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Policy watch: Education system promotes non-inclusive growth

Monday, 23 December 2013 - 7:55am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The government loves to talk about inclusive growth. But it remains mostly talk. There was a possibility that inclusive growth could gain acceleration. But post 1976, the momentum faltered.

That is most unfortunate.

A good indicator of this failure can be got from a study done by the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) in 2008 (view chart).

Watch the manner in which lower income group enrollments have dipped or just ambled along after 1976. Though low income groups account for almost 50% of India’s population, their share in first-rate educational institutions is barely 10%.

Don’t blame the IITs for this. The problem is that lower income groups do not qualify at the joint entrance examinations (JEEs) which filters students on the basis of academic performance so that they could cope with the academic standards of excellence that the IITs were set up to pursue.

Why did the poor fare so badly? Elementary! Basic schooling has failed them. The government focussed on making them weaker through doles, rather than make them ‘fitter’, to cope with the world, through education.

Thus, while the middle and high income groups could afford private education and education at home (the more likely cause), the poor were left to fend for themselves. The education system did not pick them up. They could not compete for the best courses. And, like drug addicts, they were hooked on doles for life.

Education is, after all, a great leveller. It empowers even a man from the slums to aspire to rub shoulders with the brightest and the best in society – armed with the strength that good education and intelligence provide. Had the government focussed on good primary and secondary education, poor people could have blossomed and could have contributed enormously to the country’s economic growth.

But why did the enrollment percentage of upper income groups decline? There could be three reasons. First, the affluent could have gone overseas to study, especially if they managed to get admission to an MIT or a Stanford. Or they might have opted for business or management studies. The third is inevitability. Since the affluent comprise under 5% of the population, the dip was inevitable, as middle income groups began asserting themselves.

The rise of the middle-income group in enrollments is quite interesting. It underlines the unfortunate manner of empowerment in India – not through education but through money. Have money, and you can give your child good education. Don’t have money – then remain condemned to the lowest rungs of society.

The pathetic state of school education in India is quite well documented by now. All studies have shown that many Std VIII students cannot read sentences or do simple sums that they were supposed to learn in Std III. The automatic compulsory promotion of all students up to Std VIII without examinations will worsen the situation. Enrollment figures will look better – especially in secondary education thanks to the automatic promotion policy – but quality will suffer. All studies reiterate that barely 20% of Indian graduates can be called employable.

Compelling IITs to reserve seats will be horrendously counter-productive. It will drag down IIT’s even further. Do remember how government policies have caused IITs to now rank lower than Punjab University (according to a study done by Times Higher Education, which got tremendous media coverage just a fortnight ago).

True, the government spends large sums of money on school education. But it refuses to link financial grants to academic outcomes (based on a rigorous and credible independent examination). Only that will compel schools to focus on the quality of education. Without such conditions, the irresponsible splurge of money will continue.

And the poor will remain excluded.

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