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Indian Education: Comfort in Mediocrity

By M.D. Nalapat

July 28, 2009

A visitor to India is constantly reminded by everyone she or he meets that the country has "five thousand years" of recorded history. That computation may be off - by more than a thousand years - but historians agree that India was included with ancient empires such as the Mesopotamian,the Greek,the Roman and the Egyptian. Certainly, a university town was constructed several hundred years before Christianity was founded, at the eastern Indian town of Nalanda. The complex, which was tended by ancient kings that include Ashoka, became a center of Buddhist thought, although today all that remains are mounds of ruins, awaiting a rebirth.

The fate of present-day Nalanda is symptomatic of the plight of education in India, a country with hundreds of millions of very talented people, who usually excel when they go abroad and settle down in locations where the education system is less dysfunctional than India's. More than a million engineering graduates stream out of the country's technical schools, with about 30% being of a quality sufficient to locate work immediately, either abroad or at home,while many of the rest improve their proficiency in the workplace. What is lacking within the teaching and training system is excellence. Getting good people in huge quantities has displaced a search for the truly outstanding. Indeed, such is the rigidity within the Indian education system, that excellence - unless lucky enough to migrate to the United States or to other developed countries - gets worn down and finally replaced with the mediocrity with which the administrators of the system are most comfortable.

Because of its immense manpower pool, India has nearly 200 million young people that are capable of increasing their stock of intellectual capital. Nearly that number are also illiterate, however, with the rest in an in-between netherworld, unable to access or understand the training that can give them a chance at success in a globalizing economy. Within the general population, at least a third are still illiterate despite the definition of "literacy" being little more than scrawling one's name on a sheet of paper or elsewhere. A population where more than 30% do not know at all how to read and write in any language, and where about 20% also are - in practical terms - illiterate, is losing half of its available talent pool to neglect.

A national trait, which fortunately disappears when a citizen goes abroad or gets into a competitive environment, is to start brilliantly but end poorly. This is what has happened to the numerous literacy drives launched by a medley of government and state agencies. With substantial effort, an illiterate is taught to read and write, only to suffer a relapse into illiteracy within a year because as yet there is almost no literature commonly available for neo-literates. Many lack the money to buy any kind of book in the first place, while those agencies that taught them the alphabet move on elsewhere, to "further reduce illiteracy". Unless a follow-up program lasting at least five years is devised for neo-literates, India will continue to be a country where half the population is alphabetically disadvantaged.

The rot in the schools begins at the point of recruitment. In some parts of the country, more than three-fourths of all school management (including those in the government sector) select teachers after getting a cash bribe from them. The candidate able to pay this may not always be the best, and is usually among the worst-skilled of the applicants. Because the job has been secured for cash and not competence, there is seldom any effort to enforce standards or mandate improvement. Mediocrity reigns, and spreads to the unsuspecting students.

To attend a classroom in India is usually to fall asleep. Classes are conducted in a monotone from notes that are frayed with long use and remain unchanged for decades. Questions are discouraged, and the pupils very soon understand that their teacher anyway knows little of the subject besides what he or she is reading out to them, hence they stay silent. That is, if there are teachers at all. While a few states (in the south and west) have teachers in almost all schools, in other parts of the country about a fifth of government schools remain without teachers for long stretches of time. Often, a single teacher takes multiple classes and several subjects, to the forfeit of quality.

From 1947, post-Independence governments in India have spent more funds on higher education than on primary education, even though the numbers at the base are twenty times what they are at the higher levels of the education system. This has meant the denial of equal opportunity to those staying in rural areas (about 65% of the population) or those who are too poor to get into a private school in the city (the overwhelming majority of students).

Although much is made of each government's commitment to the poor, the reality is that the higher education assets created by the state have become the preserve of the well-heeled and the influential, barring a handful. In the usually Communist-ruled state of Kerala, the indirect taxes collected from the poor get used to build medical colleges that only the middle class study in. Naturally, the state looks askance at private facilities, calling them elitist, even though many of these set aside a tenth and more of their capacity to take in the poor by giving scholarships. Public medical colleges in Kerala are an example of how the poor pay for the education of the middle class, of course in the name of the poorest.

With such a large number of students opting out of the regular school system before long, thanks to a combination of poverty and abysmal teaching, there ought to be a substantial number of vocational courses. Sadly, because of the numerous regulatory hurdles that the education bureaucracy has put in place, less than a fifth of those working while still in their youth have undergone any sort of vocational training. This figure of 20% is optimistic and - as is the case with numerous statistics in India - unsubstantiated by any comprehensive examination of the facts. The actual percentage of those with vocational training may be much less.

In such training as well, it is mediocrity that is taken as the norm. Take the example of nursing. India has several million young ladies who have the innate ability to be excellent nurses, as indeed many are in hospitals across the world. The problem is that the outflow is confined to what gets described as "C" and "D" grade hospitals and other facilities,and locations such as old age homes. The modern hospitals (the "A" and "B" class) do not recruit nurses from India because the training given in the country does not give access to the latest in patient care and in diagnostic and therapeutic equipment. As yet, neither the government nor the private sector has set up a training facility that can equip India's nurses for jobs in the best hospitals worldwide. Everybody seems satisfied with the suboptimal. After all, it could be worse! Yes, but it could as well be much better.

In contrast to the overall smog, there are a few points of light that are appearing with accelerating speed across the country. Schools that offer international-quality education, naturally at prices that are steep by Indian standards, but reasonable by those of developed countries. Such schools have begun training a stream of young people - now more than a hundred thousand and growing - to compete in gaining admission to the best higher education that the world has to offer. Naturally, this has attracted the anger of the politicians, who seem to have a vested interest in the perpetuation of mediocrity. They routinely threaten to shut down such schools "unless fees get reduced". What goes unsaid in such headlines is the fact that lower fees would lead to an immediate reduction in standards, to the glee of institutions that are content with lower quality.

The protection of the substandard against competition by the best is the core impulse driving the opposition of the education establishment in India to an initiative on which the present columnist has long worked, to bring into the country good-quality international universities. At present, less than one in three of those students seeking to go abroad to study actually do so. Some because of visa problems, others because their families are reluctant to send them too far away from home. This represents an immense opportunity for foreign universities in India, and a way for the country to both save on the estimated $9 billion that is being spent each year on educating its sons and daughters abroad as well as to earn foreign exchange in the way that Australian universities (or indeed, this columnist's own Manipal University) do.

After nearly ten years of effort, the Minister for Education (known in India as Minister of Human Resource Development) gave his public blessing to the Foreign Universities Bill last month. Alas,a flood of criticism soon followed, most from within his own Congress Party, as well-funded education lobbies got into play to prevent this threat to their complacency. Thanks to tinkering by such lobbies, the bill - should it ever emerge for a vote in parliament - is likely to have so many restrictive provisions that few international universities would be willing to come to India.

In India, technical, medical and other branches of higher education are under the control of state-appointed accreditation boards which have a life-or-death power over them. As is the case with numerous processes in India - including the election process - the system is based on faith in the integrity and competence of the individuals manning it. Transparency is low and discretion high. As politicians control the membership of such boards, most seek to ensure that pliable individuals get inserted in them. As a consequence, graft has become commonplace. Several times, the "inspection committees" sent to evaluate facilities for the giving or refusal of accreditation are formed by individuals selected by the resourceful individuals of these same institutions. Such teams helpfully allow the host institution to prepare the draft of the report that they will sign later, while they indulge in serious pursuits such as wine, good food and much else, and bashfully accept gifts of cash, often running into substantial amounts.

The hunger for education in India means that unscrupulous managements can - and in many cases, do - extract large sums in cash from each student of engineering or medicine that is selected. As a consequence, the education sector has become a cash fountain for officials and politicians. Small wonder that they are resisting competition.

In the United States, several universities have become locations where advanced research is carried out, often in cooperation with industry. In India, the exclusivist habits engendered by the country's traditional caste system result in a shunning of private industry by most public universities, who therefore cut themselves off from the synergy that such partnerships can bring.

In India, the state's education establishment has replaced creative thought with mechanical processes. In what passes for research, most universities have become assembly lines for producing a stream of PhDs, many of which represent the finest traditions of cut-and-paste.

An example of the loss to the system by the mindless application of narrowly-defined rules is the stipulation that only those with a particular number of published papers can serve as doctoral guides. In some of the country's key research institutions - such as those within the nuclear sector - scientists are dissuaded from publishing papers, even while they accumulate knowledge of a field. Because of their not producing enough or, in some sensitive cases, no at all, students are denied the chance of tapping into their knowledge, because of a mechanical application of the rules.

That original thought is not exactly encouraged in present-day higher education in India can be gleaned from the half-jest,half-serious comment about the country's Jawaharlal Nehru University - that it is a place where one can get the Chinese, Russian, American and even the Nepalese view of geopolitics, but never an Indian viewpoint. India's lack of a strategic culture, its inability to plan long-term and decide on difficult choices, comes from the embrace of the usual and the ordinary over the new and the unusual, making the ostrich the most apt symbol for Indian higher education.

There are signs of change. The young are becoming visibly discontented with the way in which they are patronized and made to accept a substandard system. Twenty years ago in India, it took days to get a phone call through from one city to the other, and a week before an international call could be placed. Today, there is instant dialing, even in the villages. Years ago, getting a train or air ticket was a nightmare that often involved a bribe. These days, all it takes is some credit and the click of a mouse. The number of mobile phone users is on target to cross two hundred million, from a base of a few hundred thousand just a decade ago. Hopefully, the engine of India's future, the education system, will be unshackled from the bureaucracy that is stifling it and bring back a Nalanda to life.

M.D. Nalapat became India's first professor of geopolitics in 1999 at Manipal University in India's Karnataka state. Since 1992,he has held that Wahabbism-Khomeinism and authoritarianism are the twin threats faced by the international community and that the "unified field" of terrorism mandates a similar response. In 2003, he partnered with JINSA in organizing the first of four annual India-Israel-U.S. Conferences. Professor Nalapat, who first put forward the idea of forming an "Asian NATO," believes that Israel, India, Turkey and Singapore form part of the "Extended West", rather than an "extended Middle East", and that the countries in this group need to work in concert to promote prosperity, democracy and freedom from terror.

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