Arun Kumar

While much has been achieved in the field of education in numerical terms since independence, the crisis is in the content. Teachers’ Day this year should be the time to review the state of education and the role of teachers in India since Independence. Teaching is said to be the mother of all professions. It is supposed to help build the future of society by preparing the young to take over the reins in the coming years.

Undoubtedly, compared to 1947, literacy rates and enrolment in schools and colleges have shot up. Building nuclear plants, sending rockets to Mars, production of vaccines, etc. can be listed as the gains of the Indian education system. India becoming the fifth largest economy and home to the third largest number of billionaires in the world may also be listed by the ruling elite as gains of the education system. But, 75 years after Independence, has the nation done what was expected of it?

The role of education

The role of higher education is to take the young to the cutting edge of knowledge and help society generate socially relevant knowledge. It is in this respect that India has not done well with few getting to the frontiers of knowledge or generating socially relevant knowledge. Given the population size, even a small per cent is a large absolute number. So, Indians are visible all over the world in top positions. But that represents only the tip of the iceberg.

The sharp failure was recently visible in the way the education system collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many children dropped out of classes. The teaching community should have taken up the challenge and worked out solutions. Instead, most teachers could not cope with online teaching and examinations.

Institutions were unable to devise ways of dealing with the crisis and the government floundered to frame appropriate policies. All this will have a long-term impact on society’s dynamism. Not that other nations did not flounder but the point is that academia and teachers failed.

Teachers are the most educated and have the leisure (theoretically) to reflect more deeply on issues and collectively provide guidance to society about how to tackle them. And, there is no dearth of issues crying for resolution. Whether it is the retrogression of democracy, growing divide across communities, a decline of institutions of governance, youth unemployment, rapid price rise, the plight of the vulnerable in society, the crisis in the farm sector and so on.

Challenges facing the education system and teachers

The successes listed above are not only numerical but point to the narrowness of the base of beneficiaries in India. Of the 27 crore people who have registered on the e-Shram portal, 94% mention that they earn less than Rs 10,000 per month. The desperation among youngsters can be gauged when a person having a PhD, MTech and MCom degree applies for a peon’s job in Uttar Pradesh. No doubt a government job is preferable but one does not do an MTech to become a peon.

Clearly, a large number of people don’t get a job appropriate to their degree or skill acquired. It is reported that substance abuse has grown among youngsters and so has violence within families. Suicides by daily workers and self-employed have increased while they are still high among farmers. This reflects hopelessness.

While the number of educational institutions has increased, facilities by and large are inadequate due to a shortage of funds and corruption. This is mostly true of the private institutions also because of the managements’ desire to maximise their profits. No wonder, ASER reports since 2005 show that 50% of children in Class 5 in rural schools cannot read or write or do arithmetic of Class 2 level. So, effectively they have not acquired the basic skills, and drop out. Worse, they can only get menial jobs that pay little, and they will remain poor during their lifetime.

A degree has become a passport to a scarce job. So, the emphasis has shifted from learning to getting marks to get admissions and jobs. Cheating is the easiest way for this and it has become rampant in our public examinations. Fake degrees are another device to get this passport. It has also spawned the culture of coaching and tuition, which is narrowly focused on imparting the skill to do well by beating the system. Regular classroom teaching is mostly indifferent, so students are forced to opt for tuition. More importantly, this kills students’ interest in learning.

There is also growing commercialisation and privatisation of education on the ground of failure of the public systems and that is increasing the divide between the well-off and the poor. The democratising influence of education is on the wane. Consequently, the insensitivity towards the marginalised sections or the differently abled has aggravated.

In order to attract students, many private institutions promote malpractices – question paper leakage, fake degrees, etc. It has fostered paying courses in public institutions and children gravitating to applied courses away from the basic courses. The downgrading of the basic courses in educational institutions will pose challenges for research in the coming years.

With education becoming a mass market and weakening teacher-student relationship, testing in public examinations is largely based on multiple choice questions (MCQ). CUET introduced for Central University entrance is a recent example. Not only does MCQ not test the child’s capacity to express and logically formulate answers, but it also lends itself to cheating and coaching.

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The 1991 New Economic Policy (NEP) brought about a paradigm shift. The role of teachers was undermined. Funding for education was curtailed. Regular appointments of teachers became a trickle and they were recruited as temporary, ad-hoc or as guests.

As a result, a large number of teachers have become insecure, as they have no autonomy and are shamelessly exploited by the administration.

Teachers, especially the senior ones, rather than resisting these trends have been largely accepting them. Using the growing malpractices as an excuse, the policymakers, including academics in positions of authority, have imposed policies that are wholly unsuitable for teaching. These have been affected on the plea of disciplining teachers and attaining standards via standardisation.

It has led to a decline in the self-esteem of teachers, and teaching and research have become mechanical. Inappropriate quantitative measures of efficiency used in offices have been imposed on teachers. Like, earning points for promotion under the new API (academic performance indicator) system. Many MPhil and PhDs are cut-and-paste jobs, not worth the paper they are written on. The attention is diverted from the quest for knowledge or imparting it to the students to beating the system. Standards rather than improvement have declined.

The decline began with academia ceding ground in policymaking to the politicians and bureaucracy. Academics co-opted into policymaking are the ones with a bureaucratised mindset who do not see the problem from the academic prism. The politicians absolve themselves by pointing out that the policies were formulated by academics in consultation with the academic world.

For instance, the vice-chancellors of the universities who are consulted or appointed to committees are often a part of the problem. Most who move up the bureaucratic ladder have to manage the environment and over time their focus shifts away from knowledge generation.

The bureaucrat academics heading institutions treat dissent as a malaise rather than as the essence of higher education. So, independent researchers are not appreciated because they are in the habit of questioning and not mechanically complying. Governance rather than being based on persuasion is carried out through a coterie of sycophants who are promoted in the system and that further demoralises the independent academics.

Teaching is currently being undermined by the growing emphasis on technology. This is seen as a solution to the problem of indifferent teaching and inadequate funding. Courses devised in advanced countries are now recommended for introduction in Indian institutions. The use of IT and computers is being promoted. This presupposes that the students are skilled enough to learn on their own but that is not the case with a very large number of Indian students who need a teacher to interact with. So, the indiscriminate introduction of technology will only undermine the teachers without making learning easier for the majority of students.

In brief, society faces growing challenges because the institutions of learning have been damaged in a fundamental way. Policymakers who have a bureaucratic mindset do not understand the genesis of the problem. The teaching community, which should have been involved in policymaking, has become increasingly demoralised and ceded ground to the bureaucrats and politicians, who see the problems mechanically and hence cannot provide a solution.

Teachers through commitment could have worked out a way of providing cheap but high-quality education to all. Instead, they have gotten bogged down by ‘economism’ and copying Western-style education.

The goals of education

Socially relevant knowledge generation imparts dynamism to society. As stated at the outset, education should facilitate students reaching the cutting edge of knowledge and provide socially relevant knowledge. This is a dynamic process since both the frontiers of knowledge and the challenges are ever-expanding. This is how education can make society dynamic.

Unfortunately, most Indian intellectuals have been reduced to being derived intellectuals, recycling knowledge from outside, especially the West. For most streams of knowledge, the local context is important and that differs from nation to nation and region to region. So, borrowed ideas from a different context may only add more layers of challenges to the pre-existing problems making them more intractable. The so-called ‘solution’ becomes a problem.

In India, since colonial times, most of the teaching-learning has been by rote. This is because teaching and research have been separated. Most teachers echo this by saying that they are for teaching. Research is also undermined by the lack of facilities in most institutions. Consequently, there is weak absorption of knowledge which undermines its advancement and creation of ideas and generation of socially relevant knowledge. The only option then becomes copying from elsewhere. The elite ruling class which is enamoured of Western success anyway is disposed to copying and thinks of this as the easy path to success.

In brief, the qualitative goals of education face systemic and societal challenges. They cannot be resolved by individual academics or by an institution. Largely, it is seen that institutions that start off with a lot of promise slowly degenerate given the system that they operate in – JNU is a good example of how it has succumbed to the external pressures, and degeneration has set in.

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JNU Campus

The content of education

Clearly, the spread of education is important but its content is equally important. What is taught builds societal attitudes. That is why there is so much tussle over the curriculum. Education can reproduce the existing structures of knowledge or be an instrumentality for change. It is the ruling elite that decides whether they want to preserve the status quo in society or want change. Since a bird in hand is better than a bird in the bush, the ruling elite would want to go for the former. For them, socially relevant knowledge would be one that produces compliant citizens.

Dynamism in society could be a force for change and would promote uncomfortable questioning. So, they would be happy to simply borrow tested knowledge generated abroad rather than have an Indian version of modernity which could challenge the current set of privileges and prosperity they enjoy. They adopt a short-sighted view based on a zero-sum game, namely, if they share the gains of development it would be at their expense. But that is not true since development is a positive-sum game.

The ruling elite wants a docile worker rather than a questioning one. So, they would not want an education system that teaches children to question. Rote learning comes in handy for that. Further, the Indian elite is largely still feudal in thought which views the education of the marginalised negatively. I was told by a village landlord in 1976 that if the children of the poor get access to education, “Who would take my cattle to graze?”

An Indian version of modernity also has the drawback of requiring the nation to struggle to define it which is an uncertain path. It would require a fundamental shift in the basic social premises. It would require the deepening of democracy so that the voices from below find a place and the ruling elite do not want that. Copying a ready-made path from abroad with its known consequences is more reassuring to the elite.

What teachers need to do

Teachers need to agitate to de-bureaucratise their institutions and reform the teaching-learning process. The commitment to teaching and to the students has to be deepened. They have to teach students how to learn and make their own path rather than spoon feed them. They can be friends to the young and give them hope for the future so that they develop a positive attitude and become less frustrated. All this can happen only if teachers act collectively and become role models.

While much has been achieved in the field of education in numerical terms since independence, the crisis is in the content. In this sense, teachers have failed society by not playing the critical roles mentioned above and by failing to provide dynamism to society. The elite rulers have to bear a large part of the blame for this failure of teachers. They have put systems in place that instead of encouraging knowledge generation promote copying of ideas. This needs to change if society is to meet the growing challenges it faces. One can say, society is sliding down an abyss and only a reformed education system can stop the further decline and reverse it.

This article was published in The Wire as Education in India at 75: The Challenges Facing the System, Students and Teachers.

Read another article by Arun Kumar – Evaluating India @75: Relied on Borrowed Development Strategy in IMPRI insights

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About the author

Arun Kumar

Arun Kumar, is an economist.