India's Education Woes
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India's Education Woes

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India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country. This growth will lead to what economists and demographers refer to as a “demographic dividend”: India’s population will be young and of working age. An abundance of young workers usually translates into a workforce unencumbered by responsibility, one more willing to accept economic risks and capable of working hard to boost economic output. This all bodes well for India.

To take advantage of this demographic situation, though, quality schools are essential, as they foster a population capable of taking advantage of opportunities created by increased demand.  Unfortunately, primary and secondary schools in India are inefficient and rife with corruption.

The most recent example is the cheating scandal involving the son of the Minister of Education in Jammu and Kashmir in which school board officials allegedly assisted Peerzada Sayed’s son pass his secondary school exam.

Other recent scandals include enrollment fraud in Maharashtra, which reportedly cost the government as much as 10 billion rupees. The most pervasive and detrimental form of corruption perpetrated on the primary and secondary school system, though, is basic teacher absenteeism at government-run schools, with about 13 percent of teachers failing to show up for work, yet still being paid.

According to a recent report by Transparency International on corruption in South Asia, 23 percent of people polled in India had to pay a bribe to government education officials to ensure services. While this pales in comparison to police corruption, in which 64 percent of people polled claim to have paid a bribe to the police, it’s still unacceptable. According to the same report, it’s claimed that 94 percent of people polled believe the education system in India is corrupt, an even higher percentage than in other major South Asia countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Indian primary and secondary schools suffer from the additional weaknesses of infrastructure limitations and inefficiency. These shortcomings are likely as damaging in the long run as the high levels of corruption. Poor infrastructure at schools makes teaching even harder. The 2011 Annual Status of Education report found that roughly 51 percent of schools didn’t have available lavatories, while 26 percent of schools had no drinking water.    

Inefficient teaching methods, such as rote learning, which focuses on memorization as opposed to critical reasoning, are also widespread at the primary and secondary school level. The rote teaching methodology has demonstrated shortcomings. Studies by the Program for International Students Assessment, an OECD initiative, and Wipro, an Indian consulting firm, found that students at the primary and secondary school level have regressed in math, science, and reading literacy in recent years. Not only is the rote method detrimental to currently enrolled students, but it’s also more difficult to address than infrastructural or corruption issues, as it has become an institutionalized practice.

Looking at India’s neighbor to the north, China, a country that has on the surface made great strides with an education system often based on the rote method, India has a potent example of why it must abandon such teaching methods. China has certainly improved its economic and education numbers, but has often relied on producing cheaply the innovations of other nations for its success. This strategy has a limited upside. China trails the United States and Europe on a number of measures of innovation ranging from R&D spending to the proportion of high-tech patents in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and knowledge intensive-services and manufacturing. Indeed, Chinese leaders themselves are apparently recognizing this, with Premier Wen Jiabao remarking in 2010 that, “Students don't only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains.”

“We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity,” he added.

“If India is to truly rise as a global economic power, it must focus its efforts on creating a world class education system. Adequate resources, higher standards for teachers and the flushing out of corruption must be part of a reforms package that seeks to make Indian education the nation’s top priority.

There can be no greater foundation for a rising India than a strong educational system. Discovering new answers, not reproducing the work of others, could enable India to advance its economy and society at a much more rapid clip. Implementing educational reforms is the best way for India to truly harness the power of its demographic dividend.

William Thomson is a research assistant at the U.S. Naval War College and an International Relations ALM candidate at Harvard University. His writings have appeared in Small Wars Journal as well as e-IR.

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