Ideas

A Big-Bang Reform Agenda For India’s Distressed Education Sector 

An Indian school girl (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Why gradual decentralisation and private sector participation is key to revamping the Indian education sector

“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education” - John F Kennedy

It is trite to say that our education system needs a rejig. While ideas for reforming the archaic macro structure of education in India will call for a whole book, a few strategic moves outlined in this column could help infuse vigour and enforce clarity in the system.

Education is in the concurrent list of the constitution. Both school education and higher education are under the purview of the central and various state governments. The Ministry of Human Resource Development(HRD) has under its ambit, a cognitively-impossible number of institutions and organisations to keep track of, leave alone administer efficiently from a central pulpit. This calls for rationalisation of the structure for some efficiency in the distribution of labour.

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At this point, it is worthwhile to note that our constitution framers had placed education in the state list. In 1976, it was transferred to the concurrent list through the 42nd amendment, leading to stealthy appropriation of powers by the centre to push through its socialist agenda.

The crux of the proposed reforms are as follows —

a) The Department of School Education should be split into two - an Integrated Child Development Ministry (ICDM) and a Ministry for Secondary Education (MSE).

b) The Department of Higher Education should walk on fire and provide autonomy to universities currently under its control and retain a marginal role in regulation of teaching institutions and funding of basic research.

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Integrated Child Development Ministry (ICDM)

The ICDM will cater to children of less than 10 years of age covering early childhood, pre-primary and primary education. This ministry will also combine the duties of the health ministry targeting the same young populace. ICDM should be moved to the state list through a constitutional amendment.

Capacity building in terms of inputs and infrastructure is complete in primary education. Currently there is near 100 per cent enrolment through the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. The focus should now be on the quality of outcomes and many state governments such as Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka etc. are pursuing it vigorously.

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The job of efficiency improvement is best left to the states that can deal with the problem on an optimum scale instead of at the national level with a staggering 13 crore children enrolled in primary schools. The states can design curricula suiting their local cultural milieu paying extra attention on imparting instruction in mother tongues. This will be a better set up to address the abysmal learning outcomes pointed out in the Annual Status of Education Report(ASER) Survey: only about half the children graduating primary school can read and do basic math.

Integrated with the health department, a holistic approach to child care including nutrition and disease prevention could be designed. This would also help focus attention on pre-primary education which research points out is crucial in the cognitive development of the child.

Also, the move to the state list (and a consequent increase in fund outlay) will make it a more important ministry in the state government and hence will attract the best ministerial talent. Thus education can become an electoral issue which is hardly the case now.

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The devolving of responsibility of primary education will be a fine example of “co-operative federalism” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocates. Further, the responsibility of maintenance of schools could be passed down to local bodies to promote community involvement. The child can graduate out of primary school into class VI after completing a compulsory assessment.

Ministry for Secondary Education (MSE)

The MSE will cater to children coming to Class VI at the age of 10 or 11 till they graduate Class XII at 17 or 18. The MSE can continue to exist under the concurrent list. The central government can replicate the input and infrastructure development at the secondary level. Science labs, IT infrastructure, pedagogy using technology, teacher training programs etc. can be pursued with more focus.

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The central government should embrace big data and put in place Internet of Things (IoT) systems for continuous data collection at the school level to make programmatic decisions at school, district, state and at the national levels. It should appoint a Chief Data Officer to administer data collection at real time and link it to the minister’s dashboard.

With History, Civics, Economics, Humanities etc. being introduced only at the secondary school level, cultural education will still be under the control of the central government. Skill development which is assuming greater significance can be given thrust in the 10+2 stream. In short, the central government would be provided with a clear school education mandate on which it can be assessed.

The role of private sector in the school education space is vital. If there is one lesson to be learnt after 1991, it is that you neglect the private sector to your own disadvantage. The private sector education providers too have not covered themselves in glory and have been rapped on the knuckles by both the government and the judiciary.

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The mistrust stems from the “tail wagging the dog” education rackets that exploit unsuspecting parents, who get no respite due to the poor quality of law enforcement at lower levels. The National Independent School Alliance has tried to clarify some misunderstanding about private schools. They state that private schools offer better quality education at much lower cost than government schools. Anyhow, with about 40 per cent of our children in private schools, the government cannot ignore the private sector.

The government also needs to partner with private sector schools to generate best practices for our Indian schooling system. We cannot be looking at Finland or Abu Dhabi for what is good for our kids. The government should understand the inherent conflict of interest in its provider and regulatory roles. A fair regulator would not have come up with the draconian Right To Education(RTE) clauses that have shut many schools down. The school voucher system should be given a fair try through experimentation in urban pockets.

Higher Education Department

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The Higher Education Department should be partially dissolved and split into two independent agencies -a teaching institutions regulator and a research funding agency. The government should slowly evacuate itself from teaching shops.

The massive government subsidy has distorted the higher education market in terms of value and price creating all sorts of “dead-weight losses” in allocation for relevant research and skills development. Already the market has its own ways of evaluating educational institutes (like in Tamil Nadu, where many engineering colleges closed down) and do not rely on University Grants Commission(UGC) or All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) accreditation.

Many government committees have recommended pruning these bureaucratic behemoths. To improve decision making, the government can strengthen rankings like the ones released by the National Institutions Ranking Framework (NIRF) and also invite private players to set up ranking systems.

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The “US News and World Report” ranking, not a government one, is the most trusted in the United States. The central government should focus on high end research in which private agencies do not work that well. Institutions on the lines of the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health in the US could be established.(This will call for another round of rethink on how research is now funded in India)

The first step in higher education reform would be to provide autonomy to all the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) , Central Universities etc. like what the HRD Ministry has done with the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and then gradually place the financial responsibility on the institutions themselves.

The government can set up mechanisms to provide cheap loans and scholarships to students and strengthen institutions like the Higher Education Financing Agency(HEFA) to fund infrastructure development in colleges. Public–Private Partnerships (PPPs) of various kinds could be tried with both the private sector and foreign educational institutions. To begin with, this could be implemented in science and technology institutions where the issue of “cultural infringement” is less. This would go a long way in promoting innovation under nimble footed administrators.

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The root of many issues stems from the misunderstanding of education as a public good. Harvard professor Lant Pritchett has articulated on why an elected government accords itself the role of “arbiter of value”. The themes of the aforesaid reforms are gradual decentralisation and private sector participation while acknowledging the political resistance in the central government completely letting education go out of its grip. These are pragmatic steps that don’t ask for the moon. The frowning purists on either side will do well to remember Voltaire’s words - “The best is the enemy of the good.”

And of course there will be technological advancement that can make a mockery of any bureaucratic rearrangement!

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