Why is India’s Educational System Failing to Bring about Economic Equity?

While India continues to churn out millions of graduates from high schools and colleges each year, only a small fraction of these students receive a high-quality education and graduate equipped with the necessary skills to be employed in well-paying jobs. India’s educational system which remains under considerable government control and essentially closed off from global competition caters to few students who attend good institutions, while all others attend mediocre, sub-standard schools and colleges. It is under these circumstances that India’s economic inequity and caste barriers thrive, and the country loses an opportunity to provide its students the innovative, high-quality education needed to compete in a global market.
For decades missionaries have run several high-quality schools in India charging reasonable fees, now supplemented by hundreds of elite international schools for those who can afford them. These schools feed India’s few top colleges, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, and other reputable technical institutions. The great majority of high school graduates, especially those from the deplorable rural schools, attend sub-standard colleges run or financially supported by the government, or other private institutions that offer low-quality education.
Unlike the industrial sector, which has been greatly privatized and has opened up to global competition, the educational sector remains under considerable government control. While a number of colleges are run by private individuals and organizations and, in many cases by politicians and influential individuals, most treat this activity as a highly profitable business. On the other hand, government-run or aided colleges offer low-quality education resulting in graduates who lack the knowledge-base or skills required for obtaining more responsible jobs.
Instead of opening up the educational sector to improve its quality, the government constantly attempts to control it for political gain by appearing as the provider of essential services. However, those who have the power and influence to circumvent the rules are able to run private institutions that may not adhere to government regulations. Students from “low caste” communities are not provided the opportunity to go to quality schools, and hence cannot get admission to good colleges on merit. Some of them are given admission to higher-quality colleges based on quotas set by the government in the name of “social justice.” Despite their inability to improve the quality of education in government colleges that charge low fees and offer subsidies for students from poor families, official regulatory agencies attempt to implement rigid standards and requirements on private colleges to ensure uniformity in the educational system. These restrictions in turn hinder the ability of private colleges to offer progressive and innovative programs in keeping with the evolving needs of a global economy.
For example, consider the work of the government agency All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), which approves the operation of all technical and management colleges in India. AICTE sets rigid guidelines on everything from land requirement for college campus, classroom size, number of students allowed, size of physical library and requirements for computer facilities to the amount of money that must be set aside in the name of AICTE, with interest earned on such deposits to be credited to the Council. Accreditation by AICTE is required within the initial two years of operation, after which the college must abide by government-approved curriculum and operational requirements. Under the pretext of protecting the interests of students, AICTE imposes bureaucratic and outdated academic requirements that do not permit sufficient flexibility for the institution to offer quality programs.
AICTE operates under the assumption that it knows best what is needed in every field of study, and that, unless it micro-manages the entire process, no academic institution will do a good job in meeting the required standard. It appears that the quality of education that it attempts to ensure across all colleges is nothing more than mediocre. This perspective fails to appreciate the evolving techniques in teaching, research, and learning, such as: virtual instead of or in addition to physical libraries that provide a wealth of current information on developments in every field; instant search and access to proprietary databases and archives, remote learning and live on-line interactive classes; video conferencing with experts and guest lecturers; virtual computer rooms with the use of Wi-Fi communications and notebooks; practical experience achieved through internships at companies and research laboratories; collaborative learning through academic social networks, and exchange programs with foreign colleges; video participation in complex tasks such as medical surgeries; field work through community services; and many more. The government forces every academic institution to adhere to conventional ways of teaching and learning, which in turn limits the progress of higher education in India.
A proposed bill on the entry of foreign academic institutions into India is presently (July 2010) being debated in the Indian parliament. According to the ministry responsible for crafting the bill, it is designed to “prevent exploitation of Indian students by foreign colleges.” In its present form, the bill calls for an increase in corpus funds to be set aside by the foreign university from Rs. 5 crores ($1.10 million) presently to Rs. 50 crores ($11 million) when the bill becomes law. Repatriation of profits will not be permitted, and the college must meet AICTE regulations. These rules prohibit foreign institutions from entering India, thereby protecting inferior-quality institutions in the country from foreign competition.
Unfortunately, this and similar interventions by the government create serious obstacles to improving the quality of education for India’s student population. The country doesn’t seem to have learnt the important lesson of openness when it comes to education: only through competition and innovation will the educational system improve. In that event, employers would choose colleges to recruit from that offer graduates who can meet their job needs; most students would join only those colleges that are able to market them when they graduate. In other words, a competitive marketplace will demand better-trained students, and consequently, colleges will be forced to compete on quality.
Instead of acting as a catalyst in advancing the quality of education at all levels, and financially assisting economically disadvantaged students, the government’s current policies protect inferior-quality institutions and establish mediocrity as a leveler for all others. At a time when India shows great promise from its recent economic progress, the direction of its education policies does not favor much benefit to the poor and fails to keep pace with the growing needs of the country in a competitive global economy.

Abraham M. George

Dr. Abraham George is the Founder of Shanti Bhavan School (www.shantibhavanonline.org), a world-class institution for children from socially and economically deprived families, and the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, in India.


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