Education – An Imperative For Inclusive and Sustainable Growth

In an increasingly dynamic and volatile global economy struggling to achieve growth, both developed and emerging countries are challenged for job creation. India, fortunately, is better placed amongst these nations to achieve growth over a longer term. But to leverage its full potential, India has to achieve sustainable inclusive growth, where a vast majority of Indians benefit from the growth process.

In the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index released two days back, India has jumped 16 spots, an upward movement for a second consecutive year. Being placed at the 39 th position, makes me really proud of the progress we have made and gives a lot to cheer about. Our focus on improving the institutional framework has borne fruit pushing us up the global rankings. However, I wish we hadn’t slipped a rank in health and primary education, a basic requirement that determines the sustainability of a nation’s competitiveness. Higher education and training, as well as technological readiness, both key efficiency enhancers, have clocked in only marginal improvement. Given that we have the potential to excel in these areas, it hurts to see our nation faltering in these parameters.

To achieve sustainable, inclusive growth India needs to make a huge improvement in the basic requirements parameter of health and primary education. In this essay, I am going to focus on primary education – a key challenge facing India. In my view the competitiveness of a nation is defined by the efficiency of its people, which is an outcome of the adequacy and effectiveness of its primary education system. Primary education, which provides foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, is key to enabling a society to overcome poverty.

Our population puts a huge pressure on education infrastructure, posing the concurrent challenge of increasing the reach and improving the quality of education. The Census Data for 2011 has revealed that in India 8.4 crore children do not go to school, i.e. almost 20% of the population covered under the Right to Education Act. While for some it is poverty denying them the opportunity to attend school, many other do not have access to a functional school. Another worrisome factor remains the higher drop outs rates of the girl child. Educating the girl child is an important aspect of inclusive growth, which to much disappointment is not making much progress. The latest census data indicates that more than four in five girls between 5-19 years who are not attending an education institution sit at home. Despite the fact that the government has launched numerous initiatives to encourage parents to send girls to school they are held back to attend to household chores.

As William Ellery Channing (a renowned preacher in the US in the early 19 th Century) has said, “It is not the quantity but the quality of knowledge which determines the mind’s dignity.” The collapse of the dignity of mind in India is symbolized by the recent unfortunate events in the education space. They have exposed the abysmal levels of quality in education which have perhaps impacted both commitment and morality. The actions of students, academic staff and governing bodies all point to a systemic failure. The malaise seems to be deep rooted with scandals being unearthed frequently. In an education system where clones of the Bihar Topper, Ruby Rai abound, the very foundation of the system seems to have weakened. And it is reflecting on our ranking in the WEF Competitiveness Index for Quality of Primary Education – we rank a low 52 nd .

Getting quality education to a population as large as ours in a vast country that speaks at least 22 different languages is a tall order! However, the size of population is only one of the causes. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has identified seven fundamental issues that have led our education system to this state – access, equity, quality, system efficiency, governance & management, research & development and financial commitment to education development. In this scenario revamping India’s education system while obviously an imperative, is easier said than done.

Today the country faces various questions with respect to improving the education system – How can we provide quality primary education to millions of Indians living in remote areas? Can the use of technology help resolve some challenges of India’s primary education system? Are there ways to of increasing the learners’ commitment to studies rather than resorting to unfair practices? In my view three targeted actions can help improve our education system: increasing the use of technology for education; improving quality of academic staff and introducing liberty of studying subjects of choice.

Integration of technology in academics will mark a significant aspect of recreating our education system. Making a transition from chalk to mouse, I believe, will be a key enabler in meeting the seemingly unsurmountable challenges facing our education system. It can help address the quintessential challenge of reaching quality education to millions of Indians living in remote corners of the country. It will also reduce the pressure on the very stressed  education infrastructure. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are redefining global education, offer a good solution to this challenge. The use of technology can also enable us to meet our second biggest challenge – shortage of good quality academic staff. With technology a good teacher can reach out to lacs of students as against the tens of them in a traditional classroom.

The Government of India, recognizing the role teachers play in shaping the lives of millions, is seriously working on improving their quality. NITI Aayog’s Education Review for 2015-16 highlighted the need to overhaul teacher training, coverage, curriculum and trainer quality.

Introduction of liberty to study subjects of choice will automatically reduce adoption of unfair means. Ideally a student should have the opportunity to study economics along with biology or even climate change for that matter. Interest in a subject will provide enough motivation for a student to learn, automatically improving quality of output.

Education is the driving force behind the character of a society and its progress. In this context, India’s future amongst the fastest growing economies of the world depends heavily on the quality of education. Recognizing this imperative, the education minister, Prakash Javadekar has defined his first, second and third priorities as quality of education. His vision of ‘sabko shiksha, achhi shiksha’ and commitment bring a sense of relief and optimism towards a better education system for the country.

With all the well meaning efforts of stakeholders many lingering questions remain – How can we quickly improve the quality of our primary education? Is integration of technology into the education system answer to many of our problems? Is it only primary education or is there a role for higher education, training and technological preparedness in India’s sustainable growth?

I look forward to a debate with readers on these issues and will share some of my views on higher education in my next essay.

The views expressed are personal.

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