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The challenge of education in India

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."
Benjamin Franklin.

The former president Dr. Abdul Kalam will always be known for his great contributions to the missile programme in India. His education not only empowered him, but also gave India, a respectable stature among the comity of nations. Education, therefore can determine the fate of not only an individual but also his/her nation too. While India has made great strides, yet the quality of education and its reach are yet to match the standards of those of developed nations. It is only natural to ask, what is the challenge of education in India?

Ancient India had a vibrant system of education. The value of teacher was equated to those of Gods. The Gurkul system was the foundation of the education then. Learned men like Susrutha, Bhaskara and Vrahamihira had adorned the courts of various kings. Their contributions in the fields of science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and astrology has been a pride for India, even after centuries of their works. Ancient education, in India, had good standing even when other parts of the world were in dark ages. However, it too had its own set of challenges. Women were denied from learning Vedas even during the golden period of Guptas. Similarly, the centuries old tradition of caste discrimination kept education out of reach for Dalits. The colonial rule, though introduced education on western model, it did so for its own goals. Education in India has faced challenges during its entire history. So, what is its state today?

On the eve of independence, the literacy level in India was a meager 12%. Fast forward to the latest census data of 2011, the literacy rate has reached to 74%. Though, a huge leap within 70 years, many facts also show the other side. In primary education, the findings of the Annual Status of Education Report 2017 show that 36% of those surveyed did not know that Delhi is the capital of India. It has also noted that number of enrollment of girls has been falling with age. Basic numeracy and literary skills were also lacking. The higher education too is yet to put India on the map of league of world class institutions. Except for IITs, NITs, IIMs, IISc and AIIMS like institutions, the state of higher education in India is marred by the poor quality of learning, lack of research and other issues. Only 12 institutions and universities in India have made it to the top 700 institutes in QS World University ranking-2018. What then, are the challenges that ail education?

It is clear that the school education is lagging in equipping youngsters for the outside world. Gender divide, lack of skills, information and counseling cause a drag on reaching the goal of quality primary education for all. Apart from this, the poor infrastructure and quality of curriculum as well as the teachers are some other challenges. While the Right to education Act provided rights based approach for access to education, it is short on maintaining the quality of outcome of education, which is seen by the ASER report findings. An increase in enrolment does not guarantee the development of required skills which form the foundation at higher levels of learning. Rote learning has created learners who do not understand the nuances of basic arithmetic and reading. The higher education too has its own challenges. An NSS report in 2014 says that financial hardship made 60% of male students drop out of higher education. Social compulsions of early marriage causes female students to drop their desire for higher education. Higher fees, preparation challenges for entry level exams, cut throat competition filter out many students from socially and economically disadvantaged sections. On the other hand, faculty shortage, outdated curriculum, funding issues, lack of infrastructure of computers, library books, internet and research infrastructure reduces the quality of higher educational institutions. Poor academia-industry interface also has brought a gap between the relevance of the skills required and available in the job market. The role of University Grants Commission has been argued by experts as having failed to maintain the standards of higher education. There has been proliferation of private colleges and deemed universities. However, the poor quality of infrastructure and regulation of these institutions is responsible for making education more as a commercial business rather than a social necessity. The Government has taken many steps to address these challenges.

The Union Budget 2018-19 has proposed to treat school education holistically without segementation. This is being done by subsuming Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhiyan and Teacher Education schemes into Samagra Shiksha. The goal is to improve school effectiveness measured by equal oppurtunities of schooling and equitable learning outcomes. The Mid-day meal scheme aims to increase the enrollment , retention, attendance and nutrition of school going children. Other schemes, to improve the leveraging of digital technology to monitor school education and outcome include, SHAGUN, School Report Card, School GIS etc.

Similarly, to ignite young minds about innovation and research, Atal Tinkering Labs programme is being persued among school children by Niti Aayog. For addressing the challenges of higher education, Higher education Commission of India is replacing University Grants Commision, to improve regulatory oversight of higher education in India. 6 institutes have been selected as 'Institutions of Eminence' to improve their autonomy, which can attract wider talent and foreign students. This is being done to improve the standing of higher education institutions in world rankings. Further, to improve funding to higher institutions, Higher education Funding agency has been formed to fund research and infrastructure by 2022. VAJRA scheme has been developed to attract both Indians and Foreign professors to carry out research in India. While a number of initiatives are underway to improve the scenario of education in India, many more steps are needed.

There should be regular assessments to measure progress in learning and data collection must be done to identify leaders and laggers. System and institutional capacity must be built for carrying out research as to what motivates learning and the reasons for poor outcomes. Establishing reading and numeracy skill development missions with identified targets is needed to improve foundational learning. Teacher education and students behavioral shifts are necessary to promote quality teaching and learning respectively. Use of technology, wherever applicable for improving concept based learning must be done to enthuse students with the changing demands of skill sets required. Finally, a holistic national policy on education with clear guidelines and targets of addressing challenges in education is the need of the hour.

India had been the torch bearer of knowledge in ancient times. Be it spiritual, physical or scientific learning, India's knowledge astonished many western thinkers, educationists and researchers. It is time India reformed the way education is imparted to realize the Sustainable development goal of inclusive and quality education by 2030.

- Ritesh Kumar