrolment. This is to a significant degree a reflection of the failure of the public higher education system to expand adequately to meet the growing demand. Indias higher education enrolment rates, estimated to be anywhere between 9 and 15 per cent depending on data source, are still well below international norms, and there is still a great need for expansion.

Private institutions that charge relatively higher fees are likely to constrain access, especially among the less well-off sections of the population, and perpetuate economic and social distinctions. The growth of private provision at all levels of education also makes it much harder to implement the lofty ideals enunciated (and as yet not implemented) by the Kothari Commission Report.

One important issue that gets increasingly ignored is the continuing problem of adult illiteracy. The National Literacy Mission (NLM) played a major role in providing a quantum leap in increasing functional literacy among the adult population in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, follow-up has been poor, and many of the gains are now eroded, with some beneficiaries even falling back into illiteracy.

More importantly, a significant part of the age cohort 15-30 years around one-third did not benefit from the NLM and were too old to benefit from the expansion of primary education. So they remain functionally illiterate.

There are many other issues and problems with the education system that are increasingly being recognised: the problem of uneven and often poor quality; the inadequate training of and motivation for teachers; the irrelevance of much curricula; the rigidities that characterise examination systems as well as pedagogy in general; the lack of autonomy provided to institutions at all levels and various kinds of outside interference; the mismatch between degrees and the skills required by the economy; the lack of opportunities for continuous learning; the problems of inadequate inclusiveness reflecting not only traditional forms of discrimination and exclusion but also the insensitivity of much education policy.

The country is now entering another phase of potentially rapid expansion of the education system, which is clearly essential. But if it is indeed to provide a basis for an inclusive and democratic society and a sustainable development process, there is much about the current forms of education provision that will have to change drastically. The goals of the Kothari Commission are now more relevant than ever.

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