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.


  1. Anonymous7:52 AM

    I agree with your viewpoint on need to improve primary/secondary ecuation and channelize more resources and proper implementation there. Just a question how important is original technological research for the wlel being of 100 Cr people ? Arent we over emphasizing the innovation part because historically US/UK where major disruptive inventions have happened dominated the world. But in todays context of commercialization where tehncology is made available at a cost, to people who can pay, why spend millions reinventing the wheel ? If call centre and account processing and coding is what people in India do best, let them do so and be the best in that. It is only the elitist researchers' way of saying they need more budgets ! And there were articles on how DRDO was a drain on exchequer and whether there is a cost-benit analysis of ISRO projects.....(Maybe i am not aware..)

  2. One of the purposes of any formal education system is to supply qualified professionals to do routine jobs; including clerical and technical ones like office clerk, plumber, fitter, electrician, software, engineering, agriculture, management and medical etc. Bachelors (or maximum Masters) degree is more than sufficient to successfully supply professionals for such jobs. In fact majority of doctors or engineers or software or management professionals do very good with bachelors degree and become very successful in their respective professions. But when I talk about “research” and “innovation and invention” we do not mean just able to do routine jobs. It’s something more than that. And that is true for any profession, including software, medicine, management and general science.
    The objective of “research” is not to supply people who can do routine jobs but who can think “unthinkable”, who can dream and have the ability to achieve that dream through rational thinking, can take calculated risk.
    Now coming to your second concern; why should we bother about “innovation and invention” while we can very well do routine jobs and earn reasonably well.
    The prosperity India is getting now by doing routine jobs has some severe limitations in the long run. If you ask yourself, why India is getting those jobs? Is it because western countries cannot do it? The answer is “No”. Western countries can do it very well but it’s not enough remunerative to them. The same reason applies for their lack of interest in science education and research. Let me give you an example from Indian context:-
    Many countries have the potential to offer same (if not better) what India can offer with its cheap raw material, cheap labor, lack of legal protection against exploitation of (mostly) uneducated and unorganized labor sector. Our main “asset” is our British rule and English education resulting from that. But that linguistic barrier will not be a huge stumbling block for long for many of our competitors like China, east European countries, some of our south-Asian neighbors and few African countries. China and some other countries already have started programs for mass English education.

    If you think from Indian perspective you will easily understand that many people in the bordering states with Bangladesh is not very keen to do hard labor work for such a low income as compared to (mostly illegal) immigrant workers from Bangladesh or from other less developed states like Bihar-UP. But by doing so those hard working people from Bihar and Bangladesh can never prosper after a certain level and so do those states. Once they reach that stage they need something else.
    Thirdly, the physical infrastructure for doing routine jobs and doing innovative ones are not much different. The cost for setting up a unit to produce generic drugs is not that different than that from developing new drugs; so far physical infrastructure is concerned. The main difference arises from the quality of human resources, mainly the scientific and technical manpower. But the profit for generic drugs is much, much less as compared to patented drugs. In fact the profit margin drops about 93% when a drug becomes free from patent control, on an average. So producing generic drugs can only be sustained if the volume of sale is really high (i.e you are able to control major share of global market of that particular drug). But many countries do have their own laws to allow foreign drugs and many countries have their own laws to protect their own pharmaceutical industries and people from "low quality" foreign drugs. And that trend will continue in near foreseeable future as well.
    One glaring example is: In 1980s India was flooded with cheap production centers for generic antibiotics. New production units were coming up on a regular basis to produce cheap antibiotics. But in 1990s, the trend was reversed. Now almost all the antibiotics producing units are closed, mainly because of cheaper production in countries like China and east Europe.

    There is another side of the story. Producing cheap generic drugs take a huge toll on local environment. To keep the cost low, the producing units can not afford to rigorously implement environment protection rules and norms. Most of the affluent treatment plants is almost any polluting industry in India is nothing but eye-wash and majority of them never operate on regular basis. It just gives the manufacturers to evade laws and also give the opportunity to some Govt officials to earn some “extra money”. The result is “World’s Highest Drug Pollution Levels Found In Indian Stream” ( For so-called development for few people, huge number of common people are forced to pay heavy price. This is more-or-less true for all those countries that became global manufacturing hub for cheap goods; e.g China. Do we want such “development”? To become a healthy and prosperous nation, India has no option but to rely on “innovation and invention”.
    Reform of primary and secondary school education has another major impact, which can not be measured by direct financial gain. And that’s its social impact. Illiteracy and ignorance (due to lack of accessibility to information and ability to read and write) is a major factor for many social evils, like terrorism, caste and religion related violence, exploitation (by almost everyone, including political parties, industries, businesses etc). I know all such problems will not be totally solved by reforming education, but it will surely reduce those to a great extent.
    We need to keep in mind that changes take a long term planning, dedication for the leadership and above all the understanding of our current situation and desire to make India a better country.
    Primary and secondary education reform is the very core of that effort. Without that, I can assure, nothing will ever become successful to make India a better and developed country.

  3. Probably I did not clearly respond to your concern, “But in today’s context of commercialization where technology is made available at a cost, to people who can pay, why spend millions reinventing the wheel?”
    Let me ask you one question, will you give your competitor(s) a novel technology that you developed and allow him/her to have the same competitive advantage as yours in an open market? Probably, no. You will only give that when you know that you have a better technology/product in hand and/or the price you are asking (for technology transfer) is more profitable than selling the product/technology by yourself. Toyota once sold its hybrid technology to companies like Honda and few others. But do you get an equally fuel efficient car from any other Auto company in the world as compared to Prius (from Toyota)?
    Have you ever compared the quality of Hero-Honda motor bike with original Honda bikes? There are many such example.
    BTW, by research I am not referring to developing the same product/technology. I mean NEW product/technology which will be better than the best available in the market at a given time. At least that’s the aim. “Research” does not mean “re-inventing” the wheel but to develop something novel. In today’s India, even “re-inventing a wheel” is a matter of national celebration.

  4. Anonymous6:52 PM

    "Lack of education, manpower will hold India back. We are seeing it in our industry"

    Interview with Indian Express editor, Shekhar Gupta with Kris Gopalakrishnan, Infosys’s CEO.

  5. Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are no longer the quality institutions they were in the 60s and 70s, said chief mentor of Infosys N R Narayana Murthy while speaking at IIT-Gandhinagar: Times of India news.

    The news is not very surprising at all. What is surprising is, even people like Narayana Murthy took so long to figure it out or gather the courage to admit it in public!

  6. A latest report says that quality of education being imparted (in Indian schools) has proved far below average in an international rating system for schools from 74 economies.
    India’s debut at the prestigious Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) saw some 16,000 15-year-olds from schools in Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu taking part. They (India) ranked near the bottom in all categories, outscoring only Kyrgyzstan .
    Tamil Nadu, often lauded for its work in the education sector, has done only marginally better than Himachal Pradesh and ranks below the average OECD score on all counts.
    PISA, introduced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development (OCED), is an internationally standardised assessment that tests 15-year-olds in the domains of reading, mathematical science and science literacy. With institutes of higher education in India having hardly made a mark in international assessments such as the Times QS rankings, the HRD Ministry had decided to participate in the PISA 2009+ hoping Indian schools would do well there.

  7. NICE BLOG!!! Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, research, or simply through autodidacticism. Thanks for sharing a nice information.
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