“Indian students rank 2nd last in global test; better than only Kyrgyzstan in Math, Reading, Science” was the Times News Network (TNN) headline of 15 January 2012, after the results of an annual review (2009) of worldwide education systems was released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Of the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the two states entered by India (Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) ranked second from last. China’s Shanghai province came out on top in all three categories.
Only a day after the TNN story, the Government of India released the results of its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2011. An Indian Express article dated 19 January 2012, titled “The crisis in learning,” outlines two major national trends that have emerged from this report. First, that close to 50% of rural children (aged 9 to 14) pay for their education either in a private school or to a private tutor. (In the 5 years since ASER has been conducting the survey, private school enrollment in rural areas has gone from 18.7% to 25.6%, with some states at near 50%.) Second, the low level of basic learning, particularly in reading and math. (It is estimated that half of all students in Standard 5 cannot read Standard 2-level text. And 40% of Standard 5 students cannot solve a 2-digit subtraction problem with borrowing.) According to the Indian Express article, these low learning results are not new. What is disturbing is the indication that the already low levels may be declining further.
ASER looks at primary school children and PISA evaluates secondary school students (15-year olds). What about higher education? Set aside the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) on which India’s worldwide reputation in education rest, and you will find under-educated students with low job prospects. A 19 January article in the Hindustan Times reports that a Right to Information (RTI) activist has received information that 51% (319 out of 620) of the colleges under the University of Mumbai do not have principals, including renowned colleges of law, management, commerce, arts, engineering, aviation and architecture. Lawsuits abound regarding arbitrary and high capitation fees (fees charged for admission over and above tuition and other published fees), discriminatory admissions (low test ranked students will gain admission over higher ranked students by paying a high “fee”), and institutions operating under false accreditation. Anecdotal stories from teachers and students alike point to sham institutions, including medical schools, that are built to bilk students of capitation fees. One recently (and partially completed) medical college in Pondicherry offered an acquaintance an extremely generous salary (part of which she was directed to give back to the college) and asked her to report to the college on only two days – the days when the college was scheduled for inspection by accreditation bodies. Staff quarters were never completed because no staff was expected to live on campus. Students, having paid so much money just to get into the school, muddle through for the degree, having learned nothing. The same is true for the myriad of IT training institutes and universities that may have, at one time, been competent institutions of learning. A recent acquaintance reports that a business school professor at Pondicherry University could only recommend three candidates from the entire program for a data entry job.
In an effort to exert some control over the educational institutions under its jurisdiction, the central government has directed all institutes to publish an annual balance sheet, starting 2013. According to this LiveMint article dated 18 January 2012, India has 527 universities and more than 31,000 colleges (of which at least 60% are under private control) where approximately 15 million students pursue higher education. This is clearly an attempt to “decommercialize” the education sector and “take care of concerns that many private institutions engage in malpractices to fleece students.”
Unless the quality of education is improved, starting from the ground (primary school), up, India will continue to lose the development race against China.