Improving Quality Of Education Is The Only Way For India To Become A Knowledge Superpower

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”, Benjamin Franklin

On August 9, 2019, I spent some time in the New York Public Library, located in New York.  The library is housed in a massive building, and it was opened for the public in 1895. With nearly 10 million books, the New York Public Library is one of the largest libraries in the world. One displayed phrase in the library, “Knowledge is Power”, attracted me the most. The phrase was in red letters and perhaps was conveying that ‘knowledge’ is the basic ingredient for the development of a nation. Libraries are a storehouse of ‘knowledge’, so, it is generally said that “when in doubt, go to the library”.

The phrase ‘Knowledge is Power’ (ज्ञान ही शक्ति है), generally implies that with knowledge and education, the potential or power of a person increases. It is certainly unmatched. The rise of human beings as the most powerful living beings on the planet is only due to the knowledge and proper application of knowledge. In other words, knowledge is a powerful factor that empowers people in achieving great results.

Before we dwell further, let us discuss briefly what difference between knowledge and education is.  There is not much difference between the two, as both are correlated to each other. In fact, one leads to another. Education is what you learn from school or college or an institution or a book. Knowledge is the things you absorb from what they teach in these institutions or books. One can also acquire knowledge from practical experiences in life.

Thanks to innumerable thinkers, researchers and teachers who absorbed the best in the world and charted out a path on their own, ancient India emerged as a global centre of learning and was described as “Vishwaguru” (विश्वगुरु) or ‘Preceptor of the World’.  The world looked up to India as a source of knowledge. It is believed that when Alexander the Great returned to Persia after his invasion of India, the most valued treasure that he took back was not gold or spices, but a guru and spiritual master, Yogi Kalyan (c. 398–323 BC) from Taxila, later called Calanus by the Greeks.

Ancient India was home to some of the famous centres of learning like Takshashila (Taxila), Nalanda, Vallabhi and Pushpagiri, which attracted knowledge seekers and pundits from across the country and the world. The subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, archery, military arts, surgery, medicine, astronomy, futurology, magic, economics, commerce, agriculture, music and dance were taught at these centres of higher learning.

Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra and Charaka, a famous Ayurvedic physician, were products of Takshashila. In the 7th century AD, Xuanzang, a Chinese scholar, studied with many celebrated Buddhist masters at the famous university at Nalanda. When he returned, he carried with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor’s support, he set up a large translation bureau in Xi’an with collaborators from all over East Asia.

As per the 2011 census, about 4.5 per cent of Indians were graduates; and the current higher education system of India is the third-largest in the world after the U.S. and China. It has expanded at a fast pace by adding nearly 20,000 colleges and more than 8 million students in the decade from 2000–01 to 2010–11.

As of today, India has more than 800 universities, with a break up of Central, State, Deemed and Private universities along with many institutions of  National Importance – which include Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institute of Technology (NITs), All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Universities of  Calcutta, Madras and Mumbai (1857) and Jawaharlal Nehru University,  have been globally acclaimed for their standard of education. However, Indian universities still lag far behind universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and Tsinghua.

In the last 30 years, higher education in India has witnessed rapid and impressive growth, and as such, India should be a Knowledge Superpower! But higher education in India suffers from several systemic deficiencies. It continues to provide graduates that are unemployable despite emerging shortages of skilled manpower in an increasing number of sectors. The standards of academic research are low and declining. Some of the problems of the Indian higher education, such as the unwieldy affiliating system, inflexible academic structure, uneven capacity across various subjects, eroding the autonomy of academic institutions, and the low level of public funding are well known.

As a result, for the first time since 2012, there is not a single Indian entry in the world’s top 300 institutes as per the Times Higher Education’s 2020 rankings. The Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in Bengaluru—the only Indian entry in the top 300 last year—dropped into the 301-350 group after “a significant fall in its citation impact score offsetting improvements in research environment, teaching environment and industry income.” IITs in Mumbai, Delhi and Kharagpur have been placed in the 401-500 ranking bracket. Similarly, Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University was for the first time ranked in the 601-800 grouping.

According to the THE 2020 rankings, the University of Oxford held its top position for the fourth year, while the California Institute of Technology rose from fifth to second. The University of Cambridge, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology slipped one place to third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

Globally, the U.S. continues to dominate the ranking, with 60 institutions in the top 200. The U.S. universities make up 14 of the global top 20 and seven of the top 10, with the country’s leading institutions performing particularly well in the area of citation impact. China has emerged another top learning institution with 24 of its universities finding a spot in the top 200 in the list. Its two centres, Tsinghua University (globally ranked 22nd) and Peking University (23rd) are among the world’s top 30 universities.

Can India Be A Knowledge Superpower?

Higher education in India suffers from several systemic deficiencies.

Ellie Bothwell, THE rankings editor, said, “India has a huge amount of potential in global higher education, given its rapidly growing youth population and economy and use of English-language instruction. However, it is disappointing to see the country fall out of the top 300 of the rankings this year, with only a small number of institutions registering progress.”

While a high economic growth, requiring specific skill sets, has generated employment, it has led to a situation where education shops have cropped up imparting skills without adding real knowledge. Also, this has affected the well-known learning institutions. It means the rapid growth of ‘just skills’ education is eroding our knowledge base.

“What such a decline has led to is the diminishing Indian presence in the global knowledge creation process. What an editor in a prominent publishing house told this columnist will reveal the extent of this reduction. In the last decade the number of Indian authors publishing social sciences books has dropped by over 20 per cent, while the number of proposals for publishing social sciences guidebooks has increased by 35 per cent”, noted by Dr Swaminathan of Uppsala University, Sweden.

So what should India do?

 “The key to maintaining and enhancing our knowledge base is to–borrowing a tech terminology — declare certain institutions as ‘cutting edge institutions’. These institutions should be spread across disciplines, unlike the current emphasis on applied science. Such an approach is essential if India is to maintain the knowledge base that it has painfully created over the last five decades”, writes Swaminathan.

This will also allow India to begin once again contributing in a systematic way to the global knowledge creation process and eventually establish its hegemony. He elaborates that “the entry into such institutions, whether of research faculty or students, should involve the crossing of multiple barriers and only the very best should get into it. Very best, of course, means the absence of quotas of any kind and a whetting process that weeds out those not interested in conducting research. Like the Armed Forces Medical College, people entering the ‘cutting edge institution’ may be asked to sign a bond. Entry into a ‘cutting edge institution’ should also mean a guarantee of tenure. For instance, a research student should have the path to move up the ladder and get international exposure.” If such an approach is adopted, by 2050, India will be a Knowledge Superpower, concludes Dr Swaminathan.

“Let us not become the back office of the world and revel in epitaphs like Information Superpower.”

But, for the genuine growth of the ‘cutting edge’ institutions, we require an effective education system, particularly at the school level, as argued in my paper: Managing school education in India (Kothari, Devendra. 2017. “Managing school education in India”, in Administrative Change, Vol. XLIV (2): 78-89).

Is India’s School Education System Geared Enough To Provide Quality Education To Students?

Considering India’s poor education system from top to bottom, one cannot be too optimistic about it. With primary school enrollment reaching around 97 per cent since 2009, and girls making up 55 per cent of new students between 2007 and 2015, it is clear that many problems of access to schooling have been addressed. The problem is now of quality, not that of numbers. More than half of India’s students can be classified as functionally under-educated or simply half-educated. India has failed miserably in translating schooling into genuine learning.

India has failed miserably in translating schooling into genuine learning.

The Annual Status of Education Report 2017 reveals that nearly one-fourth of India’s government-school-going youngsters aged 14-18 cannot read their own language fluently. The report also reveals that 57 per cent of the children assessed struggled to solve a simple sum of division – exposing chinks in the quality of education imparted in the country. Further, 47 per cent of all 14 year-olds in the sample could not read English sentences. In addition, 64 per cent had never used the internet.

The findings based the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), further reveals that the Indian education system is in very bad shape. Every three years, PISA tests 15-year-old students from all over the world in reading, mathematics and science. The tests are designed to gauge how well the student’s master key subjects in order to be prepared for real-life situations in the adult world.

India first participated in PISA in 2009 with 16,000 students from 400 schools across Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. However, the students performed miserably in the test, placing India at 73rd among the 74 participating countries. Following the poor score, India decided to stay away from PISA in 2012 and 2015. The GoI has now officially decided to participate in the PISA test to be conducted in 2020.

Above findings point that India’s schools have become ‘factories’ producing unskilled labour force, thus promoting deprivation at a large scale. India accounts a large number of deprived people due to low level of human development. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), developed by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and UNDP, identifies how people are being left behind across three key dimensions of human development: health, education and living standards. More than half of India’s population (55.3%) is living under multi-dimensional poverty, compared to 5.2 per cent in China. It means around 700 million (70 crores) out of the total population of 1350 million in 2018 can be classified as deprived or vanchit Indians.

If India wants to promote knowledge for inclusive development and to be “Vishwaguru” again, we have to focus on the deprived population. Bill Gates and Ratan Tata rightly noted: “Human capital is one of India’s greatest assets. Yet, the world’s fastest-growing economy hasn’t touched millions of Indian citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” For this, India has to unlock human potential through a dedicated human development approach.

So, what India should do? Delhi-born Harvard Professor Raj Chetty notes, “I am interested in understanding how we can help the most disadvantaged groups in India — who have not benefited as much from the growth of the past 20 years as we’d like. Based on my research, I think that improving elementary education (rather than just college education) is likely to be a key answer to the problem.”  The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a commitment to ensure that all young people have access to good quality primary and lower secondary education by 2030. Reaching the goal requires improved educational quality for the most disadvantaged children from the earliest years.

In addition, we need a holistic approach in imparting education since the quality of education cannot be seen in isolation. We have to recognize the importance of primary health, water and sanitation in promoting quality education.

The policy monograph: Nurturing Human Development

It is a dynamic agenda based on a ‘whole child’ concept, that is a school-going child, and his/her family (that is HDPlus family) should be the fulcrum of quality education leading to human development efforts. The concept is being described by policies, practices, and relationships which ensure that each child is healthy, educated, engaged, supported and encouraged.

For this, integrating the child and his or her family more deeply into the day-to-day life of the school and home activities represents an untapped instrument for raising the overall achievements including learning skills and health parameters, and hence improving overall productivity. In other words, creating an enabling environment at family and school levels is a way of promoting quality education.

In the HDPlus framework, therefore, enhancing the quality of education is a significant input for unlocking the human potential. And, the HDPlus strategy is aimed to lay the foundation for the human competency that is quality of being adequately or well qualified physically and intellectually, as shown in Box A. Investments in education, health, living environment and its determinants—the social sector—therefore, should be made a priority.

HDPlus strategy in action:

In short, India can be Vishwaguru again only if we can make the quest for excellence the norm. We can elevate our institutions of learning into world-class institutions if we foster a culture of research and innovation, of instructional leadership and ethical behaviour. For this, we have to start working at the school level, and for this, HDPlus strategy provides a way out.

The above article was first published here.

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