Plumbing new depths

EDUCATION STANDARDS

We like to refer to ourselves in the same breath as China, as if the two nations were neck-to neck competitors for a share of the global pie. Like a billion-plus ostriches with their heads in the sand, we ignore the glaring gaps on every conceivable parameter between the two most populous nations of the world.

And if per chance we do see some gaps, we calmly chalk up all our failures to our democracy and all China’s successes to their autocracy. If only we had our eyes open, we would see that even to be within the same ball-park as China, we have a very long way to go.

At the most basic level, we need to up our educational standards — primary, secondary or tertiary — seriously, urgently and drastically, and even more, our research capabilities.

Instead, what we seem to be doing is the exact opposite — downgrading practically each and every one of those parameters — simply because it is so much easier to achieve the lowest common denominator than to achieve the highest common factor.

Consider some examples: two years ago, the UGC introduced Academic Performance Index (API) for teachers in higher academia country-wide, in which research was given reasonable weightage. Anyone would think this was a sensible measure, designed to up the sagging research orientation in our academic institutions. However, recently, the government announced that publications will no longer be mandatory for college teachers (including those teaching in engineering colleges) to qualify for promotions and salary increments. Teaching and learning are enormously facilitated today by a plethora of material online, one would think the time released from slog-work could be well utilised in more research. But the government thinks otherwise.

Earlier this month, IITs were asked to pull down their cut-off scores for admissions. At first, the IITs resisted this. However, they gave in after the MHRD officials held an emergency meeting with the IIT directors. Of course, the slant given by the MHRD was that the cut-off had to be lower in order to improve gender imbalance in IITs! I cannot agree more that we have to correct the gender imbalance, but that needs to be done by focusing on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) right from school level, and ensuring that girls are particularly encouraged and supported to excel in these disciplines. But no, this is a long-term solution which we don’t have the stomach for! So, the easier option.

In the same breath, IITs have also been asked to make the admission test questions somewhat simpler, the ostensible reason being that all seats in IITs must be filled up. But is that best done by lowering the standards or by ensuring that our school education is robust enough to throw up more candidates capable of making it to IITs? Of course, there are short-term and long-considerations here that need to be balanced. But has there been a debate? Is anything being done at all to make the government school system deliver more effectively? Are we working towards mass-scale teacher training? Are we ensuring that all schools have a minimal level of infrastructure and teachers, who are duly trained?

Instead, our response to a non-functioning schooling system that caters to 70% of the country’s population has been to do away with all examinations up to class X, which is now reversed again, with the proviso that no student may be failed up to class VIII!

Ideally, we should be ensuring that students are taught well enough to perform well in exams. They should be taught to manage failure as part of life. They should be schooled to believe that it is not failure itself, but not learning from failure which is to be feared. The government believes in taking the easier, most expedient option, every time.

So, where do we stand in our educational standards vis-a-vis other countries? We don’t know, because we stopped participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings after 2009. The reason was that students from two Indian states, namely Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, participated in PISA 2009 rankings and were placed 72 and 74 among 78 participating nations. Did we introspect about our low ranking? No. Instead, our government complained that PISA’s test questions did not take into account the peculiar Indian socio-cultural complexities. Incidentally, PISA is a globally respected survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate education systems by comparing the test performance of 15-year-olds. Apart from cognitive skills of students in science, math and reading, the test also assesses their problem-solving skills in new and unfamiliar settings. Aren’t we interested in knowing where we stand? The government clearly isn’t.

For nearly a decade, we struggled with a ‘Foreign Universities Bill’. The original intent was to bring Indian universities up to speed in an ecosystem in which they would work closely with good foreign universities. After all, we are well aware of the many ills that vex our universities — low fees; misdirected, misunderstood and mis-implemented reservation system; lack of autonomy; lack of funds, and so on. The draft Bill, though it never saw the light of the day, required foreign universities coming to India to provide 49.5% reservation (15% for SC, 7.5% for ST and 27% for OBCs), not indulge in ‘profit-making’ and follow the fee structure recommended by the UGC — thus ensuring that even to start with, we would drag the foreign institutions down to our level rather than raise our institutions to theirs.

At the risk of oversimplification, it would appear that since we are unable to fire up our “demographic dividend” to set high standards in our schools, colleges, universities, we are quite happy pulling them all down to the lowest common denominator. As long as they are all at the lowest common denominator, we are happy, never mind if the denominator is set below a worm’s belly-button. Because our government thinks so.

(Raghunathan is an academic and an author)

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