19/08/2015 7:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

India's Growth Story Must Start With Our Schools, Colleges

Group of Asian Students studying in college.
Intellistudies via Getty Images
Group of Asian Students studying in college.

There's a pithy saying that has for many years been doing the rounds: "India grows at night... when the government sleeps." It certainly holds true enough for the growth of our now-famous Information Technology (IT) sector. There's a fair amount of consensus among those in the know that the government did not have any clue about what was happening, or what appropriate policies should be taken to encourage the IT sector (read: to thwart it) in the 1990s. And the story goes like this: before the government could garner even an elementary understanding of the IT sector, IT in India had become a large enough industry to have its lobby in place. And the hardest job of that industry-lobby - NASSCOM --since then has been to convince the government to stay away from it.

Unfortunately, the education sector - from nurseries to universities - cannot operate at night, save perhaps for internet classes or Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). This perhaps is the best explanation for India's poor university rankings and the performance levels on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The All India Council of Technical Education Council (AICTE), a government regulatory body, has spoken of spreading the seeds of professional technical institutes, expecting quality education to expand rapidly. Unfortunately, what AICTE did not know, or still does not realise, as one expects from such government regulatory bodies, is that those seeds had fundamental genetic defects.

"There is an inherent dichotomy in India's pursuit of growth and development. We simply do not want to do what has been straightforward and apparently achievable."

There is an inherent dichotomy in India's pursuit of growth and development. We simply do not want to do what has been straightforward and apparently achievable. We seem to want to make any challenging task much harder, complicated with unnecessary and unrealistic additional constraints and conditions. Naturally, the results are messy -- far away from the fundamental, objective function.

Therefore, it raised some hopes when, PM Modi, in his Madison Square Garden speech in September 2014 assured the world: "I would be happy if we do away with one archaic law a day".

Unfortunately, various governments have paid little more than lip service to the fact that without quality education, no country can prosper in today's knowledge-driven information economy. Kevin Watkins, of the Overseas Development Institute, has says it clearly: "Education may not be a quick fix for slow growth. But try naming a country that has sustained an economic transformation without advances in education".

In 2009, India came 2nd last among 73 nations, only ahead of Kyrgyzstan (whose entire population is less than 0.3% of India's under-15 age population!), in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) PISA test that measures the performance of 15 year olds in reading, maths and science. India subsequently pulled out of the PISA tests of 2012 and 2015, as if side-stepping the issue would make it go away. Perhaps we avoided shaming headlines, but what of the fact that our youth - the largest population of youth in the world - are so behind.

The contrast is visible when there is obsession in India for university ranking, which is more commercial in nature. Or take another such global ranking, the ease of doing business, which seems to be a favourite of the current administration. India performs poorly in ease of doing business too, but not as poorly as in the PISA test. The developed world, or the rapidly-moving-towards-developed-world status of the East Asian nations, including China, accord equal importance to both the PISA rank and the ease of doing business.

The website of another bureaucratic organisation, the University Grants Commission (UGC) starts with what sounds like its mission statement: "Quality higher education for all". However, what hasn't been factored into that statement is how one can have quality higher education with the 2nd lowest quality of elementary education, until and unless UGC has an altogether new definition of "quality".

"India performs poorly in ease of doing business too, but not as poorly as in the PISA test."

As for the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the less said the better. There simply is not any focus, and unnecessary issues have generated a series of controversies. There has been hope of structural academic reforms, which the previous administration also attempted, but failed. Meanwhile, the focus seems to be on installing "right-wing sympathisers" and lackeys of various hues to key positions. Whatever hope there was is flagging.

Naturally, the Ministry of HRD has not heard what the PM promised to the world in the last September: "I would be happy if we do away with one archaic law a day". It also probably is not in the radar of the GDP-obsessed nation, as India basks in the new-found glory of growing marginally faster than China (although official growth rates claimed by both these two nations remain under scrutiny, and therefore are questionable). Chest-thumping Indian policy-makers and media fail to understand that India's higher growth rate than China is anyway inevitable, as a natural process due to nearly five times difference in base effect of per-capita nominal GDP between India and China. Similarly China does not display its elation on growing at a much faster rate than the US, as the difference of base effect here is more than seven times. But the US is legitimately concerned when China scores better in the PISA rank as quality education happens to be the lead variable for all economic indicators in future.

And India happily continues to build the proverbial Wall Street without main streets, or even connecting ones. Academic reforms have again taken a back-seat, although economic reforms, on paper, started since 1991.

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