Saturday, April 11, 2009

Primary and secondary education reform should be India's top priority

There were only 20 universities and 500 colleges in the Indian subcontinent (including Bangladesh and Pakistan) in 1947, the year of Indian independence. Now there are about 376 universities and 17,700 colleges in India only, many with world class physical infrastructure. Many private research institutes are also coming up on a regular basis. The only Nobel prize for India (Indian citizen at the time of the award) in science for C. V. Raman (1930, University of Calcutta) also came in that era. We also had many world class scientists during that time (e.g Satyen Bose, JC Bose, Homi Bhaba etc). Now India is the second fastest growing in the world and third largest economy in Asia with huge budget in so-called education and research. But we do not have any world class scientist who has the slightest chance to get Nobel Prize in science in India (as per a survey published in a reputed Bengali magazine, “Desh”, sometime ago).

We see huge uproar when previous government wanted to “introduce accountability” in some elite institutes like IIMs & IITs but we never see a fraction of that excitement among educated middle class people or our political masters to reform primary and secondary education although our primary and secondary education system, the backbone of our country, is in a pathetic shape. Our middle class people, who can not afford to send their kids abroad (like our socio-political “elites”) but dream to have a better, more powerful and comfortable life for their kids (and to them through their kids) do not allow any meaningful reform of primary and secondary education since independence.

Our current education system selectively discards talented students with inquisitiveness, ability to ask questions and dream to do something challenging, something better for the society. Now we only produce private tuition and coaching enabled, mugging-up grade technicians who are great to do routine jobs (as in IT or BT) or imitating others (mainly true for Indian R&D sector in any branch of science and in any industry), but not capable of doing original research, despite of having many world class physical infrastructure, huge budget and some so-called “elite” institutes. My recent experience with many graduate students form some high profile Indian institutes/universities indicate that the trend to emphasize on database type knowledge, quiz type information and fascination with techniques (not science as such) are still highly prevalent. No wonder India is among the least innovative nations in the world. Quality of Indian science education and research is going down at an alarming rate since independence, despite of huge increase in funding (1, 2, 3 and Balaram, P (2002): Science in India- Signs of Stagnation. Current Science 82, 193-194.).

We need to invest much more and have an intensive and proper supervision of primary and high school education than wrongly focusing on higher education and research at the top level, at this time. Recently passed Right to education bill is a step towards the right direction. But here again we need to remember that many such great policies hardly achieve anything in reality and only limited within government files and the money ends up in the pockets of few selected people. Whatever money we spend on higher education and research is not going to give us any novel knowledge or technological edge unless we have right candidate behind the costly machines we buy. Now we produce mainly technicians, not scientists or technocrats and feel proud to export such raw materials to manpower-starved developed countries (be it IT or BT, the two main pillars of Indian economy today). This might lead to some degree of prosperity in the short term but we are going to loose in a big way in the long run unless we totally overhaul our basic education system at primary and high school level. It’s useless to cut the roots and then water on the top. Universal and quality primary and high school education will also bring many other positive socio-political changes in our system that can propel India to attain its rightful position in the world.

Some relevant facts:
· "The study of 188 government-run primary schools in central and northern India revealed that 59% of the schools had no drinking water facility and 89% no toilets; and, most alarmingly, a large number of teachers were found to be absent at the time of the survey. With a literacy rate (percentage of adults who can read and write) of 65%, India compares poorly to not just industrialised nations but also several much-poorer economies, such as Vietnam (90% literacy), Zambia (80%), Tanzania (77%), and Cambodia (70%)".

"Only 21% of the teachers in Bihar are class X pass. In one of the most prosperous states in India, Gujarat, over 55% of the teachers have not got beyond the secondary stage of schooling. The only state which comes near Gujarat in terms of the low quality of teachers is Karnataka, another highly prosperous state in India, with about three-fourths of its teachers having studied only up to the higher secondary level". Such data also implied that prosperity of few people (that inflate the macro level data like GDP, par capita income) does not mean prosperity for common people (or the country as a whole). The same “prosperous” states like Gujarat and Karnataka also do worse as compared to “least developed” states like Assam in term of hunger and social well being (the overall hunger index for India is worse than many “least developed” countries” like Cuba, Uganda, Sudan, even our arch rival Pakistan). Such facts imply that “trickle down” effect of “development” or “prosperity” as many seem to justify, can never be translated to the common people of the country unless strict oversight and transparency in governance is present. This is true for any country, be it USA or India.

PS: There is a related topic in “Nature India forum” on “How to improve India's higher education and research quality?”. I also published this blog in the same “Nature India Forum sometime ago. Readers can read the discussion part there and are welcome to post their comments there too.