One of the many good ideas that emerged in the Rajiv Gandhi years was the one to set up high-quality schools for talented rural students. Critics had unfairly dismissed these schools as hubs of elitism. It is good that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, in his Independence Day speech, called for a variant of these Navodaya Vidyalayas, of which there are now more than 550 in existence. He said that the government would set up 6,000 new high-quality schools, one in each administrative block. He also quite correctly pointed out: “Each such school will set standards of excellence for other schools in the area.”
Such schools need not be elitist, as long as the government ensures that admissions are given to the best and brightest children in the area rather than to the progeny of the local rich and famous. Also, such centres of excellence will hopefully create public pressure on local authorities to improve the level of other schools in the area. This is an idea worth backing, as long as it is implemented fairly.
The 6,000 new schools are part of a bigger set of announcements to set up 370 new colleges, 30 new central universities, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, seven new Indian Institutes of Management, 1,600 polytechnics and 10,000 new vocational schools. In other words, this government seems to be seriously keen on increasing the supply of quality education in the country.
That’s overdue. It is well known that demand for good education in India is running ahead of supply. Forget the snaking admission lines outside the better schools and colleges in the country or the fact that Indian students spend an estimated $4 billion a year to get educated abroad. A more telling example of the spurt in demand for better education is the growing popularity of private schools in the villages and slums of India. Researchers such as James Tooley have shown how private schools have mushroomed in the slums of cities such as Hyderabad, and how people living in these slums are ready to pay higher fees to put their children in private schools because, though not great, the quality of education offered there is far better than what is available in government schools.
While we broadly agree with the Prime Minister’s stated aim to increase the supply of quality education in the country, we would prefer it if his government followed this up with policies to further open up education to private investment, including foreign investment. Despite the increase in public spending on education in the past three years and the attempts to set up new educational institutions in the government sector, we doubt that this will be enough to ramp up skills levels across the economy.
One clear obstacle to continued economic growth is the lack of trained manpower. The shortage of qualified labour is now being felt in every corner of the economy, which is one reason why India has one of the fastest rates of wage growth in Asia.
This would not be so much of a bother if productivity outpaces wage growth, but we doubt that this is happening right now. India needs all the investment it can get to overcome the clear threat of shortages of skilled labour—be it in front of a computer or on the shop floor.
An increase in the number of schools is not all. There are a host of other issues to be tackled, from course content to the problem of truant teachers. But what the Prime Minister said on the ramparts of the Red Fort is a good start. It remains to be seen how good the follow-up is.
A growing economy and a vibrant democracy such as India needs a skilled workforce and educated citizens. Neither of these prerequisites is possible without a good system of education.
What needs to be done to improve access to quality education in India? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org