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India Created Its Own Education Crisis, But There's Hope Yet

17/08/2016 4:34 PM IST | Updated 19/08/2016 8:19 AM IST
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Shailesh Andrade / Reuters

The recent report tabled in Parliament that more than 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 globalizing environment driven largely by the internet revolution; a serious supply-demand constraint both 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.

Unless the population is employable, the demographic dividend can rapidly degenerate into a demographic liability.

For around a decade, Indians celebrated the fact that we are a young nation. As per current statistics, around 600 million Indians are under 25 years of age. 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 a young population. 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.

Faulty DNA

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.

Clayton Christensen, known for his seminal work in education, argues that innovative educational institutions are those which change the very DNA of education from inside out. This shift in mindset primarily requires that education is perceived as a critical respondent to market needs and requirements and thus, of productive employment.

In the prevailing situation in India, education delivery is essentially mechanical, where an overworked and overstretched 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) will follow. Such a fundamental shift requires clarity on what education is meant to achieve.

It is only when the why of education policy is understood that the how will follow. This 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, s/he will 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 globalization and consumer aspirations so continuously and dramatically impacted the external landscape -- both in our social and work spheres.

Fixing the demand and supply problem

To create the right environment for change, the significant supply constraint, and the huge pressure it imposes on infrastructure needs to be addressed. This is a three-fold constraint. First, even if India were to succeed in its target of 30% gross enrollment 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 with regard to 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.

Today, an indecent disparity characterizes the difference between government-run schools in rural India and in urban tier-2 cities in comparison to their rapidly mushrooming private counterparts. The majority of the first category of schools operate under abysmal conditions with a lack in basic educational amenities. Students don't have books or writing equipment, teachers are underpaid and unqualified, classrooms are overcrowded because of the lack of infrastructure and teachers, administration is distinctly absent and consequently, the quality of education suffers. More importantly, the quality of students suffers. This is visible even in many private schools, which charge exorbitantly higher fees but face no pressure to provide better education and operate, consequently, to profit from the supply-demand mismatch.

By preventing outside players and platforms from entering the arena, the situation is perpetuated domestically and vested interests create their own dynamics.

To address this requires a radical shift in our approach towards alternate delivery platforms. This can be achieved first through improving the functioning of our existing educational institutions, second through improvements in infrastructure and the embrace of technology and third, through a rapid increase in the number of education providers. In short, an inside-out transformation.

Improving the functioning of our educational institutions requires that the approach towards education and, consequently, its management is comprehensively recast. Without embedding efficiencies in it 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.

Looking within, and without

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 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 90s, when India decided to embark on economic reforms, there will be predictable resistance from domestic constituencies, who would see it as a threat to their business survival.

Substantially increased budgetary allocations and utilization are inescapable. Radical and disruptive intervention in education is the call of the hour. At the same time, it needs to be recognized that the inside-out transformation is not a sequential one but one where a series of interventions are simultaneously and strategically introduced into the system to address the crisis. While the lack of infrastructure is undoubtedly a major systemic flaw, the lack of quality teachers is equally alarming. By 2020, India will require one million new teachers. But creating quality teachers cannot be achieved overnight. Technology is the enabler to leapfrog this immediate constraint. Indeed, technology-driven education would act as a multiplier in multiple sectors, which would add to India's growth story.

History would be unforgiving if the government does not see this significant challenge as an extraordinary opportunity to change education's DNA.

By 2020, it is also estimated that India would require 1000 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 channeled into combating 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 to change education's DNA. As is often foretold, the future can hold promise only when we dare to seize it.

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