Tackling the education gap

Teachers’ Day is celebrated on the birthday of India’s second President, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. He himself had expressed this wish, that his birthday be observed as Teachers’ Day. He was a teacher and scholar of philosophy, who taught at Oxford, and later served as Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. When he was elected President, the renowned mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell complimented India. It was Plato who had advocated that philosophers should become kings, for the wellbeing of society. Radhakrishnan was first and foremost a teacher, and his ideas on education are worth recalling. He believed that education was not merely meant to acquire knowledge and skills, but also to learn how to live with others. He defined education as an instrument of social, economic and cultural change.  He also said that education gives us a second birth, and helps us realise who we really are. In that sense, since he was also a deeply religious person, he believed education was essential to tread the path of spirituality. Not just Radhakrishnan, but many great thinkers have stressed the importance of education in helping a person realise his or her full potential.

Primary education, unlike secondary and tertiary education, has the characteristics of being a “public good”. Hence in most of the developed world it is provided with public funds, and is free. Even the elite from business or bureaucracy send their kids to public funded schools. By contrast, in India even the poor strive to send their kids to private schools.

On Teachers’ Day, we remember fondly the teachers who have had a profound impact on us. The teacher is the crucial link, and conduit through which the vast ocean of knowledge is transmitted to us, or rather we are made aware of it. Education is the process by which the innate potential in a person becomes manifest, and blooms. It also enables society to achieve its higher goals, of livelihoods, wellbeing and fulfillment of each person.  The modern world is called the knowledge society, indicating the central importance of knowledge, skills and education. The key difference between advanced and emerging economies is in their educational attainment. Indeed this was the observation made recently by the visiting Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Singapore.  He said that the biggest gap between India and East Asia was the state of education. The same can be said in the gap between India and China, too.

Here are some mundane aspects of education. Firstly in the modern world, the accumulation of “human capital” is the best marker of development. It can be quantified and given a monetary value. It measures in the aggregate the impact of schooling, college education, skill formation, training, innovation potential and research. If a nation’s stock of capital (which determines its future growth), is broken up into human and non-human capital, then in developed economies the share of human capital is more than 75 per cent. That share for India is likely to be less than 30 per cent.

The second aspect is that primary education, unlike secondary and tertiary education, has the characteristics of being a “public good”. Hence in most of the developed world it is provided with public funds, and is free. Even the elite from business or bureaucracy send their kids to public funded schools. By contrast, in India even the poor strive to send their kids to private schools. The National Sample Survey of 2014 reveals that 20 per cent of all students avail of private coaching at primary stage. This goes up to 35 per cent at secondary stage. In some states this can go up to 90 per cent at the secondary stage. This is an abysmal failure of the public education system, especially at the primary level. It is no wonder that no bureaucrat, even those in charge of education policies or running schools, prefer to send their children to government schools. 

The third aspect relates to resources, incentives and outcomes. In the aggregate, as a share of national income, India spends much less public money on education as compared to peers like China. But the spending has increased substantially in the ten years between 2004 and 2014. It went up from about 84 thousand to 400 thousand crore, a five-fold increase.

Much of this funding was done in “mission mode” with a large contribution from the Central government.  However, the incentive system is dysfunctional. The biggest and most critical stakeholders in primary and secondary education are the parents, who have very little say in the running of the schools. Teacher absenteeism is a big problem. Learning outcomes are not tied to teacher accountability. No wonder that the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) finds year after year, that learning outcomes are woefully short. In its tenth year, the ASER report of 2014 found that half the kids in class five could not read a class two textbook. Math and reading skills achievements routinely fall very short.  One stark comment in the 2014 report puts it pithily. It says “A hundred million children have gone through the schools in the last decade without basic reading and math skills.” This is a terrible waste of national resources, even from a mundane utilitarian view of education.  In higher education, the seekers of quality are voting with their feet. India spends more than 10 billion dollars annually in sending students abroad for higher studies. Meanwhile almost half of all engineering seats go vacant across South and West India.

It is said that if you want to plan for a year, plant a seed. If you want to plan for next ten years, then plant a tree. But if you want to plan for next hundred years, then teach a child. Education policy is possibly the most important determinant of India’s future. As a country that celebrates a great educationist and a former President’s birthday as Teachers’ Day, it is important that we imbibe his philosophy and vision in our education mission and policies. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most present day challenges of our society can be overcome by that one magic word called education.

(The writer is a senior economist based in Mumbai.)

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