Each year, 5 September, the birthday of India’s second president and eminent educationist, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, is celebrated as Teacher’s Day. The modern celebration follows a time-honoured tradition of recognizing spiritual and academic teachers during Guru Purnima, which falls on the full moon day in the lunar month of Ashada (July).

Since the Industrial Revolution, in India and around the world, the tradition of home or community schooling—often centered on the teacher—has gradually been transformed into a human supply chain schooling system centered on the educational institution. As we move towards an information age, nations around the world are grappling with what the next transformation in education needs to be. The current challenge in India remains a 20th century challenge of quantity and quality for its primary and higher education systems.

A somnolent 50 years or so after Independence, India woke up to its primary school deficit. Since then, the quantity problem in primary education is being tackled. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)—a household survey—put out by Pratham is a consistent and excellent source of information on the quantity and quality of primary education in India. It has been conducted annually since 2004, and covers more than 90% of India’s districts in a statistically rigorous manner. The ASER trends-over-time report that covers the period 2006 to 2014, points to a decline in children not enrolled from about 4% at the beginning of the period to about 2% now. It shows a steady increase in the number of children enrolled in private schools from about 20% to a little over 30% over the period. The trends in quality measured in reading, arithmetic and English are disconcerting. For instance, children in Class III who can read at least a Class I text has dropped consistently from about 50% to about 40% and children in Class III who can do at least subtraction has dropped from 40% to 25%.

Private schools perform better than government schools, though there is substantial room for improvement. There is a significant variation among states in both quantity and quality.

So, what of the higher education system?

There is no equivalent independent and rigorous survey of higher education quality in India. The department of higher education in the human resources development ministry puts out an annual survey—which is numerical and supply-side—called the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE). According to the latest survey results, there are 38,000 colleges that make up 767 universities in India. Approximately 33 million students are enrolled in these universities with 1.4 million teachers. The gross enrolment ratio, the percentage of population 18-23 enrolled in college, is 23.6% for India and varies widely from 12% for Bihar to 44% for Tamil Nadu.

The HRD ministry has made a maiden attempt to assess and rank universities in India using a National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF). The 2016 NIRF results as well as several international surveys typically rank the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) as best among the Indian institutions. Among universities, Panjab, Delhi, Calcutta, Jadavpur, Aligarh Muslim and the Savitri Bhai Phule Pune University are usually well ranked on various metrics of teaching, learning, research and placements. Chinese universities dominate the Asian rankings and even the best Indian institutions do not usually find a place in the top 100 global institutions.

For higher education, the usual tosh about achieving access, equality, justice, quality, inclusiveness and employability, all the same time, is simply not possible. Excellent institutions cannot by definition be “equal". There will have to be a two-pronged approach—universal universities and stellar universities. For universality, there will have to be easy on and off ramps, building block education and portable academic credit, affordability, ubiquity, employability and signalling value. For excellence, the emphasis will have to be on merit and on strong gating functions for faculty and students. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a beginning by suggesting that 10 public and 10 private institutions will be freed from the stifling clutches of the University Grants Commission (UGC). One major impediment will be removed, but these institutions will have to learn to become more financially independent so that they can pay their faculty more and provide greater resources for laboratories and research. India will need to take a leaf out of China’s 1,000 talents programme; that plan was launched to attract Chinese diaspora academics with the promise to tag them as ‘National Distinguished Experts’ and provide them with “enabling working and living conditions".

The money, time and focus it will take to get our primary education working and to create globally competitive institutions is no small matter. India will need to accelerate that process now so that when fundamental innovation becomes necessary as an engine of growth in the coming decades, India has at least a handful of institutions that can contribute.

P.S. “The true teachers are those who help us think for ourselves," said Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns here