With the demographic bulge upon India, there can be little room for discussion on the purpose of education. While good citizenship, personal growth and good values are essential, it is clear that for the most part, education will be about employability.
Surely philosophers and thinkers are valuable for society, but they too need employment. As do the wage labourers and the talented and the less able. There is a whole generation enrolled in schools waiting for teachers to show up in classrooms and do the job they were hired to do. Researchers are wondering how they are going to make their meagre grants deliver global impact, while students in higher education are wondering whether their Indian degrees are worth much after all.
There are shortages everywhere—teachers, faculty, researchers, laboratories—and these are reflected in every assessment of education that has been done, be it the Annual Status of Education Report, the Programme for International Student Assessment or various higher education rankings. The good news stories lie buried under the sheer scale of the challenge ahead. Clearly, the battles need prioritization for the war to be won.
Where does one start? With a mantra: Unbox. Unbind. Un-entangle. Unite.
Unbox learning: While the investment in classrooms and schools is great, it is time to release learning from the tyranny of classrooms. Learning should go to the student and must extend way beyond the walls of a classroom. Build on existing programmes to push content via multiple channels, create open libraries, let village school buildings become community learning centres after school time with open access to solar-powered connected computers. Commission science and reading vans, convert bus stops into educational game corners. Invest in creativity and research attitudes from the very beginning. Let learning be open to all, not just those who wear uniforms. Allow certification of prior knowledge when proven, so that the skilled are not burdened with schooling again. Create and support channels of knowledge flow to build communities of learning.
Unbind: The education sector is bound by regulations all the way from nursery to higher education. Capacity is restricted because of the binding constraints of impractical and often contrary regulations. The right to education law that was supposed to provide schooling to all children (6-14 years of age) has led to several schools closing down. Central and state universities cannot hire faculty from abroad despite shortages. Unbind the education sector from these regulatory constraints, allow the private sector to participate and compete, and take on the role of good governance via agencies to ensure relentless focus on improving quality.
Unentangle: Build synergies between ministries. Let the digital literacy mission be integrated with the teachers’ mission. They are essential to building efficiencies and scale in teaching and learning, thus freeing up teachers to improve quality. Vocational training and employability are inextricably linked with the labour ministry. The apprenticeship programmes that have revived other economies remain moribund here due to legal tangles. Untangle the threads that do not allow student finance to flow freely, whether as loans, scholarships or vouchers. No able and talented student in India should be denied the education she is willing to work for just because the rules are too complex for delivery.
Unite: The phrase we grew up with in India was unity in diversity and this applies to education too. There is no reason for all universities to be copies of each other. Some may do more teaching, others more research, depending upon their funding and abilities. Standards need to be harmonized for teaching and research quality across nursery to tertiary education. This does not mean creating identical standard units. Students must be able to choose their paths to learning depending on their capacities—offer lifelong learning opportunities and pathways across skills and learning. A plumber can become an economist, an actress may choose to study politics and earn a doctorate. Unite the education ecosystem in a network governed by rigorous and supportive frameworks and agencies. Credit transfers were mooted years ago. Implement them to allow every Indian to add value to their earning capacity.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto and speeches spoke of maximum governance, minimum government. This is what education needs. Let the government provide oversight, not necessarily run operations. “Sabka saath, sabka vikas (progress for all),” thundered Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech in Parliament. This translates to inclusive education with equal opportunities for all to improve their lives via education. This government comes with expectations of better implementation and a better grass-roots understanding of the people. The skills shown in the election campaign need to be demonstrated here too, with a national education strategy that reaches every student in the land.
Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed by the author are personal.