It has been two years since the Narendra Modi Cabinet took oath. This was a government tasked with changing the policy direction of many sectors. On missing the bus on significant structural changes in key sectors, despite riding on such high expectations, the disappointment was inevitable.
One such sector lacking the government’s attention has been the education sector. Public debate in this sector has focused on issues such as rolling back the Four Year Under Graduate Programme, making Sanskrit a compulsory language in schools, alleged interference in the internal administration of universities and most recently, promulgation of the ordinance that partially overturns the Supreme Court judgment, which made the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) compulsory from this year itself. The union government has allowed states and private medical colleges to go on with their own procedure for admissions this year – in undergraduate medical and dental courses. Unfortunately, these matters do not represent the real systemic failures that plague the sector.
To fully reap its demographic dividend, India needs a skilled and educated workforce. This is where higher education becomes crucial and most governments do well to recognize it. The Finance Minister has emphasized the importance of higher education and the government’s increased focus on it, through his Union Budget speeches, and the President’s Address has indicated the same. This can be seen in the proposal for setting up a Student Financial Aid Authority, increased fund allocations for setting up new IITs and IIMs (in 2014-15 alone, Rs 500 crore was set aside for this), and the decision to set up a Higher Education Financing Agency. In 2016-17, the money allocated to the Department of Higher Education went up by 13% from 2014-15 to 2015-16 and 14% from 2015-16 to 2016-17 (revised to budget estimates). In comparison, the Department of School Education and Literacy saw a 10% dip in funds in the first year, and only a 3% increase in the latter.
This may be a pattern reminiscent of the past. Jawaharlal Nehru’s government focused on higher and technical education in a big way. But he has been criticized by the likes of Amartya Sen and other policy experts for not paying enough attention to school education, as a result of which it suffers even today. Could this government be repeating old mistakes?
While almost 100% enrolment in elementary education (standard one to eight) has been achieved, it has not translated into learning outcomes. But the truly debilitating gap lays elsewhere – the complete lack of attention on secondary education. Unlike elementary education, which is guaranteed as a fundamental right by the Right to Education Act, secondary education (standard nine to 12) is not backed by any legislation. Only about 50% of those meant to be in secondary schools are actually enrolled. In fact, nearly half of those that enroll in secondary schools drop out before finishing. Even if enrolment were the only measure of success, natural progression would have been to focus on maximizing enrolment in secondary education, after elementary.
Higher education in India has by no means achieved distinction. With a lowly 24% enrolment, abysmal quality of infrastructure and faculty, and outdated curricula, indeed, it cannot be left to its own devices. However, it is impossible to address the challenges within this segment without even acknowledging those that persist in the middle-rung. For the government to even begin to tackle issues in higher education, it must enhance enrolment. For this, it is also critical for it to work on retaining 14-18 year olds in secondary schools.
To fix this broken ladder, an approach comprising long-term reforms is necessary. There are a few places to begin.
Firstly, policymakers must give serious thought to making secondary education mandatory and enacting a comprehensive legislation for the same. Initiating a consultation process for this could set the wheels in motion.
Secondly, better allocation of funds could revive secondary education. There was a 9% drop in allocation to secondary education from 2014-15 to 2015-16. Although funding did improve by 13% this year, various Standing Committees have highlighted the need for better fund allocation and disbursement.
Thirdly, it has also been pointed out that for implementation purposes it may not be feasible to subsume a number of smaller schemes under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, as was recently done.
Finally, it is imperative to put a mechanism in place for measuring learning outcomes; and this should be adopted for all stages of education.
The government had set a target of achieving 30% enrolment in higher education by 2017. Considering the neglect of secondary education, and historic trends over 10 years, a 6% jump within a year is impossible. Many things remain to be repaired within higher education in this country but one of its greatest problems will be solved when we take notice of its unmistakable connection with secondary education.
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