Alittle over a decade from now, India will become the third largest economy in the world. It will have quadrupled its GDP to around $10 trillion, surpassing France and Japan and behind only the US and China. Set to be the world’s most populous country by 2027, the challenges for India in the 2030s will be even more acute than at present. We are the world’s largest young country. Half the population, or over 600 million people, is under the age of 25, what is called our demographic dividend.
The advent of the knowledge economy—where the creation, dissemination and utilisation of information and knowledge rather than land, labour and capital become the most important factors of production—poses new challenges and opportunities for us.
Can a youthful India deliver the skilled workforce with the capacities and analytical skills for the Information Age? The answer, if you look at the present state of our education system, is an emphatic NO.
Our cover story in 2009, ‘How to
Clean the Mess’, had outlined the problems—islands of excellence like IITs and IIMs in a sea of decaying institutions. The crisis then was as severe as it is now. Only one in nine children who finished school ended up in university. Huge shortages of quality educational institutions were driving cut-off percentages even higher, and multiple regulatory authorities were completely out of sync with the demands of modern education. Public spending on education has hovered around 3 per cent of GDP as against the minimum 6 per cent that two commissions have recommended since 1965.
A decade later, none of these basic issues has been addressed. The problems have only worsened. The 2018 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey found that only 50 per cent of all students in Class V could read texts meant for Class II students. The consequence is that the gross enrolment ratio, or the number of students enrolled at a given level of education as a percentage of the official schoolgoing population, has dropped from 95 per cent for Grades 1-5 to 79 per cent for Grades 9-10.
The time for incremental change, I had written then, was over. The crisis is severe and demands a radical and revolutionary response. We do have a glimmer of hope in a New Education Policy whose draft has just been presented to the government. The 484-page NEP outlines an elaborate plan, encompassing education across multiple segments—pre-school, school, higher, vocational and adult education, as well as teacher training and regulation. It suggests a fundamental change in school curriculums by adopting a multidisciplinary approach, doing away with stressful one-time exams and rote learning, focusing on learning outcomes and adaptability, adding vocational courses to the academic curriculum from school onwards, making teacher training
the pivot of all reforms, boosting research funding in higher education and restructuring and creating some apex regulatory bodies for qualitative changes in higher education. The policy has set some lofty goals, such as doubling the existing gross enrolment ratio in higher education to 50 per cent by 2035, autonomy to all higher education institutes (HEIs) and one quality university in every district of India.
It also emphasises a key driver for knowledge societies—heavy investments in higher education by the government. The funding of education is a delicate matter. As we have seen with many grand plans of any government, the helping hand of the government is often the one that strangulates all noble intentions. The problem in India is the shortage of quality educational institutions at every level. The government should of course do its best to improve government-funded educational institutions but it should also aggressively encourage private investment in education. It can be for-profit too as long as standards are set and honestly regulated by the government. Like in medical care, there should be a choice regarding which facility one wants to use. Only then will you build new capacity in our educational infrastructure. There is nothing like competition to improve standards. In fact, the aim of government institutions should be to put the private ones out of business. It must be remembered that the miraculous transformation of East Asian economies, Japan and South Korea in particular, was only because of their heavy investments in education.
Our cover story, ‘Wanted, a Learning Revolution’, put together by Senior Associate Editor Kaushik Deka, looks at the challenges for a policy that seeks to completely overhaul the country’s education system by 2035 and future-proof students against economic disruptors like Artificial Intelligence. Our cover story package also includes our annual survey of India’s best universities.
The NEP is proof of our ability to bring out the best policies. The challenge, as with every other government policy, lies in the implementation. To translate it on the ground, the blueprint will require an honest, rigorous monitoring mechanism. Indeed, without radically transforming our education system, we will only be adding to our ranks of the unemployable and the unemployed with all the attendant social repercussions. This new policy will take 15 years to be fully implemented. The demographic dividend we keep boasting about will soon become a demographic disaster if we don’t act now in earnest.
Our July 13, 2009 cover