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

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“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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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