For any government, if the trigger for student’s suicide is errors that stem from government actions and decisions, the issue could be expected to snowball. And that is exactly what is happening in Telangana.
Background For The Student Suicides
The Telangana State Board of Intermediate Education (TSBIE) decided to give this year’s digital processing and uploading of mark-sheets to a little-known software company called Globarena Technologies Pvt Ltd. This decision is being questioned, alleging that rules were changed to give an inexperienced and incompetent company the contract.
The ‘goof-ups’ include putting out data of:
The fact that initially 3.28 lakh students failed, leading to 23 suicides, and then, upon re-evaluation, the `zeros’ went to 98 per cent is hardly amusing. Especially when one thinks that those who killed themselves had actually scored a 98 per cent. The suicides factor – where the software company could be culpable – has put this incident in the “criminal negligence” category.
Irony Of Being A Leader In Digital Governance
Such large-scale discrepancies have brought Telangana into the national and international limelight for all the wrong reasons.
Not only is it ironical that a state that boasts of being a leader in digital governance, should have a government-appointed software company goof-up so badly, it is also an embarrassment for a government that has made much of its pro-people orientation to have those very people out on the streets protesting against it.
As the initial protests were dealt with indifference and high-handedness, parents, student organisations, activist and political parties intensified the agitation. Demands now include dismissals of the Education minister and officials in the ministry and the Education Board, and compensation to families who lost their children. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has sought a detailed report of action taken and relief measures provided.
So Much Wrong With The Education In The State
To assure all parties of their seriousness and to assuage mounting emotions and politics, some dismissals may be necessary. The state government is also talking about “reforms in the education system” and about an autonomous body for conducting exams and declaring results.
The announcement of such piecemeal measures by the state government sounds almost naive, considering that there is just so much wrong with the education in the state.
Let’s start with the student suicides. They are so common in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh that they have almost become a social norm. In fact, this recent spate of suicides had escaped the attention of several people for quite some time, only because student suicides are so routine. “But suicides have been happening even before Globarena came into the picture!” was the response of the principal of a school in Hyderabad.
Every year in summer, there is extra patrolling around lakes just to prevent students from jumping in after their results are out. Just two years ago, more than 50 students had committed suicide across these two states, with the reason being the same – poor academic performance.
Education Is About Securing Marks Not About Learning
There is a huge premium on marks, and education here is not about learning but about securing marks. In fact, the system is so marks-obsessed – marks at any cost, marks using any means. And this pervades across Examination Boards, with no urban-rural, rich-poor divide on the matter.
Students who took the recent Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) examinations tell us about teachers actually reminding them to “help each other in the exam”, and of examiners turning a blind eye to rampant cheating. Innovative methods are employed, like academically-weak students fraudulently getting ‘scribes’ to write their exams and the scribes are chosen from among bright students.
With such a huge premium on marks, no wonder then that examinations become a matter of life and death, quite literally.
The Coaching Institutes
Abetting student suicides in a big way is the culture of intense academic pressure that prevails across the state. This culture exists because Telangana, along with Andhra and Rajasthan, seeks to send out the maximum numbers of children into institutions like IITs and other top engineering and medical colleges. A thriving coaching business, riding on the strength of huge advertising, guarantees parents that this success can be their child’s, and this is true across all sections of society.
Coaching institutes and junior colleges operate as money-making businesses fleecing parents, and pressurising the students to perform. Of course this leads to abuse of students -- their conditions in these places have been likened to living in concentration camps. In the name of academic rigor, the students undergo long hours of continuous study, face corporal punishment, have no recreation like watching TV or reading newspapers or even talking to their parents.
Yet parents continue to send their children there. And despite raids and finding grave irregularities and innumerable warnings, how these corporate institutes and colleges still continue to function is beyond comprehension.
The Paradox - Abysmal Education Standards Coupled With High Expectations
Yes, competition and suicides also exist in other states, but Telangana’s education system is a strange, unfortunate cauldron. It contains pressure and high expectations on the one hand, and simultaneously, abysmal standards of primary and secondary education, which make the educational foundation almost non-existent. In this cauldron, the children of the state boil – and then boil over.
The abysmal education standards in Telangana were brought out in the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 report, which made stark observations like:
Such figures and other parameters put Telangana at position 28 out of 29 states in the Education Development Index, just above Bihar.
But importantly, what one must bear in mind is that such observations could also mean that the 3.24 lakh failed students is a plausible figure – out of 9.74 lakh, this is around 66 per cent, which is the usual pass percentage in the state.
Here is some food for thought: if the pass percentage after re-evaluation by the TSBIE now goes up to more than 66-70 per cent, it should definitely be viewed as a greater scam.
State Of Primary Education In Government Schools Is Deplorable
Coming back to our argument of poor educational standards in the state, early this year, the Telangana High Court had rapped the state government asking it to form a committee to improve learning outcomes in government schools. The bench feared that falling education standards were leading to privatisation of education.
Fact is that the state of schools in Telangana is deplorable, with infrastructure crumbling, a dearth of primary teachers, and as someone counted, 9,248 vacancies unfilled. Government schools in urban areas mainly operate as centres for mid-day meals and hence are preferred only by the working class. In the interior regions, attendance to government schools was paltry. This, despite the fact that all funds related to computers, inverters, laboratories are shown as received, and even spent.
A local newspaper had earlier questioned how, with such poor-quality education, students were still able to get 85-100 per cent marks in Class 10 exams. The obvious answer was that evaluation was done very liberally by examiners to save their own jobs. Students who complete such ‘education’ cannot even read newspapers and hence are unfit for higher education, leave alone taking up jobs.
There is a paucity of English-medium teachers and conditions like 6-year-old children being admitted into pre-primary sections still persist forcing people to turn to private schools to get their wards a decent education. The ASER Report 2018 had found that admissions to these private schools had increased across all classes of society.
The Private School Trap
Private schools have mushroomed all over and even in big cities like Secunderabad, they are housed in multi-storied buildings, with narrow classrooms, no playgrounds and no transport.
Fees and other expenses range from Rs 25,000 to 3 lakh per annum, and with other expenses included, this could mean that a middle-class family spends more than half its income just on education. There is no way to regulate the fees or the amenities or any other conditions offered by the private schools.
The KG To PG Agenda Of The KCR Government
With full knowledge of this state of affairs, the KCR government had come up with the agenda of “KG to PG” free education. After the state was formed in 2014, 17,000 teachers’ vacancies were announced in 10 districts. But the funds-strapped government could only settle for recruiting 9,335 “Vidya Volunteers” instead.
Critics allege that apart from giving a different name to the few hundred residential schools that the previous government had built, this government did nothing. English-medium education was announced, but the expenses for paying teachers, the facilities and other expenditure was to be borne by parents.
Wild experiments such as 'Freedom schooling' are being carried out, which on the surface appear like a novel idea, where students from Classes 5 to 8 take up teachers’ roles. The underlying reason, however, is “tackling teacher attrition because it is very difficult to hire good teachers.”
Thus, 1,240 students from 13 schools decide on lessons and actually teach, while teachers supposedly intervene only when necessary. Reportedly, they are given payment, which “helps them earn much-needed pocket money”.
Meanwhile in an upscale private school in Hyderabad, a teacher informs us that to justify the high fees, the school management puts immense pressure on the teachers to continually innovate, a lot of which is “meaningless”.
There is another category of schools that parents scramble for are 'Concept Schools', which specifically promise excellence in English, Math, the Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, etc. Again, nearly all of such schools have zero facilities for sports and extra-curricular activities.
Suicides Are A Symptom Of A Failed System
All these factors make for a system that provides little – often less than basic – and yet expects too much.
Psychologists tells us that slipping into depression and remaining disorientated, edgy and removed from themselves and their true potential is the effect and in such a scenario, a small goof-up, or any setback on any front can precipitate in extreme steps such as suicide.
A Crying Need For Education Reforms
The state is badly in need of not just reforms but a complete overhaul of the education system. It needs to start at the very beginning – from addressing teachers’ vacancies, training teachers, improving infrastructure, and generating funds, to putting together a comprehensive education policy that includes matching skills with the jobs available in the state.
But is the KCR government capable of handling and delivering all this? Perhaps not, given its record so far. It has failed to take steps that were needed and had even been recommended. Even a simple measure like the Students’ Helpline for counselling degenerated into an admissions enquiry. All these indicate a lack of sincerity in tackling issues.
The state education minister, G. Jagadishwar Reddy has offered knee-jerk solutions like counselling or studying the best practices followed in other countries with respect to exams and results. As also a lukewarm response that “government was planning to introduce reforms in the intermediate education system like mandating time for sports and other recreation”.
As things stand now, this would be too little, too sporadic.
A Way Forward Out Of The Mess
The shoddy work by the software company Globarena and the heart-wrenching student suicides are unfortunate but the timing, given that it is the election season, has resulted in a propaganda that will not let the issue die down easily.
With facts and issues emerging steadily, the enormity of the problem will soon be realised.
The centre must step in, and KCR must allow it. NITI Aayog has worked with international consultants in states like Rajasthan, UP and Haryana in the area of education. That could be the starting point in a very long-process – one that needs to begin with changing mindsets.
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