The total spend on education in India (Central and State governments together) is 2.7% of GDP. Though lower than the spends by peer BRICS countries the budget alone does not account for the poor state of school education(primary and secondary) and tertiary education, as revealed in various surveys and reports notably the ASER reports for schools and Asian or global rankings of universities and colleges. The new National Education Policy that was announced in 2014 is still not finalized. In this context the education ecosystem in the country, consisting of 290m students in 1.4m schools and 900 universities and 50,000 colleges and institutions, is certainly at the crossroads.
One caution at the outset is that the 18 essays in this collection are not classified or categorized and hence quite disparate. The common thread, as mentioned by one of the editors in the preface, is to provide different perspectives to the question, ‘What is education?’ This is done through each essay remarking on a specific dimension of education such as higher education policy, privatization of education(school and tertiary), MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), philanthropy in higher education, RTE, student selection practices, inequalities in household educational expenditure, role of parenting in education, gender issues in higher education, bilingual pedagogy and internationalization of education. This review provides a brief analysis of some of the essays representative of the various aspects covered in this book.
The essays were first published in the IIC Quarterly special issue on education––Winter 2015-Spring 2016, Volume 42, Numbers 3&4 which is referred to (without explicitly mentioning the quarterly) at the bottom of the first page of each essay.
Overall the essays are critical of the state of education in India, as is obvious from the tone set by the introductory note titled ‘Indian Education in Turmoil’ by Apoorvanand. Many of the essays refer to dated contextual data/information. The introduction refers to resuming the discussion started by the Yashpal Committee Report which was submitted in 1993(school education) and 2003(higher education) and NCF 2005 which is being revised under the National Educational Policy 2016. Similarly, the essay on public battles of freedom and democracy in universities refers to events without specifying the year, and the one on MOOCs refers to research surveys of 2014.While the essays comment on the current state with examples, without explicit next steps, they mostly come across as academic/theoretical.
The opening essay ‘Why Educate?’ by eminent historian Romila Thapar posits that the system of education should enable the citizens to acquire information through conveying up-to-date knowledge and enabling them to further update it through critical inquiry. Though inculcating and encouraging critical inquiry is the foundation of an education system it is largely missing in Indian education. The essay suggests that this can be addressed by reworking the educational policy to upgrade the levels of primary and secondary education and providing better training and incentives to teachers.
Sudhanshu Bhushan’s essay ‘Challenges of Higher Education Policy: Accountability vs Capabilities’, is the only one in the volume focused on the country’s higher education policy. It argues that the formal bureaucratic and technological rationality of the current policy imposes too much regulation aimed at uniformity and standardization and is not suited to deal with the heterogeneous reality of higher education with its variations in student body size and composition. The essay advocates the capabilities approach that empowers the teacher to deal with varying situations and thus bringing in the accountabilities implicit therein. According to the author, the aim of public policy should be the promotion of internal capabilities through education and training of teachers and making available external institutional and material conditions. The basic and advance capabilities to develop and environment factors required are listed in the essay.
‘Education India Private Limited’ by Jyotsna Jha is a commentary on the increased and unregulated commercialization of education in India through private, fee-charging institutions which is driving education to become a market determined commodity. This crisp and readable essay articulates its viewpoint with data on increase in enrolment share of private unaided institutions at all levels and also talks about additional payments required from parents for specific brands of uniforms, shoes, learning tools, and so on. Private schools range from convent schools, private trust run schools, international schools and government aided ‘affordable’ schools. On the topic of tertiary education, Jha talks about the growth of private mono-discipline universities with potential for revenue generation. These universities focus on applied courses without exposure to fundamental theories, which inhibits innovative, new thinking as per the author. The questionable quality of both school and tertiary education can only be addressed by making a huge public investment in education at all levels, while also reforming it to promote quality and social justice.
The essay on MOOCs by Apoorvanand starts with a critique of the MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) supported platform SWAYAM and touches upon the evolution of MOOCs from the 2011/2012 time frame and the challenges of MOOCs in terms of lack of teacher engagement and physical interactions with student community. The essay gives an example of the experience of the author’s colleague’s interactions with learners in a non-formal education centre in a small town of Uttar Pradesh to make the point that teaching is a very local affair that requires an active student teacher interaction and cannot be conveyed through a MOOCs. While the essay makes a few valid points it is dated and does not give enough importance to the fact that MOOCs did and do provide access and opportunity for learners anywhere in the world, to do any course for educational, professional or personal development prepared and delivered by the faculty of their choice. Over the last couple of years MOOCs, like any new technology has gone through its peaks and troughs and has evolved to provide more personalized learning.
The only essay in the collection that deals with the role of trusts and non-profits in Indian education is Pushpa Sundar’s ‘The Gift of Knowledge’. This is a well organized article flowing from the history of Indian merchants and industrialists setting up educational institutions from the late 19th century to the 1970s (Hindu College, Pachaiyappa’s College, IISc, BITS etc.), to the shift to private investments in education for profit wherein high capitation and tuition fees are charged without providing high quality education. The new millennium has once again seen philanthropic initiatives in education with universities like the OP Jindal Global University, Ashoka University and the Azim Premji University. The author’s surmise that this is being partially driven by the Companies Act of 2013 that mandated 2% of profit before tax to be spent on specified CSR programmes is questionable. This is more manifest in grants being given by corporates to non-profits for the conception and execution of projects related to school and tertiary education as well as skilling programmes. The section on Indians donating to global educational institutions is not that relevant to the overall theme of the volume except to rue that the same funds could instead be used for improving education in India.
The essay on ‘Right to Education’ by Kishore Singh, on a very critical and relevant topic impacting school education in India seems quite directionless and it is not clear what the author is trying to convey. The article talks about the right to quality education being universal, need for equal opportunities for education to be provided to all sections of society, broadening the scope of RTE to include secondary education, the negative impact of privatization and commercialization of education. The section on skill development does not seem to fit into the topic of the essay. The author missed the opportunity to highlight the progress made and the challenges encountered in the 5 years since the implementation of the Act (2010-2015).
Satish Deshpande’s treatise ‘“Weak” Students and Elite Institutions’ is an interesting essay on how the numbers of so called ‘weak’ students can be increased in ‘elite’ institutions of higher education without lowering the latter’s standards. Starting with a background of caste and class based discrimination in higher education through analysis of enrolment data in ‘elite’ and ‘mass’ institutions, the essay defines ‘weak’ students and the low opportunities they have to study in an ‘elite’ institution. This eminently readable essay argues that the challenge of changing this situation can and is being met by the students and teachers of the elite institutions, as they are of high quality and have a degree of autonomy and funding not enjoyed by regional institutions, and this effort needs to be sustained.
‘Free to Choose or Free to Lose?’ by Manabi Majumdar and Sangram Mukherjee analyses the inequalities in household spending on education. Data is provided to illustrate the scope and depth of the asymmetries in the spending power of families to make the point that in reality many parents do not really have the capability to choose a private school even if they wanted to because of the financial constraints and there is a need to create conducive social conditions that will truly enable parents to choose the type of education they would like to provide for their children.
‘Parenting at School’ is based on a study undertaken in 2012-13 by the authors Salai Selvam and V Geetha on parenting practices among different social segments which morphed to study how parents from extremely marginal communities engage with the school. The initial survey done using questionnaires was replaced by a free format discussion with parents from marginal social groups such as the Dalits and Adivasis, and teachers. With examples from schools in rural Tamil Nadu and Puducherry the article elicits the parents’ expectations for the school to be a community space that serves multiple purposes––an expectation that is usually not met by a typical government school. Through the example of the Vanavil School set up under the aegis of SSA for children of nomadic tribes the article illustrates how this has been addressed through an open and non-judgemental attitude towards social values that are not normative and create a sense of ownership among the parents.
Mary John’s essay, ‘A Silent Revolution?’, argues that though there is increase in the overall number of women(of different castes and class categories) enrolled in tertiary education (both NSS data and AISHE figures for 2013-14 are quoted to support this) the experience of women students leaves much to be desired. The prevalence of sexual harassment, lack of women-friendly facilities, absence of gender sensitization among students and teachers and lack of gender parity in the workplace, has over the last couple of years triggered open protests at campuses as well as at a national scale. A few examples of such protests are mentioned in the article, which, however, misses out on commenting how social media can and is being leveraged to coordinate as well as spread awareness about such protests.
‘Majority in the Margins? A Case for Bilingual Pedagogy’ written by Tejaswini Niranjana is focused on the issue of using Indian languages in colleges and universities. As the author states, the comments received on the Promotion of Languages page, of the National Education Policy discussion, in 2015 (the policy formulation has still not been completed!) are biased towards teaching multiple languages in school while most parents prefer to send their children to English medium schools, if they can. According to Niranjana, this choice, driven by opportunism or a bid for social mobility, is contrary to language and education research that states that native tongue education is more effective in the development of cognitive abilities of children. Nevertheless, in higher education the default language of instruction is the local language, as in rural areas the teachers themselves lack English skills. This is ineffective due to lack of sufficient educational resources (textbooks, research papers etc.) in local languages. The author makes a well thought out case for bilingualism in teaching and research with emphasis on creating new, original resources in Indian languages with examples of studies undertaken by the department of translation studies, Kannada University and a group of Hindi scholars from the Department of Sociology, Delhi University.
Manoj Kumar’s essay ‘Teaching Poetry in School’ provides a perspective on how the diversity of Indian culture is being stifled by the demands of the globalized job market and parental pressure for English medium education. This is despite studies showing that comprehension and performance in local languages is higher than in English, Science, Maths etc. The author argues that rather than jettisoning multilingual education, curriculum planning and pre-service and in-service teacher training should be enhanced to more effectively educate the children from diverse cultures and disadvantaged backgrounds who are enrolling in schools. This is illustrated well through details of a study conducted by the author on the teaching of Hindi poetry in Delhi schools after a new Hindi language text-book was introduced in 2005-2006.
Satya Sivaraman’s article ‘The Many Avatars of “Education”’ tries to probe the purpose of education and the righteousness of identifying ‘clever’ vs ‘stupid’ children. Through definitions and history of ‘learning’ and ‘knowledge’ the author correctly asserts that education is not a manifestation of dispassionate love of learning. Children are sent to schools by parents to develop skills for eventual employment. However, the argument that this education and its tilt towards the services sector is the cause of global inequality is contestable. While it is necessary to balance the pursuit of education for mere accumulation of information, wealth or power with learning imbued with understanding of nature, planet and the limitations of human intelligence, the author’s stance comes across as very narrow minded.
Through experiences of managing a government aided Muslim school for over 5 years in the Bara Hindu Rao locality in North East Delhi, Farah Farooqi reflects on the communalistic biases of the residents towards Muslims and their impact on the life and education of the children. The article ‘A School in a Ghetto: Some Reflections’ describes the geographic area of the school’s location and captures their life, education and the challenges they face. She advocates enhancing the standardized teaching and content with inquiry into socio-cultural and economic norms that impede the progress of the children and ends on a hopeful note, based on the changes happening in this school.
The relevance of Indira Chowdhury’s ‘What is Remembered and What is Forgotten’ in this collection is not apparent. It describes ways for historians to understand the context of how an institution grew and developed, through interviews conducted by the author for the Archives of TIFR between 2003 and 2006. Based on this work the author concludes that in order to comprehend an institution’s development and history, apart from official institutional documents including those based on commemorative events, it is necessary to pay attention to individual oral histories of different stakeholders––employees, management members and parents of key personnel.
Kavita Sharma’s article ‘Education Without Borders’ describes how while education is being regionalized in Singapore, Malaysia and Hongkong via development of educational hubs, many Asian countries have also developed strategies of internationalization in response to the challenges of globalization. This is elaborated through national initiatives in China, Japan and Korea as well as a multi-country effort such as the South Asian University. The essay states that though India is affected by the global trends it has not dealt effectively with them and the national policy must address the issues of Centre versus State, public vs private and so on. Surprisingly the essay does not mention the trend of educational institutions from the West setting up campuses in Asian countries, a trend that was apparent even at the time that the essay was first published.
In summary, this collection of essays covers a wide range of topics in Indian education and is a valuable source of reference for academicians and researchers though of limited use to practitioners.
Bhasker Sharma moved to the development sector after 33 years in the Software industry and 7 years of volunteering. His areas of interest and experience in the sector are skilling, disability and school education. As head of CSR for Dell in India he was responsible for managing the Dell grants to non-profits under the Dell Youth Learning Program. He is currently part of the management committee that administers a school in Tirunelveli that provides English medium education at no cost to children from economically and socially backward communities.