Today's Editorial

04 July 2018

Learning in dire straits

Source: By Devendra Saksena: The Statesman

No rational person can understand the mess in our educational system. On the one hand, we have the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) which says that most middle school children are unable to do simple arithmetical sums or even read and write in their mother tongue; on the other hand, we have instances of millions of students scoring more than 90 per cent in their Tenth Board examinations. We have lakhs of bright stars who max mathematics and surprisingly score more than 95 per cent in subjects like History and English. Seemingly a miracle ~ making geniuses out of dullards ~ takes place in the last three or four years of school.

Paradoxically, belying their stellar performance in the Boards, JEE-Advanced 2018 saw eligible candidates drop to their lowest level since 2012 ~ which was insufficient to fill the seats at the IITs. This debacle prompted the Ministry of Human Resource Development to shoot off a missive to the Joint Admission Board chairman, who lowered the cut-off by 10 per cent – increasing the number of eligible candidates by more than 80 per cent.

A relevant question missed by most of us is: “If the examining Boards were not profligate in their evaluation then how come JEE-Advanced 2018 could see only 33,000 odd students qualifying, even with the liberalised cut-off, when lakhs had scored above 90 per cent in the Twelfth Board examinations?” However, no one asks such inconvenient questions; “Ask no questions, be told no lies” is the leifmotif of the mandarins of our education system.

Glaring instances of the rot in the education system abound. Most State Education Boards have lost their credibility. The Bihar Board achieved widespread notoriety when photographs of parents scaling walls to “help” their wards were published. This notoriety was reinforced when videos of Bihar toppers fumbling to answer basic questions went viral.

The once respected UP Board did not lag behind; one-sixth of the examinees dropped out when the Government decided to go tough with the copying mafia. Such mafia groups, in most states, establish colleges in remote places where examinees freely indulge in mass copying. It is a different matter that the pass-outs from such dubious colleges are mostly unemployable.

Despite the importance accorded to education in Indian culture, our education system is in a sorry state. Even universities function by rote learning; every city has hundreds of coaching centres whose only aim is to better the marks of their customers by fair means or foul. In fact, unfair means are the bane of our education set-up. Sophisticated copying strategies have been detected in all examinations including the prestigious Civil Services Examination.

Remember the instance of a serving IPS officer who was caught cheating with the help of the latest technology. The never-ending saga of the infamous Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh points to a deep-rooted malaise in our examination system.

At the time of Independence or even fifty years ago, earning a degree was not easy. Graduates were looked upon with respect. Educational standards started falling in the 1970s with the exponential rise in the number of students. Campus politics was violent and destructive. Somewhere along the line political parties entered university campuses, turning temples of learning into centres of political addas. No Government took any positive step, leaving the education system to cope as best as it could. The results were catastrophic; century-old universities started to totter and Government schools became decrepit.

Today the mess in the education system is such that almost one-third of our engineering colleges are closing down because they have no students to teach. Prestigious colleges are not getting enough students for their graduate courses. The numbers, in which the young are turning away from education, is a cause of grave concern because it is an indication that education is now being perceived as irrelevant.

The first step towards the reform of our education system would be to give a purpose to education. One only has to see the popularity of such examinations as JEE and NEET, ~ which attract millions of students for a limited number of seats. To realise that, young men and women want to pursue courses which would guarantee fruitful employment. Ideally, our education system should turn out well qualified individuals who would effortlessly slip into their assigned roles.

This is the way the education system is designed in most advanced countries, but our education system only gives degrees not accompanied by any specific skill-set. The result is a large number of educated unemployed who pose a problem for themselves as well as the society at large. We often come across the unedifying spectacle of hundreds of post-graduates and MBAs vying for menial Government jobs. No wonder we have a problem of brain-drain; these days many young men go abroad for education only because education in other countries provides jobs.

Primary education should be the first target of reform. Government schools in villages are plagued by grave shortage of infrastructure. Most schools make do without toilets; as often as not, several classes operate from one room. To that can be added the problems of teacher absenteeism and interference of village strongmen and you have a sure-fire recipe for an educational disaster.

Unfortunately, most of the students of these village schools are from the disadvantaged sections of society. They lose their chance of betterment for no fault of theirs. Instead of reforming its own schools, the Government has come up with the Right to Education Act which is vociferously resisted by private schools. Thanks to the continuous tussle between the Government and schools, no significant benefits have been noticed even after eight years of implementation of the Right to Education Act.

The situation could be different, should the Government accord the same priority to construction and improvement of village schools as it does to construction of village toilets. Then, the service conditions of Government school teachers have to be upgraded. Along with better pay and fewer transfers, teachers should not be drafted for all kinds of non-teaching activity so that they are able to fulfil their primary goal of imparting meaningful education to their students. School students should also not be deployed for activities unrelated to their education, like participating in various kinds of Days or waving flags to welcome VIPs.

To make education employment-oriented, vocational education should be introduced at the secondary school level. Children opting for the vocational stream should be taught specific trades including agriculture with the intake in each stream being proportionate to the requirements of trade and industry. The emphasis should be on teaching skills required for jobs of the future in fields like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT).

Despite all attention the Government avowedly pays to it, even higher education is in dire straits. There is no R & D in our universities which mostly teach outdated syllabi. It is not surprising that none of our much vaunted IITs or universities come within the first hundred in world rankings. The fracas in Banaras Hindu University where male students molested female students and the authorities came down heavily on the agitated female students underlines what is wrong with higher education. Institutions with such illiberal atmosphere cannot promote learning or free thinking. Students of such institutions will learn by rote what their forefathers had learnt, take home a degree but will never be able to imbibe the true value of education.

The problems faced by our educational institutions are humongous but our stake in our education system is far larger. Indians, who routinely excel in foreign colleges and universities, are hobbled by the educational system in their own country. A complete review and recast of our educational system is required. Our country can become a knowledge power only if our children and youth get proper opportunities to attain knowledge. We can only hope that we live to see that day.



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