By Dr Vidya Mahambare
Nearly 98% of 682 Indian students who took part in the International Science and Mathematics Olympiads between 1989 and 2019 bagged a gold, a silver or a bronze medal, or an honourable mention, according to the website of Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education. This is a phenomenal achievement by our children on the international stage.
Succeeding in highly competitive, world-class events requires an enormous effort and dedication from students and also from their schools, teachers and mentors. We should rightly celebrate these exceptional accomplishments. We should also recognise, however, that the majority of Indian children are not fortunate to have access to good quality education which can help them optimise their potential.
Our education system begins to fail our kids from early on. Only around 51% of our children in Std III can read the Std I text, according to Pratham’s Annual Survey of Education Report 2019. This means that half of all children in Std III are already at least two years behind relative to where they should be.
Similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, alternative estimates of the employability rate of Indian youth when they enter the workforce range from mere 15% to around 50%. Once again, at best only half of our youth meet the requirements of employers.
Where are the key problems in India’s education system and what can be done to fix them? Education is a classic example of what a famous economist Richard Musgrave called merit goods. Merit goods are those whose benefits are not fully realised by an individual at the time of consumption, unlike other typical purchases. Children and their parents cannot possibly know the true personal benefit of studying well in terms of future jobs, salary or status, but they can only see the present sacrifice required. Individuals may, therefore, underinvest in education.
Even more importantly, the consumption of merit goods has positive spillovers. That is, the value of education is not restricted to an individual, but it confers benefits to society at large. An educated and skilled individual raises the productivity levels in the economy which is the key to prosperity. Given the personal and societal benefits, therefore most countries have made a minimum level of education mandatory and provide basic education either free or at a subsidised cost.
Under the right to education act 2009, children between 6 to 14 years are entitled to free and compulsory education in India. With the focus on improving enrolment, while we have achieved near-universal school enrolment, the benefits of education are realised not by the years of schooling, but by the learning outcomes.
Government schools and colleges in India tend to have more qualified and formally trained teachers who are also paid more than many of their private counterparts in general.
Further, government schools are not only free in terms of tuition fees but also provide free mid-day meals and educational materials such as textbooks.
Yet, increasingly Indian parents prefer private schools and the demand for private education tends to rise with income levels. For example, while around 90% of children in Bihar, India’s poorest state were in government schools in 2018-19, the same figure is less than 38% in Tamil Nadu, one of the most prosperous state. Indian parents are prepared to pay for better learning outcomes for their children, which depend more on the teaching methods and average teaching effort.
The availability of good quality affordable private education, however, is limited in India. While access to private schools should be expanded, the focus equally has to be on improving learning outcomes in government schools. Most of the government expenditure on education is spent on running public schools/universities and paying teacher salaries, leaving little to spend on school infrastructure and the delivery of education barring some notable exceptions.
The New Education Policy, 2020 has set a goal of increasing public investment in the education sector to 6% of gross domestic product. A definitive timeline should be set to improve public school infrastructure and classroom pedagogy by incentivising the private sector to invest in infrastructure in exchange for an annual payment stream or through some other mechanism.
NEP 2020 also recognizes that multiple regulators in the education sector are causing conflict and increasing the compliance burden on educational institutions. Once again, a timeline needs to be set, in conjunction with the discussions with state governments to streamline the regulatory environment. This would improve private and foreign funding in India’s traditional education system, similar to what has been taking place in recent years in the E-education sector which is not burdened much with regulatory interference.
While the role of technology and the delivery of online education is increasing, there is little alternative to face-to-face education if no child is to be left behind. E-learning requires access to complementary goods and services such as smartphones and reliable internet access. Pratham’s 2020 survey for rural India showed that families of 38% of children did not have a smartphone and a further 45% had only 1 smartphone to which a child could not have exclusive access. In any case, during the formative years of children, the development of cognitive and interpersonal skills is critical and these can be fostered mainly via face-to-face learning methods.
The future of India’s millions of children lies in our ability to impart good quality education to them. This is, by far, the single most important factor that will help increase the equality of opportunities and help lower the inequality gap. Fixing India’s education system can no longer wait.
(The author is professor of economics and program director, PGDM at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai. Views expressed are personal and not necessarily those of Financial Express Online).