There is much to celebrate in the world of education in India, and much that is so tragic. We celebrate individual efforts and heroic groups that have created islands of understanding of education. Of achievement. Yet the poor results across the country are visible to all.
But what needs to be done to fix the rot in education? What will turn the tide of the demographic disaster back to a demographic dividend?
It is time to call for some quick action.
And to get started, here is the top ten on the to do list for Education for the new government for the first 100 days.
There are no grand verbose policy notes here, these are direct action points.
None of them is easy, yet all are urgent and important. Each of these have complex layers to be arranged and organised – and this is the task ahead of us.
1. Unity in diversity
Education in India needs a diverse range of institutions that meet the needs of its people. For example, every university need not be a research institution, some may focus purely on teaching. All do not have to be degree based institutions, many can deliver accredited professional qualifications. Schools too do not need to be copies of each other – some may specialise in music, others in science and mathematics. Each can pursue excellence and high standards as long as there is standardisation of measurement criteria across the nation.
Each education institution can operate according to it’s own ethos and offer multiple options that are in line with its core competence. Students too are not bound to a linear pathway and can access a range of qualifications. They have many more chances of finding their zone of success. India needs a diverse set of institutions bound by a unified governance code that will provide incentives (+ve and -ve) to continuous improvement in quality.
India needs more teachers. India needs trained teachers. In the millions. Till we get trained teachers, the half trained ones (para teachers) seem to do the basic job pretty well, but this is obviously not a long term sustainable solution. Time to train teachers on the job, set up mentoring networks. Teachers need skilled support and mentoring too – show them how it is done. Induct them into the ranks of the digitised so that one can reach more teachers and they learn to embed the new medium in their teaching.
Create institutions for continuous development of teaching skills and hold them accountable for the betterment of students. This applies to primary, private, higher, tertiary – all teachers need support and encouragement to do better. Set up more teacher training institutes designed to bring more into the profession and hold them accountable for their professional development.
3. Student Finance
Student financing of education needs urgent attention. Student loan schemes seem to exist, as do a smattering of scholarships, vouchers, loans and schemes. This needs to be run more like FMCG company plans its distribution. Access to student financing needs to be as easy as buying a bar of Dettol soap. Or any other soap. There are serious issues in repayment, and this is part of the problem globally (for example, a large part of the US debt). India needs smarter mechanisms (like Australia’s deduction from salary after employment), refinance agencies, insurance interventions and of course more allocation of funds.
Till students find themselves able to pay for higher education, talent will continue to be lost at every stage of the education ladder. Let education not be a financial burden, make it an opportunity to grow. Let no student be denied learning because they did not have the money.
Credits from schools, colleges and universities need to be standardised and freely transferable so that students can move across qualifications with minimum losses. There needs to be more choice for the students, more choice across time and a better chance to excel in the areas that one’s talent, potential and interests point to – students need to know that there is always another way to success. Let there be no dead ends in education. This of course means including lifelong learning as a way of life so that there are more chances at every age and stage of life.
5. Schools as community centres
In this day and age there is little need for schools to be a set of rooms with a roof and fans. School infrastructure is a valuable investment and can function more than as a mere rote learning centre. Not only should learning move out of schools and be possible in different modes, but also current school school buildings should be used better to be the centre of learning and growth of the community. Let these be used 24 hours a day (assuming electricity and basic human rights!) as libraries, learning centres and more. Staff them with volunteers, with para teachers, librarians and learning support staff.
These buildings are well located and are essential community infrastructure. They could do more than it currently does. Community libraries, computer centres, 24 hour tutors – the options are limitless. Learning without limits can be centred in existing infrastructure.
6. Open exams for all
The current system that glorifies and rewards rote learning makes for lazy learners. Worse, rote memorising merely makes for lazy question papers. It just gives examiners an excuse not to design smarter papers. Question banks and MCQs are great for revision learning of facts, and I don’t discount that. Learning is a lot more than rote learning and our assessments need to nudge us to make that investment towards creativity and innovation rather than mere reproduction.
Make all exams open exams, design question papers better. Ask questions that test reasoning, require students to analyse, to create solutions that meet criteria. Let the test serve a purpose, not be a mere ritual. Redesign assessments to redesign learning.
7. Think Tertiary, Post Secondary
Post secondary education need not suffer from the class divide it has inherited in the past. Nor does it need to be based on archaic qualifications such as age. Really, what does age have to do with anything? Entry to post secondary education should be based on competence, interest and aptitude. Create a bridge year provision before HE for those who need it and are not ready for higher education yet.
Create a network of professional qualifications (let accreditation agencies do this) for those who seek career paths after school. Vocational, professional, bridge, academic and other options need interlinkages not just to create choice but to signal equivalence. Open entry and exit to each of these needs investment in capacity – and not necessarily ownership of capacity.
8. Govern, not operate
There is a strong ideological belief that education is a public good. Without entering into the debate here, a simple pragmatic acknowledgement of the private sector is appropriate. The private sector has contributed to over half of professional qualifications, private sector schools do as ell or better than government schools and private sector universities are fostering innovation and learning that matches the government sector in India. In a nation that needs many more nursery seats, quality school places and higher education seats a government has to decide whether it wants to use its energies to run the operations or run the governance mechanism. Letting the private sector invest in education is a rational choice, especially under the circumstances. It is time to accept multiple modes of ownership that deliver results to the learners in the land.
The government has a role – but it is not one of operational control. Well designed governance with autonomously run schools, combined with with accountability to all stakeholders, regardless of ownership of assets is the need of the hour.
9. Build channels for competition between qualifications and co-operation between institutions
Students and institutions will prosper with each other’s co-operation and support. Teachers can share learning materials, students across schools can work together on local area projects, schools can share successful practices and resources such as libraries and swimming pools, even great teachers. All of this will enhance learning and foster innovative ways of doing things. If each student can study for their own set of qualifications regardless of the constraint of a single school, then they will be able to work to maximise their own talents.
What is needed here is a healthy competition between various qualifications so that the student can choose the standards and challenges that suit their level. For example, having six or seven mathematics qualifications, or a similar number of violin certifications will ensure that the accreditation agencies remain nimble and quality conscious – let them compete for the student’s affiliations. Students, guided by their mentors will be enabled to choose their pathways to success.
10. Invest in Research and Design
More than any other sector, education needs evidence. From simple tracking of demand for education to an understanding of what works and is worth investments all the way to a better understanding of success in education – India needs evidence. Research in education is totally inadequate to evolve Indian models and philosophies that meet the need of the age. Research in education in the current context is in its infancy and needs nurture. Till we learn more about what we design as an ideal education we are flying blind and any positive results are probably a result of dumb luck, or inherent talent. Even the design of policies all the way to the design of pedagogies and products needs research to be able to make choices that are likely to succeed.
It is time to stop the guesswork and invest in researching for a better future. Better to have experimental pilots now than experiment on entire generations without any guarantee (or likelihood) of getting to the results they desire.
There will always be more to say, and there will be always more that will seem easier to implement. These are the low hanging fruit for any new government – simple interventions that will start the good fight. Large enough to start fundamental change, small enough to have low resistance and easy first stage implementation.
Time to get started, then.
(This is a basic draft document for further development)
(Shorter versions of this article will be published in parts in various outlets soon)
(A longer and more formal version of this will be available to educators and policy makers on request)