India's Education Sector: The Need for Better Governance and Policy Reforms
By Parth J Shah
Seventy- two years after Independence, our nation has no doubt emerged from backwardness in the social sector, but there are always discussions and debates about what has not been achieved or the big gaps to be filled across many areas. One such area is the education sector that has an important bearing on the economic growth and development of the nation.
At the time of parliamentary elections, it is usual for party manifestoes to discuss various issues the nation is facing and what they would do to solve them. Education doesn't appear prominently in the agenda of most political parties, although the assessment of the current scenario matched with promised solutions is an integral part. How feasible the solutions are, and how many of these will, actually, be implemented remains a question mark.
I would like to make a realistic assessment of the educational achievements and shortcomings. I am looking at it based on three major criteria-access, quality and equity. India has performed well as far as providing universal access to education is concerned; enrolment in primary schools stand at 98%. The provision of free text books, uniforms and mid-day meals have no doubt incentivised parents in many regions to send their children to school. At the same time, universal access may not have happened in some remote areas of the country, especially the tribal regions.
The third issue of equity has not been addressed because we have different systems of schooling-government, aided and private which give rise to vast differences in quality of education imparted to our children.
Governance and Policy Reforms
When it comes to the second criterion of quality, some government schools don't match the quality of private schools, while some private schools may not match global standards. The quality challenge cannot be met by adding a few national level teacher training institutes. That will cater to a miniscule population. The prime issue is with respect to governance and policy making. In states, we have a single education department that is responsible for policy making, setting up infrastructure, providing services, regulation, arbitration, finance, training and recruitment of teachers. This is a cumbersome task for any department to undertake on its own. In the telecom sector, insurance and banking sectors there is a clear demarcation between service providers, policy makers and regulators. For example, the Department of Telecommunications is responsible for policy making while the Telecom Regulatory Authority takes care of regulation, and several independent service providers provide various services across the country. Then there is the TDSAT (Telecom Disputes Settlement and Advisory Tribunal) for settlement of disputes and disposal of appeals. Likewise, policy making, supervision, regulation, services, dispute and arbitration are all demarcated in the insurance and banking sectors too.
There is an argument raised for increased government funding for the education sector, from the present average of 3.5% to 6% of GDP. However, I feel it is more important to implement structural and governance changes at the state and central level. What happens inside the classroom has more bearing on learning outcomes than infrastructure. At present, it is not possible for students, who have not studied in CBSE affiliated schools to write the 10th and 12 Standard board examinations. With appropriate e-learning systems, a student who has completed 10 years of learning in any system should be able to write the CBSE examinations; this will bring equity in the system.
The syllabus suggested by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)gives a single syllabus with a 'one size fits all' approach for the entire country. This will not reflect the local differences in culture, environment, literature, art and living. The education system should be decentralised; and even the local panchayat should have their say in drafting the syllabi.
Resistance to Reform
The Medical Commission of India Bill which replaces the Medical Council of India and is intended to reform the medical education sector has been met with resistance from the latter. In the past two decades several important legislations couldn’t be notified for implementation due to opposition from vested interests. The present system of accreditation for higher education courses are based on the size of the campus and the infrastructure. For eg. there has may be a stipulation of a 25 acres campus with a 10,000 square feet building, labs and amenities. However, learning outcome is never considered as a key parameter for granting accreditation. Subsidizing government college fees should be rationalized. We have a situation where the fees for the entire college tenure may be less than the one-year fees a student may have paid in school, or one-tenth the cost of school education. However, if college fee structure is revised upwards, eligible candidates should be provided scholarships.
Quality of Research
The quality of research in our universities and scientific institutions can only be enhanced with more funding, autonomy and industry partnerships, financed by the private sector. If quality of research and facilities improve, several Indians, who are working abroad will be willing to return to their homeland. More foreign students especially from African and Asian nations are interested in coming to India but the ambience should be enabling for them.
To summarize I would say that adding more colleges and schools, infrastructure, increasing funding may not bring the desired results until quality of learning is enhanced through policy reforms, focus on governance and ensuring equity in the education system.