Ed­u­cat­ing for Growth

To leave a le­gacy, Modi should be a great ed­u­ca­tion PM and trans­form In­dia’s sham­bolic school­ing

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - An Epiphany Of Ideas - Kanti Ba­j­pai

The trou­bles of the In­dian econ­omy are be­ing as­cribed to global cycli­cal fac­tors, do­mes­tic struc­tural prob­lems and plain bad pol­icy (de­mon­eti­sa­tion and an overly-com­plex GST). In re­sponse, fi­nance min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man has tried to stim­u­late the econ­omy. Sadly, her poli­cies will likely not have last­ing im­pact. Af­ter a brief re­cov­ery, growth will prob­a­bly drop off or flat­line. Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s vi­sion of a five-tril­lion dol­lar econ­omy seems just that – a vi­sion!

The East Asian eco­nomic suc­cess story was scripted on the back of at least four fun­da­men­tal poli­cies: land re­forms, ex­port-led growth, high sav­ings and hu­man cap­i­tal for­ma­tion. Ex­cept for high sav­ings in re­cent decades, In­dia has failed on all counts. And now sav­ings rates are falling too. For the long term, the most con­strain­ing fac­tor on eco­nomic growth is hu­man cap­i­tal for­ma­tion, a point that Swami­nathan Ai­yar among oth­ers has re­cently ar­gued.

Hu­man cap­i­tal is cru­cial for eco­nomic suc­cess. A healthy, lit­er­ate and skilled pop­u­lace is vi­tal in man­u­fac­tur­ing, ser­vices, even mod­ern agri­cul­ture. With­out it, In­dia can­not sus­tain growth rates of 7-10%. Even if it does hit those levels for some years, growth will even­tu­ally level off, con­sign­ing us to the mid­dle in­come trap.

The World Bank’s 2018 re­port shows that In­dia ranks115th in the Hu­man Cap­i­tal In­dex (HCI) – below ev­ery South Asian coun­try ex­cept Afghanista­n and Pak­istan. The gov­ern­ment has re­jected the HCI as flawed. This head-in-the-sand at­ti­tude typ­i­fies Delhi’s re­ac­tion to in­ter­na­tional judg­ments. The credit rat­ing agen­cies are flawed, the PISA school test is flawed, the rank­ing of In­dian uni­ver­si­ties is flawed. And so on. The gov­ern­ment has coun­tered say­ing that the prime min­is­ter’s var­i­ous health and ed­u­ca­tion schemes were over­looked by the World Bank: ap­par­ently, In­dia is do­ing well.

At the core of hu­man cap­i­tal for­ma­tion is school and univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion. Hav­ing been in­volved in school and univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in In­dia and univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in Sin­ga­pore, the UK, and the US for 30 years, i have no hes­i­ta­tion in say­ing that our schools, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are in dis­as­trous con­di­tion.

There are ex­cep­tions: there are pri­vate and gov­ern­ment schools that ex­cel; and there are col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties that pro­vide rea­son­able higher ed­u­ca­tion. But the vast ma­jor­ity of our ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions stand nowhere glob­ally. We in the mid­dle classes do not have a sense of this. Our chil­dren go to the ex­cel­lent-to-rea­son­able in­sti­tu­tions. Many go on to higher ed­u­ca­tion in the US and Europe. The aca­demic suc­cess of mid­dle class In­di­ans who ex­cel abroad gives us a cosy feel­ing about our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

Put that feel­ing away. Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is a scan­dal. Why? Our in­fra­struc­ture, in schools, is calami­tous: the cam­puses are shame­fully pro­vi­sioned and main­tained. Schools are crip­pled by teacher ab­sen­teeism and prin­ci­pals who know noth­ing about school man­age­ment. Our teach­ing is Dick­en­sian. Pratham’s an­nual re­view of school ed­u­ca­tion will make you cry. Lan­guage and math­e­mat­i­cal skills are tragic: only half our Class 5 stu­dents can read Class 2 texts; a mere 40% in Class 8 can do long divi­sion.

In­dian univer­sity stu­dents too are poorly trained and skilled. Most of them can­not write a co­her­ent, struc­tured es­say. What­ever lan­guage they are ed­u­cated in, their com­pe­ten­cies are poor. Years ago, when i taught in Bar­oda, my Gu­jarati lan­guage col­leagues told me that their stu­dents could not write cor­rectly in any lan­guage, not even their mother tongue. In higher ed­u­ca­tion, as in schools, in­fra­struc­ture, teacher ab­sen­teeism, sham­bolic teach­ing, un­pro­fes­sional man­age­ment crip­ple the ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ence. Not sur­pris­ingly, In­dian em­ploy­ers re­port that our grad­u­ates are not em­ploy­able. They don’t have mod­ern skillsets and have to be re­trained at work.

It is no se­cret that the PM wants to leave a le­gacy. Ed­u­ca­tion re­form could be his great­est le­gacy. He has the en­ergy, in­tel­li­gence and po­lit­i­cal shrewd­ness to bring change. Bet­ter than Howdy Modi would be Ed­u­ca­tion Re­for­ma­tion events. In­dia needs ed­u­cat­ing, and Modi could be the Great Ed­u­ca­tion Prime Min­is­ter.

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