Measure of our obsessions

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As the annual results of school boards and competitive exams come out for the year, student suicides continue to rise across the country. Over the last 10 years (2007-2017), more than 75,000 students from high school, secondary school and graduate education levels have committed suicide. During the three years from 2014 to 2016, students committing suicides following failure to pass exams were 2,403, 2,646 and 2,413 respectively.  

The aggregate state-wise data shows states like Maharashtra (1,350), West Bengal (1,147) and Tamil Nadu (981) with the highest rate of student suicides and a national rate of one suicide every passing hour. These disturbing facts reveals a crisis of national magnitude and shame, perpetuating in a social condition of merit obsession, with an over-reliance on metric-fixated educational systems.

Over the last few decades, the canon of metric-fixation (simply put, what gets measured gets done), has deeply conditioned our social understanding of success and failure, from areas of public policy assessment to gauging a student’s learning capabilities. Most universities across India continue to depend on entrance exam scores and grade point averages from an applicant’s previous scores, as predictive indicators for a student’s future performance and learning capabilities.

Evidence from experimental studies continue to reflect a low causal relation between a student’s average performance in a university from one year to another, as against her/his entrance exam scores (a fact also true for other centralised scholastic aptitude tests like GRE, SAT and ACT).

Across other education systems as well (in the US, the UK etc.), it is seen how the predictive validity of these metrics seems to have limited impact on a student’s capability to do well throughout college, unless s/he majors in the same subject throughout high school and under the same set of spatial conditions, that is, the same campus environment and a high faculty-student ratio.

In the context of India, such conditions are hardly consistent across educational levels as most high school certifying boards (CBSE, ISC, etc.) rely on a wider basket of subject combinations as part of their learning curricula and the university-wide faculty-student ratios remain dismally poor (the situation worsens when evaluated from a gendered scale of female-male faculty-student ratios).

Wide variances in student learning outcomes due to the poor quality of teaching and infrastructure standards at levels of primary, secondary and tertiary public education pushes each higher educational institution to raise its entrance eligibility standards and impose higher constraints on an applicant’s chances of securing admission.

This puts onerous mental pressure on students to consistently maintain a 90-plus percentile, while being under pressure from family (and others) to be seen in the ‘merit list’, ultimately forcing young students who cannot meet the standards to commit suicide when faced with failure or rejection.

A few measures enumerated below can be first steps in driving long-term social change, with active engagement by states across the country:

• Increase public funding: The importance of increasing public funding to expand and promote educational facilities at each level cannot be stressed enough. Market-based private edu-preneurs can hardly substitute public funding.

• Mental health infrastructure: a substantial increase in public funding is warranted to support a robust school and university-level mental health infrastructure with easier access to student counselling services. Currently, there are fewer than 5,000 psychiatrists and even fewer clinical psychologists (only 2,000 in a country of 1.3 billion). Expert services from organisations with trained counsellors need to be facilitated within university campuses to improve the social experience of education for students, while addressing any mental challenges faced by them.

• Increase faculty-student ratio: in an average class of 70-80 students with one course instructor, there is hardly any attention a teacher can wilfully assign to cater to each student’s learning needs. The best educational institutions across the world emphasise greatly on keeping faculty-student ratios between 1:15 and 1:20. Educational institutions across states (public or private) can ensure such a ratio while increasing faculty recruitment and continuously experimenting to see how student learning outcomes improve by adjusting the ratios periodically.

• Review university entrance modes: A student’s overall entrance exam score or previous grade performance is just one indicator to assess her/his motivation and ability to do well in any subject (including professional fields like medical sciences, law and engineering).

More qualitative assessment measures on a student’s performance can be included by: increasing weightage of interview-based scores (gauging intrinsic motivation levels of student applicants); documenting experiential observations from pre-university orientation and training programmes for applicants, thereby increasing informational certainty of a student’s motivation and ability levels.

• Value teaching over admin responsibilities: the everyday life of a teacher in current times includes teaching, research and administration responsibilities, and a lot more that is not explicitly stated in the job contract. This is true in both public and private institutions. The art and craft of teaching as a social contract needs to be valued more if any education reform is to be realised. Cultivating an attitude to respect and acknowledge the effort of teachers who spend hours with students to ensure they learn and make the most of the knowledge imparted requires greater attention and support from policy makers.

There are no easy solutions to resolving a deeply pervasive social crisis, which not only needs structural reforms in our educational systems but also behavioural changes in society and within families. A lesser reliance on metric-fixation and incorporating other measures of ability and performance warrant urgent reflection from states and policy-makers in order to address the issue of rising student suicides.

(The writer is executive director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal Global University)

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