New Delhi: A global study of learning standards in 74 countries has ranked India all but at the bottom, sounding a wake-up call for the country’s education system. China came out on top.
It was the first time that India participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). India’s participation was in a pilot project, confined to schools from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh.
The findings are significant because they come at a time when India is making a big push in education and improving the skills of its workforce. If the results from the two states hold good for the rest of the country, India’s long-term competitiveness may be in question.
Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh traditionally rank high on human development parameters and are considered to be among India’s more progressive states. The India Human Development Report 2011, prepared by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR), categorized them as “median” states, putting them significantly ahead of the national average. IAMR is an autonomous arm of the Planning Commission.
For literacy, Himachal Pradesh ranked 4 and Tamil Nadu 11 in the National Family Health Survey released in 2007.
Yet, in the PISA study, Tamil Nadu ranked 72 and Himachal Pradesh 73, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan in mathematics and overall reading skills. The eastern Chinese metropolis of Shanghai topped the PISA rankings in all three categories—overall reading skills, mathematical and scientific literacy.
2PISA is an international study that began in 2000. It aims to assess education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating economies.
To be sure, there are some reservations about the findings of the study. Such comparisons may not be fair as they are not between equals, says Manish Sabharwal, chief executive officer of human resources training and placement firm Teamlease Services Pvt. Ltd.
Yet, he argued, it does serve as a timely warning.
“Industries are already facing a problem because of poor quality (of graduates),” Sabharwal said. “What we need to do is repair and prepare. Repair by imparting skill training and prepare by improving the school system, which is the main gateway.”
In Tamil Nadu, only 17% of students were estimated to possess proficiency in reading that is at or above the baseline needed to be effective and productive in life. In Himachal Pradesh, this level is 11%.
“This compares to 81% of students performing at or above the baseline level in reading in the OECD countries, on an average,” said the study.
In other words, only a little over one in six students in Tamil Nadu and nearly one in 10 students in Himachal Pradesh are performing at the OECD average.
A similar trend was observed in mathematical and scientific literacy, too.
Anurag Behar, chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation, said the study’s findings were alarming.
This is because the PISA study found that only 12% of students in Himachal Pradesh and 15% in Tamil Nadu were proficient in mathematics against an OECD average of 75%; when it came to scientific literacy among students of class X, the proficiency level in Tamil Nadu was 16% and in Himachal, 11%, as against an OECD average proficiency of 82%.
Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
In Malaysia, 56% of students were proficient in reading and 41% in mathematics. Similarly, in the United Arab Emirates, the mathematics proficiency levels was estimated at 49% and for reading, 60%. Like India, both countries participated for the first time.
Behar says there is a need for a complete change of India’s teacher education system and a shift from rote learning-driven school education to understanding-driven curricula.
“We also need to reduce the policy-implemenation gap,” he said.
Tamil Nadu education minster C.V.Shanmugam declined to comment on the study’s findings, asserting that the state’s education system is good.
“In the last five years, 56,000 teachers were recruited... In which state do they give students laptops?” he said, referring to chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s free laptop scheme for students that was part of her campaign for elections that brought her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party back to power in May.
“We give incentives for students attending higher secondary. We give Rs 1,500 (a year) to class X students, Rs 1,500 to class XI and Rs 2,000 to class XII. We give Rs 5,000 if they clear class XII. So steps are being taken to improve the existing system,” he claimed.
Himachal Pradesh education minister Ishwar Dass Dhiman defended his state’s education system. In elementary schools, the enrolment has reached 99.3%, for instance, he said.
“If they have taken samples from the interior areas of our state, then we cannot say anything. We are now hiring better qualified teachers to improve the teaching of students.”
Pramath Sinha, an education entrepreneur and former dean of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, said he knew about the deficiencies of India’s education system but was still shocked to find India so low in the PISA rankings.
“I belive our lack of urgency will take away the demographic dividend that we could have reaped,” Sinha said.
Not everyone agrees. The study may not be based on an apple-to-apple comparison, says Vipul Prakash, managing director of Elixir Consulting, a recruitment process outsourcing firm.
“If you look at the entire people entering the workforce, you may find lack of quality. But if you take the top 10% then they are perhaps the best in the world. This 10% is quite a large number which is giving India a competitive upper hand.”
Amritha Venketakrishnan in Chennai contributed to this story.