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