Why you should care

Until India gets serious about its educational system, it will have a hard time becoming the global leader it aspires to be.

The last Indian general election transformed Prime Minister Narendra Modi from an international pariah, accused of human rights abuses, to a superstar and raised hope that India had turned a corner. British Prime Minister David Cameron praised Modi, saying he “got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe,” and investors and political strategists have India back in their good books.

But this new optimism is at best unfounded, and perhaps completely wrong. Even if we take Modi at his word — that he is a reformer more interested in building high-speed train systems than temples — it is unclear if the Indian people have the will to lift themselves out of poverty and disease. The case study of education reform, an area in which I have worked for more than a decade, is instructive.

India has over 400 million school- and college-age citizens, more than any country. Yet it has an educational system that has failed its people and simply has not taken steps to redress the issue. For example, when India last participated in the global PISA test, a standardized test of math, science and literacy designed to compare school systems across the world, it came in second to last among more than 70 participating countries.

It is unclear if the Indian people have the will to lift themselves out of poverty and disease.

Teacher absenteeism is 25 percent in government schools, even though teachers often receive the highest salary in an Indian village. The deficiency of public schools has created the largest private school system in the world, with some private schools costing less than $100 per year and producing outcomes far better than those from public schools.

Children sitting on floor looking at their books

Children study inside their classroom after having their free midday meal, distributed by a government-run primary school, in a village in Bihar, India.

Source Corbis

How has the Indian government redressed the collapse of the public school system? For starters, India’s bureaucrats declared the PISA test unsuitable for India and withdrew the country from further rounds of testing. Instead of encouraging competition against decrepit public schools, the government has placed onerous operating burdens on private schools through the misleadingly named Right to Education (RTE) Act.

On the surface, RTE is a “pro-poor” piece of legislation as it allocates 25 percent of seats in all private schools for poor students who otherwise would go to public schools. In reality, RTE creates more opportunity for political patronage as the allocation of that 25 percent is influenced by corrupt local politicians in exchange for favors or cash. In short, RTE accepts that private schools are doing a great job by mandating that one-quarter of their capacity be reserved for poor students, while simultaneously punishing them through added regulation.

India Education Facts

  • Total Number of Students (Primary and Secondary): 179 million
  • Number of Schools (Primary and Secondary): 1.3 million
  • Typical School Year: April to March
  • Top Schools: Doon School (Dehradun); Cathedral and John Connon (Mumbai); Delhi Public School (Delhi); Mayo School (Ajmer); Welham Girls’ School (Dehradun)

In higher education, the situation is no better — contrary to the impression that India has a quality higher education system given the performance of its graduates abroad. This impression is the result of sample bias: Students graduating from the top 1 percent of institutions (nearly 200,000 students) tend to leave India in search of economic opportunity, masking the reality of the country’s subpar higher education system.

Overall, India has approximately 20 million students in higher education. The government, however, refuses to encourage private investment in higher education by mandating that it remain a “nonprofit” activity.

Meanwhile, private nonprofit colleges, often owned by corrupt politicians, take advantage of the excess demand for higher education by eliciting cash bribes for admission, a practice that is so prevalent in India that locals have invented a term for it: “capitation fees.”

Students outdoors filling out forms during the day

Students fill out forms during the admission process at Daulat Ram College in New Delhi, India.

And what has changed since that last dramatic general election? The new minister responsible for education, Smriti Irani, is a 38-year-old soap opera actress without a college degree (despite her recent declaration that she has a “degree” from Yale based on a six-day course). Her first publicly announced reform to the educational system is a campaign to introduce buttermilk in public school lunches. Not a word against RTE or investment in higher education to build the millions of new seats of capacity we need each year.

How can India get out of this mess without money and develop an improved educational system? The answer lies in implementing Prime Minister Modi’s own mantra of “more governance, less government.” Unlike India’s health care system (the most privatized in the world), its educational system is not deregulated to allow for-profit investment in schools and universities.

Deregulated education in India would generate more competition for public schools and private ‘nonprofit’ schools owned by politicians and influential industrialists.

The government claims it is loath to allow for-profit education in order to protect students from poor quality. But why is it acceptable to allow a profiteering hospital to perform brain surgery but objectionable to allow a student to take a math class at a for-profit university?

The Indian government should set up the accreditation framework and stand back. Whether the capital comes in the form of for-profit or nonprofit investment should not matter. Presently, the government is tying the hands of investors in the Indian educational system by mandating nonprofit institutions and, in doing so, limiting the amount of capital invested and the quality of education provided. India should learn from the successes and mistakes of other countries such as the U.S., Brazil and China that have deregulated education.

Deregulation is usually opposed because it comes with the threat of job cuts or closure of government-run facilities. But in this case, deregulation does not require government investment or reduced support to existing public educational institutions. It will, however, generate more competition for public schools and private “nonprofit” schools owned by politicians and influential industrialists.

I ask once more: Do the Indian people have the will to move forward? When it comes to education, that is really all it takes to solve the problem. And in a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people, surely there is enough collective energy and willpower to make that investment in the nation’s future.

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