Quality Education for All: How India Managed to Achieve it

India has come a long way; it is now a USD2 trillion economy and is ranked as the third biggest economy (PPP) in the world. The CEOs of PepsiCo, Microsoft, Nokia, Deutsch Bank, MasterCard, Adobe Systems, Diageo, DBS Bank, Reckitt Benckiser, Global Foundries are Indians. To this list you can easily add many more COOs, CFOs and Chief Technology Officers of the world’s biggest corporations, many of whom have studied in India.

Measuring success is easy; explaining it is difficult. India’s story cannot be described in past perfect tense.  It’s a work in progress. We have deficits. But, there are enablers in our story that merit mentioning - our education system, entrepreneurial spirit, economic reforms and our democratic ecosystem.

The fastest vehicle for socio-economic growth anywhere in the world is education. India’s first University was established in 700 BC.  From then until the 18th Century, we were amongst the largest economies of the world.  Thereafter, India atrophied socio-politically and also missed out on the Industrial Revolution.  Our modern University system came about in 1857. After independence in 1947, education - particularly higher education, became a priority. Even for our new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, “innovation” and “education” are his top two priorities. 

In 1947, we had only 20 universities and 500 colleges.  Our network of higher education has since then extended to include roughly700 universities and 35,000 colleges. We have an annual enrolment of more than 25 million students. 

This increase was possible because of the role played by India’s private sector.

For years many felt that India had not given primary education the same attention as higher education.  In 2002, the right to free and compulsory education of all children between the ages of six and fourteen became a fundamental right.  The government is now obliged to provide and ensure admission, attendance and completion of this elementary education. 

There are some stand-out features of our education system. Educational institutions and facilities are widespread and ubiquitous. Fees are low and standard education is affordable.  Special consideration is shown in admitting students from the socially- and economically-marginalized sections of our society. Academic texts, reference books and other instructional materials are readily available at modest costs, thus rounding up the easy accessibility of education.

On the demand side, there is an unquestionable aspiration for a good education. The poor will go through great personal sacrifices to ensure that their children can transcend their parents’ socio-economic status through a good education. 

Any modern “top achievers” list will show that today’s movers and shakers in India are those who have bested the old order, dominated by those who were born into privilege. The economic, political and cultural landscape is changing rapidly. Indian businesses are increasingly being populated by first-generation entrepreneurs, a new political class is emerging, and popular culture is being nurtured by personalities from all sub-sections of society. 

In short, the new Indian order is being written by a generation that has relied on educational opportunities and an enabling environment that only a diverse democratic ethos can provide.

Traditionally the Indian education system was seen as top-down, heavy on hard work, and overloaded with discipline. The voice of academic authorities was final and little space was allowed for creative and independent thinking. Rote learning (the process of learning to memory through mechanical repetition, usually by hearing and repeating aloud) was king. 

This was probably true. Yet, even when this was true, when school ended and students left for home, they stepped into a societal environment that thrived on free thought, opinion and speech.

This balance between academic rigor and free society is the formula which has produced the minds and personnel that the outside world is increasingly appreciating and rewarding.

Notwithstanding the tremendous gains, challenges remain on the educational front. Foremost is the universalisation of education opportunities. Currently, literacy levels stand at 75Pct. One quarter of the country’s population, especially elderly people, have missed out on any education.

The regulation of educational institutions to ensure consistent quality is also a challenge. A dynamic updating of syllabi and pedagogy to produce employable graduates is a concern. Establishing vocational centres and trade schools will have to be made a priority. 

The biggest challenges in our quest to provide quality education to all has been reaching educational facilities across the 3.3 million square kilo meters of our country, and getting the very poor to recognize the long-term gains of education, as opposed to pushing their children out of school and into child labour. 

The former challenge is met by sharing educational responsibilities between the central government and our 29 regional states and 7 union territories.  Reducing cost of school-level education, providing scholarships and free books has brought increasing numbers to schools. Some states have provided additional scholarships to girl. The Mid-Day Meal Scheme, by which millions of students in government schools are provided free wholesome and nutritious lunches every school day, has also done a lot to increase school enrolment across India.

There is a political and policy commitment to universalize educational opportunities in the country across all political parties. The education revolution in India is a national achievement. 

For many years, some of our brightest students were opting to work abroad. We were victims of brain drain. Thanks to India’s recent economic gains, many Indians who go West for higher education return because of the employment opportunities offered back home. 

This was not the achievement of the government alone. The private sector has gradually assumed a significant role, especially in the higher education. Today, more than 90Pct of all seats in engineering colleges in India are in private colleges.  Private medical schools similarly account for three quarters of all learning opportunities. 

The challenge here is to regulate and ensure strict standards because some schools can take undue advantage as demand for education continues to outstrip supply. In all this, many of our private colleges and universities have done exceptionally well in the country and overseas with presence across countries. Of the ten Indian CEOs listed in this article, three are from private Indian colleges, including the CEOs from Microsoft and Nokia.

On education, there are even larger questions which face governments worldwide, including India. We need answers to many pressing questions: How do we choose between the compulsions of economic growth and climate concerns? How will we create jobs in countries with youthful populations?  How will we gainfully engage the aging but physically and mentally fit populations? How can we bring in greater gender equity? How do we tackle the scourge of terrorism fuelled by fundamentalists? 

Alvin Toffler once said that in the 21st century, an illiterate is not someone who cannot read or write. In our times, he said, an illiterate is  one who will not learn, unlearn, and relearn.  In our ever-changing world, we all need an education system that anticipates and eases our immersion into the future.

2nd Year . July 2014 . No.16

Sanjay Verma

Sanjay Verma, Ambassador of India to Ethiopia and Djibouti, is a career diplomat. An economist by training, he  joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1990. He can be reached at amb.addisababa@mea.gov.in 


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