Human Resource Development Minister (HDR) Smriti Irani may be the youngest minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet, but she is probably carrying one of the heaviest weights on her shoulders - that of educating millions of Indian students and in turn changing the country's destiny.
She has also probably been one of the most controversial ministers in the NDA government. From the scrapping of the German language in the Kendriya Vidyalayas to the celebration of December 25 as the Governance Day, controversies have dogged her right from the time she joined office. But as the country heads into the year 2015, it will not be an overestimation to say that Irani needs to shed the baggage of the past and get down to the basics.
The responsibilities that fall under the HRD Ministry are humongous - it has two departments of higher and school education and oversees more than 40 central universities. It also oversees multiple IITs, IIMs and National Institutes of Technology. Add to it, more than a million schools and one can gauge the challenge that is confronting the HRD minister.
Education empowers an individual to seek a better future for himself and his family. And education and employability go hand in hand. But one just needs to visit the hinterland of India to see the standard of primary education in the country, mainly in government-run schools and realise that education is not leading to empowerment and employment. The infrastructure is not something that one expects to see in schools and the teaching is below standard. For example, there was this story reported in the media last year about a teacher in Bihar who said that Pratibha Patil was the President of India and Smriti Irani was the Governor of the state. This one off story is reflective of the bigger malaise that is confronting the country’s education system.
As per the latest report released by NGO Pratham, (the 10th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2014), which is the largest annual household survey of children in rural India that focuses on the status of schooling and basic learning), overall situation continues to be extremely discouraging in India. As much as 25 percent of class 8 students cannot read a class 2 level text and in class 3 only a fourth of all children can read a class 2 text fluently. This number rises to just under half in class 5.
Among other findings was one which said that mathematics continued to be a major source of concern with all India (rural) figures for basic arithmetic remaining virtually unchanged over the last few years. Only 26.3 percent of class 3 children could do two-digit subtractions in 2012 and this number is at 25.3 percent in 2014, plus the percentage of children in class 2 who still cannot recognize numbers up to nine has increased from 11.3 percent in 2009 to 19.5 percent in 2014.
These are just some statistics; so one can quite imagine the uphill task that the HRD minister is faced with. Under-trained teachers who sometimes get jobs by means of fake certificates are common knowledge. Worse still is that many children join school only because they get the so-called free mid-day meal, thereby showing an increase in overall enrolment at times.
When one comes to higher education, then reports after reports have said that premier institutions such as IITs and IIMs have shown an increase in faculty vacancies. What is also worrying is the fact that top Indian institutions are nowhere in the world’s top 200 varsities, even though India’s higher education is third largest in the world.
According to the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings released in last September, which factors in research, teaching, employability and internationalization, not a single Indian university featured in the top 200 rankings, with the top-placed Indian institution – IIT-Bombay - placed at 222 in the world. Just for the record, University of Delhi was at number 430. Everyone knows of the number of committees and commissions that are set up to improve the quality of education in the country, like the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee, but everyone also knows that the implementation of the recommendations of these commissions happens at snail's pace.
Lack of quality education being provided by the government, both at school and higher levels, and lack of enough space to accommodate everyone has resulted in proliferation of private institutions. Some are of a certain standard but expensive on the pocket, with not everyone being able to afford them, while others at times take students for a ride by giving them degrees which are not recognized.
The HRD minister has to look at these grey areas in order to secure the future of the young generation. She also has to take on the challenge of skill development. Not everyone can or needs to go in for higher education if he or she is not willing to or does not have the aptitude for it. In such a scenario, they can pursue what they are good at, at an early age, and this means providing them technical know-how and right institutions to do so. People with degrees but no job has been the bane of India for long.
Skill development should also be high on Irani’s agenda if PM Modi’s dream of ‘Make in India’ has to take off. Modi has often talked of how demographically India has an upper hand than so many other nations in the world. But then one does not need rocket science to understand that demographic advantage can only give the country dividend if right education policy is put in place and implemented with urgency.
For example, a centrally-sponsored scheme of vocationalisation of secondary and higher education (CSSVSHE) aimed at helping students get easy placements was launched in 2012 and thousands of students are part of the scheme. But the CBSE board students cannot reap its benefit as of now as a MoU has not been signed with the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC). Such niggles need to be done away soon.
The HRD minister has set up various committees to look into the functioning of the UGC, National Council of Technical Education, AICTE and others and has announced a new National Policy for Education with the “aim to specifically target those students who are living in villages and could not continue their education due to lack of exposure and unavailability of resources.” But with more than six months of her government being over, she has to be in a rush mode. Maybe schemes like Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and Right to Education Act need to be revisited.
Another aspect that needs to be addressed on an urgent basis is the education of the girl child. The programme ‘Udaan’, wherein girl students will be given engineering study modules and other things to help them make it to technical institutions, launched by Irani, is a welcome step. But things like toilets, which PM Modi talked about in his Independence Day speech, must also be fast-tracked so that drop-out rates of girls from schools lessen.
Nation-wide assessments to improve the quality of education, investing more in developing good teachers, which includes good training institutes, improving the state of government schools, among others needs to be taken up urgently. Also, maybe incentives for those taking up teaching, mainly in schools, should be looked at, so that the profession can attract best talent.
Thus, if India has to become a world power and embark on the path of development, then it has to provide quality education to its children and improve its literacy rate (one in 10 households still doesn't have even a single literate member, as per the 2011 Census ). There is simply no other option.
(This article is fourth in the 'Looking ahead to 2015' series.)