Once we had a travel agent who, when asked to change a ticket to a more convenient date, cancelled first and then could not find any to book, leaving us ticketless. A similar state prevails in the processes and the institutions of education.
Undeniably our education system has seen more failures than successes in the past few decades. Redesigning and nurturing this sector is an imperative for a young population in a growing economy. There is much to do, but it is not very clever to start by demolishing institutions that are working fine. Take, for instance, the examination system in the country that is being systematically being decimated before options have been tested, let alone proven.
Despite its many flaws, the Class X examination was a robust, reliable system that worked as a great baseline test, in addition to providing essential certification that could, if designed, form the basis of an inclusive higher education system. Undermining it before we have an acceptable alternative is clearly not helpful to anybody. If at all, it hampers the marginal students who need the certification. The much respected Joint Entrance Examination for competitive entry into engineering colleges and the Common Entrance Test for management institutes are subject to the same fate. Unilateral decisions have been handed down to replace them with tests that have barely any credibility with the institutions which will need to use those results.
It is not as if the examinations were the worst part of the system and needed urgent attention — in fact these were the parts that were running quite well. Given the demand pressures, they could be accused of pursuing efficiency at the cost of kindness, yet they had established certain standards that were clearly understood by all. There seemed to be no attempt to address the issues — just a simplistic ‘scrap and replace all’ algorithm seems to have been used here.
Government-sponsored education is full of institutions that have gently crumbled away, destroyed by politics or by inattention or neglect by those who were handed the duty of care. For example, State higher education institutions, with a few honourable exceptions are in a shambles. Many of them are seen as breeding grounds for political parties, often a euphemism for gang warfare. The infrastructure, the pedagogies and the curricula are outdated — of little value to current thought and of little relevance to current employers. Again the reaction to this has been rather simplistic. Under the garb of national standards, the National Commission for Higher Education and Research seeks to create a centralised behemoth that increases the degree of control over universities with little impact on outcomes. With no evidence of having managed older institutions well, with no apparent concerted effort to solving the problems that exist, the sweeping solution strikes again — an umbrella organisation that shall be the panacea.
Simplistic solutions, or a one-size-fits-all solutions, are never going to work in a country as massive and diverse as India. Our solutions have to be intelligently designed and honestly executed to meet our ambitions and hopes. A recent disappointment has been the much-talked about Aakash tablet computer that was to bring affordable access to those who had been excluded from the grand connected future. The target price, an ambitious $35 (then Rs 2,500), to be subsidised by the Government is to be designed and built indigenously.
A grand plan that was scoffed at by industry insiders, while those of us who have seen lean model miracles of jugaad happen, reserved our opinion. But, as with the examinations, and the institutions, the idea stood on faulty foundations. Dreams and aspirations are not plans, as it is being proved again with the shameful tablet story.
The story behind the grand simplistic solution is depressing. The tablet is far behind current technology with a touch-screen that is difficult to use. The speed of the machine is such that even simple sites take minutes to load. This substandard design now has to be fully manufactured in India. With this arbitrary constraint of swadeshi being placed on manufacture, the motivate of the project comes to into question. Do they really mean it for children to use it as a learning device? If they do, then where is the broadband connectivity that should be in place before such devices are commissioned? The mind boggles at the myriad unanswered questions: How did such a project get approval? Do the decision-makers know what they are doing?
For a nation that must worry about training its demographic bulge generation, it is almost incredible that our headline projects are so ill-thought. While many good ideas may be simple, all simple ideas are not good. Simplistic ideas are worse; they either signal incompetence or disrespect for the people.
(The writer is an education strategy consultant who has lived, worked and taught in London for a over decade. She is now based in New Delhi.)
This article was publised in the Pioneer on March 8, 2012 and can be accessed here