That the state of the Indian education system is not rosy is not a hidden fact. Still, the news that toppers of Bihar intermediate exam in arts and science lacked basic knowledge about their syllabi has come as a shocker. It has once again provided us with an opportunity to introspect on how terribly messed up our education system is. The whole episode is symptomatic of a deeply malfunctioning education system. Some of the many ills that plague the system were revealed in this episode. Let’s discuss them here:

1. Obsession with results leads to a desperation to secure good marks by hook or crook

We as a society have a distorted view of our education system. Education is not conceived as something that opens gateways to continuous learning and exploration or something that unleashes our curiosity. Instead it is viewed from a narrow instrumental framework as a ticket to a job. So the only thing that parents, neighbours, relatives, teachers, school authorities are concerned with is the result. It doesn’t matter if the result doesn’t correspond to actual learning. It doesn’t matter if it is achieved through unfair means such as cheating, proxy candidates, and so on. What matters solely is what the numbers on your marksheet are.

The entire system is geared towards maximising the numbers on one’s marksheet. The teachers, whose performance appraisal depends on the number their students get, are incentivised to focus only on the exams. The schools whose reputation is built or destroyed based on these numbers again, pushes their teachers to get restricted to the marks that their students get or ought to get.

The parents and students whose prestige and future are decided by these numbers again have no time to understand the broad application of education to one’s life. This obsession with marks makes us loose sight of what education is truly about, it is not a number-maximising task.
It is this obsession that underscores the desperation of the toppers who undoubtedly secured high marks which would have made all the difference in their future had they not had the misfortune of being caught in a sting operation by the media. But many more like them who escaped undetected, benefit from society’s exclusive obsession with numbers.

2. Weak vigilance make the system vulnerable

The results being such high stake affairs make a candidate come up with innovative ways to beat the system. Electronic technology, proxies, chits and every possible cheating means are deployed to get high marks. Our education system has neither the ability nor the intention to prevent such malpractices. Firstly, ground invigilators are often lenient.

Second, many invigilators allow unfair means owing to societal pressure, orders from the top or because they themselves have received bribes.

Third, the well-connected applicants don’t even have to take the pain of appearing, someone else does on their behalf or worse, the education department gets them a result made without them having to take even this trouble.

Furthermore, the use of advanced technology requires the use of advanced measures such as jammers to counteract it, which our system simply doesn’t have the capacity to use owing to the absence of resources. Finally, the number of invigilators is far less and the penalty on being caught is an insufficient deterrence.
This problem is especially epidemic in poor states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is because of this weak vigilance that these fake toppers succeed.

3. The facade of rising marks masks the poor quality of our education system

Over the last decade there has been an exponential rise in the number of students securing extremely high marks across various boards. This facade of rising marks masks the poor quality and the unfair nature of our education system.

We have far fewer schools than required, especially in rural, remote and less prosperous regions. Thus, education is literally out of reach for a significant section of our population. We all remember tales of how our grandparents crossed rivers, walked long distances and braved unsafe paths to reach schools. Sadly, a large number of children of this generation also face the same grim reality.

The absence of schools in the vicinity is just the beginning of the travails for our less privileged countrymen. Their schools don’t have adequate number of toilets and water taps (24.4 per cent and 34.8 per cent of schools didn’t have drinking water and usable toilets according to the ASER 2014 report); have a shortage of teachers (with only 49.3 per cent schools comply with pupil-teacher ratio norms); the teachers that there are, are forced to do clerical work, have little autonomy and are lorded over by education department babus; teachers are poorly qualified and schools have neither a sufficient number of rooms nor basic amenities like desks, chairs, fans, blackboards, lights and so on.

These difficulties are often hidden from the vocal urban rich whose trysts with the education system gets confined to how good or poor the board results were.

Sometimes the poor education system that this “other” India (or Bharat”) is faced with enters the drawing room discussions of the rich. It shocks us, it awakens us from our apathy to the disconcerting reality of the education system, a slender hope arises that the authorities may be made to awaken from their slumber.

But alas, we find more “important” issues such as a bad comedy to get upset about and we move on. Meanwhile the rotten education system continues.