"Focus on quantity at the cost of quality", by invitation, 'Mint', 9 March 2009.

Education policy during the tenure of the UPA has been dominated by the announcement of some grand initiatives in higher education. Among these have been plans for new IITs and IIMs, many central universities and even some “world class” ones. It is less well-known though that this government has continued unabated the attention on primary education introduced by its predecessor the NDA. Recall that a programme of universalising primary education, termed Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, had been launched in 2001. The UPA has displayed political maturity by avoiding partisanship and not soft-pedalling this initiative. That some of the funding was international, and earmarked for building assets, may have provided a financial incentive. Outcomes, of course, are an altogether different matter from political patronage. As initiatives must be judged by outcomes, so must be the actions of the government of the day. And outcome in educational policy is judged by the advancement of learning. Government in India have generally steered away from this indicator, preferring that of provisioning. Thus, official agencies purvey indicators of enrollment, the teacher-student ratio and pucca school infrastructure. It may be said that among these the first two do show an improvement. However, the teacher-student ratio in India’s schools has shown a secular worsening since Independence, and there is no evidence that a permanent reversal of this trend has even been initiated. Anyhow, the teacher-student ratio is yet not an indicator of learning. As the Government of India does not provide data on this, we must rely on that provided by private agencies. The NGO Pratham produces the Annual State of Education Report, and the most recent one reveals unacceptably low learning outcomes in India. Our public schooling system is shown to be grossly deficient, with students unable to read, write or do arithmetic prescribed for far lower grades. The private school system is shown to improve upon these miserable results only marginally, rendering non-credible the stance that privatisation is the answer here. The missing element in the mix is governance. In the context of the public school system it is the ability to get teachers to first make an appearance in class and then to demonstrate acceptable levels of learning among their wards. As for government-aided private schools, which predominate in some states, the measure of governance is, once again, whether learning is fostered. It is not clear that the governance of the school system has advanced much during the tenure of the UPA government. Of course, it must be borne in mind that education being on the Concurrent List the central government’s ability to turn things round is limited. State governments have been happy to take the money and hesitant to ruffle the feathers of their constituencies, the bureaucracy of the states’ Education Department and the teachers. On the other hand, in higher education – via the archipelago of central institutions – the Union government has not just greater leeway, but pretty much complete control. This the UPA government has not hesitated to use to the hilt. The initiatives have mostly had to do with expansion, almost willfully ignoring quality. I might mention even at the outset that by and large the heavy-handed manner in which much of this has been implemented has left India’s academics demoralised and, thus, demotivated. This bodes ill for the future of higher education in this country.   

            Undoubtedly the most widely noticed of the initiatives in higher education during the past five years is the expansion in the annual intake of the IITs and the IIMs. Technically a move applicable to all central government institutions, attention has tended to get focused on the plan for these two institutions, reflecting a certain cynicism in Indian society. For it could not have escaped anyone’s notice that degrees from these institutes are the most prized in the job market. Considering that government could have introduced reservation for OBC candidates without increasing the number of seats, academics have been left with the sense that the government was not for a moment concerned with the impact on the quality of education that an expansion could contribute to. It would be naïve to imagine this dissension is some elitist rant. For, while politicians squabbled over the location of the next IIT or IIM, we may want to draw the right conclusion from the fact of low applications for student and faculty positions in the first of the institutions that have been kick-started so far. The public may have seen the expansion coming at the cost of quality.

            We are at the end of a disappointing decade for India’s educational sector, especially its higher echelon. At end of the rule by the UPA, the same sense of helplessness that had marked the rule of the NDA pervades the ranks of India’s few remaining independent-minded academics. India ranks well below most developing countries in the UNESCO’s Educational Development Index. This pertains mostly to basic education. When it comes to the production of knowledge, there are no universally accepted indicators, but we know that India is not today a source of knowledge for the world, which it was historically.This situation requires an imaginative response from government. At a meeting of vice chancellors in 2008 Shri Arjun Singh, the Minister for Human Resource Development, spoke candidly when he stated that higher education in India was a “sick child”. Alas, his medicine has proved to be mostly worse than the disease.