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Special Report

Ew’s unfinished long march to save Indian education

Modestly launched in 1999 with the huge ambition “to build the pressure of public opinion to make education the #1 item on the national agenda”, EducationWorld has succeeded in moving education of the world’s largest child population from the peripheries towards the centre of the national agenda. In this special report we highlight the great and small issues that have impeded education development - Dilip Thakore

In November 1999 EducationWorld was modestly launched with the huge ambition to navigate the uncharted waters of Indian education and the mission statement to “build the pressure of public opinion to make education the #1 item on the national agenda”. Over the past 18 years during which this publication has attained maturity, it has been ploughing a lonely furrow, persistently highlighting great and small issues which have impeded promotion of education to the top of the national agenda, as a result of which the overwhelming majority of the world’s largest child and youth population (550 million) has been deprived of high quality, globally comparable education. Although in the new millennium, education of the country’s children and youth has undoubtedly moved from the outer peripheries of the national agenda towards the centre, our message that real — rather than ritual — universal education is the prerequisite of national development and advancement has not significantly impacted the political class and the lay public. 

In particular the political class has remained indifferent and exhibited little interest in EducationWorld. That’s why our major objective, which we have been reiterating from day one — that the annual outlay for public education be raised to 6 percent of GDP as recommended by almost all official education commissions from the high-powered Kothari Commission (1968) onwards, and most recently by the TSR Subramanian Committee’s National Policy on Education 2016 — has remained unfulfilled. The annual outlay for education continues to remain in the 3.25-4 percent range. Against this please note that the annual expenditure in the developed OECD countries averages 7-10 percent. Admittedly the annual outlay for education in China is marginally lower than in India. But almost all of it is spent on primary-secondary education, unlike India where over one-third is expended on subsidised higher learning. 

Nevertheless, over the past 18 years of continuous and uninterrupted publishing, EducationWorld has had some success in raising middle class awareness that there’s more to education than children going to school, learning by rote and passing exams. As evidenced by the tremendous nationwide enthusiasm generated by the annual EducationWorld India School Rankings (estb.2007), which rate the country’s Top 1,000 primary-secondary schools on 14 parameters of education excellence (teacher competence, academic reputation, sports and co-curricular education, internationalism, safety, hygiene etc), the desire to excel and improve has permeated the great majority of the country’s 320,000 private schools, even if only a small minority of the 1.08 million government schools countrywide. For the past few years we have begun to rank government schools as well and their motivation for improvement and recognition is no less (see EW September on Undoubtedly the concept of institutional pride and desire for betterment, not only academically, but for all-round development is spreading within K-12 education. 

The outcome of this socially beneficial development is that India’s top-ranked private schools — especially new genre international schools — are attracting students from around the world. For inspiring schools to strive for continuous improvement and for publicising best practices, this pioneer publication in the education space can rightly claim a major share of the credit. 

Against this backdrop in our coming-of-age issue, we review the major milestone events of the past 18 years and our unfinished war to ensure delivery of globally comparable high quality K-12 and higher education to the world’s largest child and youth population, and the role this publication has played in shaping public policy and raising institutional teaching-learning standards. 

Millennium Development Goals

The turn of the century was a time of great hope and euphoria, when high-powered representatives of 189 countries — including India — brimming with resolve and great intentions convened in New York and signed the Millennium Declaration which adopted eight United Nations-sponsored Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be attained by the year 2015. The adoption of the Millenium Declaration and its eight goals — eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; gender equality and women’s empowerment; substantially improved child mortality; improved maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability, and establishment of global partnerships for development — aroused great enthusiasm within the then newly promoted EducationWorld, and inspired several progress assessment stories warning that India was falling behind in its MDGs targets. Not to much avail. 

Alas, 2015 has come and gone with India failing to attain any of the MDGs. Far from poverty and hunger being eradicated, according to the latest (2017) Global World Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute, India is ranked 100th out of 119 countries, and has the third-highest score in Asia with only Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked worse. This is also reflected in the Human Development Report (2016) of the United Nations Development Programme which says that 48 percent of children in India below age 5 suffer chronic malnutrition and are in danger of stunting and severe brain damage. 

Nor have any significant gains been made in primary education. Although government data claim that the goal of universalisation of primary education has been attained with 98.5 percent of children in the age group 6-14 in school, they aren’t learning much in their classrooms. The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016, published by the Delhi/Mumbai-based NGO Pratham every year after exhaustive field studies in rural India, indicates that children’s learning attainments are declining. Whereas in 2015, 52 percent of children in class V could read and grasp a class II text, last year only 47 percent could. 

With millions of children countrywide dying of vector borne diseases, the goal of making India free of malaria by 2015 has also fallen by the wayside, while the MDG of environmental sustainability has been a dismal failure with floods and droughts resulting from indiscriminate deforestation, and India’s cities now number among the most polluted worldwide. 
In 2013 your editor (at considerable expense in terms of time and money) in a desperate attempt to stem the rot, promoted and registered the Children First Party of India to accord first priority to children’s education and development, but the party received no media publicity or public support. 

Prolonged battle for institutional autonomy 

On October 31 2002, a landmark full 11-judge bench of the Supreme Court wrote a new charter of freedom for the country’s private colleges and institutions of professional education in particular, when it struck down its own judgement in Unnikrishnan’s Case (1993) which had decreed an elaborate schema in which under a complex regime of heavily and partially subsidised seats, upto 50 percent of seats in private colleges were allotted according to directions of state governments. While delivering its historic revisional judgement, the court also expanded the ambit of Article 30 (1) of the Constitution, which confers the right to establish and administer education institutions of their choice upon minorities to cover all citizens under Article 19 (1) ((g). In the process of enabling promoters of private higher education institutions to freely ‘administer’ themselves, the court held that private colleges can prescribe their own regulations for admission subject to their being based on merit and to levy reasonable tuition fees to enable them to earn surpluses for maintenance and development. After the judgement was delivered, in a cover feature (EW February 2003) your editors welcomed it as a charter of freedom for private education and predicted a massive inflow of investment into the sector. 

Inevitably soon after this historic judgement, Left ideologues and the neta-babu brotherhood, for reasons of ideology and loss of control, set about sabotaging its impact. Soon after, in Islamic Academy vs. Union of India (2003) a smaller five bench judge of the Supreme Court ‘clarified’ the court’s judgement in the T.M.A. Pai Case, directing the states to establish committees chaired by retired high court judges to ensure that private college admission procedures were indeed fair and merit based. In addition they also established judges’ committees to ensure that private college managements levied reasonable tuition fees. 

Thus the wind was taken out of the sails of the liberating T.M.A Pai Case judgement. And although in P.A. Inamdar vs. Union of India (2005) the court reaffirmed the verdict of the T.M.A Pai Case and proscribed the Central and state governments from the practice of appropriating ‘merit’ quotas and dictating the tuition fees of other reserved categories, at ground zero level state governments continue to appropriate seats in private engineering and medical colleges by entering into arm-twisting contracts with consortia of private professional colleges. 

 Although your editors fully supported the T.M.A. Pai and Inamdar Case judgements on the grounds that it will attract investment into higher education and enable institutions to improve their infrastructure and academic standards, neither mainstream media nor the subsidies-addicted middle class public has shown much interest in changing the status quo. 

The fight for English education 

Ab initio, your editors took a strong stand on advocating the adoption of English as the medium of instruction, and/or rigorous teaching of English in schools from the early years for the simple reason that it is the link language of India. Although the Constituent Assembly ill-advisedly decreed English as the associate national language of India for only ten years to be replaced by Hindi, after language riots erupted in peninsular India and Tamil Nadu in 1965, the Central government decreed English as the associate and link language of the country and in particular language of the courts and Parliament. However the status of English as the associate national language has never been accepted by the Hindi majority states of North India. Curiously, instead of expending their energies on developing Hindi into a modern language, Hindi zealots of the cow-belt states of the north are driven by the simple logic that since it is the language of the majority — albeit the most educationally and economically backward regions of the country — Hindi should automatically become the national language. 

In 1956, after the ill-advised reorganisation of states on the basis of the language of dominant majorities, several state governments across the country have also been trying to force their dominant languages upon minorities within their jurisdiction, especially West Bengal (pop. 91 million), Tamil Nadu (80 million) and Karnataka (67 million). In 1994, Karnataka passed a government order (GO) under which all government and private schools promoted after that year would be obliged to adopt Kannada as the medium of instruction for children in classes I-V.

This GO went further than Tamil Nadu which had long made it obligatory for government and aided schools to teach in Tamil until class VII but exempted CBSE and CISCE schools. However in 2000, the Madras high court struck down this as unconstitutional stating that parents — not government — had the right to choose the medium of instruction for their children. This prompted several representative associations of private schools in Karnataka to file writ petitions opposing the 1994 GO. In July 2008, a three-judge bench of the Karnataka high court struck down the 1994 order in KAMS vs. State of Karnataka. However under pressure from the small but influential pro-Kannada lobby the state government appealed the order which was upheld by the Supreme Court on May 6, 2014. 

Over the past 18 years EW’s fight for the teaching of English — the language preferred by majority of the population — has been vindicated by the courts. Curiously, despite Karnataka’s language chauvinists being rebuffed by the courts, they continue to press for Kannada as the medium of instruction notwithstanding English having emerged not only as India’s link language, but also as the global language of business and commerce. These misguided sub-nationalists seem unaware that they have already blighted the employment and success prospects of millions of children. 

National Curriculum Framework

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, which was the labour of love of a national steering committee of 35 eminent educationists and 21 focus groups comprising teachers and educationists from across the country, was — and remains — perhaps the most comprehensive recommendation for school curriculum reform in Indian history. It recommended that all the 31 school examination boards devise curriculums which connect knowledge to life outside the school; ensure that learning is shifted away from rote methods; enrich their curriculums to foster overall development of children rather than remain textbook centric, and make examinations more flexible and integrated with life beyond classrooms. To this end, NCF provided guidelines for teaching maths, languages, science, social sciences, sports, vocational and teacher education. It also recommended new assessment systems and optional examination systems.

Unfortunately, while its general principles were widely welcomed, the draft also made some old-fashioned recommendations such as the politically incorrect three-language learning formula and compulsory teaching of primary students in their mother tongue. This prompted most state governments to ignore NCF 2005.

Although the sheer effort invested in NCF at first enthused your editors, the implicit recommendation to state governments to impose mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary school cast a shadow over the entire draft policy. We have always believed that the medium of instruction should be freely chosen by children’s parents, and that English should be taught from the earliest years as it is the link language of India and improves employment prospects and upward mobility. Therefore EW and the public soon lost interest in NCF 2005. 

Battle against sub-standard textbooks

One of the biggest rackets in Indian education is the commissioning, printing and publishing of sub-standard textbooks. Except for the Delhi-based Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations, all the 31 state school examination boards exercise control over textbooks that children read and learn from. Your editors have strongly protested this regime, which in most state boards has degenerated into outright rackets. Since state board-affiliated school students are a captive audience who are given free-of-charge textbooks (paid for by taxpayers), they are printed in the millions. This monopoly has resulted in their commissioning the writing of textbooks to their kith and kin, who at best, have mere paper qualifications. These sub-standard texts are mass printed and printing contracts are awarded to shady publishers for huge kickbacks.

Except for occasional reports in the mainstream media highlighting textbook ‘howlers’ and infiltration of ruling party propaganda into them, this long-running racket has remained unchecked. EducationWorld has examined this phenomenon of lack of choice and imposition of poor quality texts in several detailed features, the latest published in August 2017.

Unfortunately because mainstream media which, apart from writing jokey stories of state board textbook howlers, has failed and neglected to also highlight this crucially important issue, EW has not been able to make much impact in breaking this systemic racket. However a recent CBSE circular directing all affiliated schools to solely prescribe NCERT published textbooks was struck down by the Madras high court. 

Placing Early Childhood Education on the national agenda

One of the major thrust areas of EW during the past 18 years has been to impact the vital importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE) on the national consciousness. Right until the early years of the new millennium, ECCE was an area of darkness, not only for the general public but also for this education-focused publication. However after 2007 when the US-based Knowledge Universe — then the world’s largest ECCE company — purchased a 26 percent equity stake in the holding company of EducationWorld, your editors were quickly converted to this worthy cause. Since then we have staged seven international and national seminars to spread awareness of the critical importance of high quality foundational ECCE for progress along the education continuum.

To create awareness we have also introduced the annual EW India Preschool Rankings which rate pre-primaries on 10 parameters of ECCE excellence and rank them inter se in 16 cities (because awareness of the importance of ECCE is largely an urban and still dawning phenomenon). This continuous pressure for universalisation of ECCE prompted the Congress-led UPA-II government at the centre to publish a National Early Childhood Care & Education (NECCE) policy draft in November 2013, at the fag end of its ten-year term in office. 

Since then this policy draft has disappeared within the musty shelves of Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan, headquarters of the Union HRD ministry, under the rule of the BJP-led NDA government. Nevertheless we will persist with our EW India Preschool Rankings and seminar-cum-awards coming up soon in December/January, in our pursuit of universalisation of ECCE. 

In this context it’s pertinent to note that although India’s population of children under age 5 is 158 million, the country’s 1.6 million anganwadis — health and nutrition centres for new-born children and lactating mothers which also provide rudimentary ECCE for children in the age group 0-5 — established by the Central government accommodate only 75 million children. Allowing for an estimated 10 million in private preschools, over 65 million children aged 5 and below are left to fend for themselves. 

EW’s relentless campaign for larger budgets for the expansion of anganwadis has had some impact inasmuch as the drastic cut made for this programme in Union budget 2016-17 was restored and marginally increased in budget 2017-18, and politicians are acknowledging necessary inclusion of ECCE in public education. But that apart, the greater impact has been on private preschools whose managements are making conscious efforts to transform former informal playpens and mere baby-sitting sites into genuine learning preschools. 

Campaign against government control of private school fees 

From the time EducationWorld was launched on the eve of the new millennium, your editors have been protesting the migration of neta-babu licence-permit-quota raj which substantially ended in Indian industry in 1991, from migrating into education. Deprived of considerable illegal income flows through the use of discretionary powers in industry, the neta-babu brotherhood has focused its attention on the education sector to make good. Way back in 2004 in the Modern School Case, the Supreme Court notwithstanding its landmark judgement in the T.M.A Pai Foundation Case (2002) ill-advisedly permitted the Delhi state government to regulate the tuition fees of private independent (‘unaided’) schools. The court also prohibited the transfer of fees, funds or surpluses of one school to another or to its parent trust or society though it permitted school managements to collect reasonable sums (upto 10-15 percent of tuition fees) for capital expenditure to be credited into separate development funds. 

“Although private schools argue that the judgement is applicable only to schools in Delhi NCR, it has cast a shadow over independent schools countrywide. Pursuant to the apex court’s judgement, education ministry officials in the states have the right to examine the accounts of all schools to determine whether the fees they levy are reasonable as per the court’s judgement in the Islamic Academy Case (2003). Since then, several state governments including Maharashtra and Karnataka, have proposed to cap tuition fees in private, independent schools, presaging creeping licence-permit-quota raj in K-12 education,” we wrote in November 2014. Since then our apprehensions have been justified with several state governments having imposed ceilings on the fees of private independent schools. 

Though the business-illiterate mainstream media and jholawallahs (Left-oriented intellectuals) are in favour of government regulation of private school tuition fees, the case for deregulation is simple. At a time when private education is being increasingly favoured by the public — between 2011-15 system-wide enrolment in government schools declined by 11 percent and rose by 16 percent (see Dr. Geeta Kingdon’s essay, p.72) — and secondary GER (gross enrolment ratio) is a mere 47 percent of the 15-18 age cohort, there’s urgent need to encourage investment in private schools at all price points. Surprisingly, lengthening queues for admission of their children into private schools don’t seem to bother middle class parents who are clamouring for regulation of private school fees. Nor do they foresee that school fees regulation will inevitably lead to government interference (see recent cover story ‘Fees regulation fever endangering India’s private schools’ (EW July 2017). 

Your editors’ viewpoint is that the fees of private schools should be negotiated between PTAs (Parent Teachers Associations) or other parents’ representative bodies and school managements bilaterally. Moreover instead of paying overdue attention to private schools, government should focus on improving the country’s public (i.e. government) schools which will force private schools to wither away. 

Battle against RTE Act, 2009

Although ex facie the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (aka RTE) Act, 2009, which makes it compulsory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to children in the age group 6-14, is unexceptional, this legislation passed by Parliament after a belated amendment of the Constitution that makes education for children in this age group a fundamental right, has three major flaws which have been heavily criticised by EducationWorld. 

First, it limits the obligation of the State to children in the 6-14 age group when the authors of the Constitution intended this right to be conferred on all children in the age group 0-6 (Article 45) as well. It’s shocking that even 67 years after the Constitution was adopted, India’s legislators are unaware of the crucial importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE). According to economics Nobel laureate James Heckman, a dollar invested in ECCE is worth several invested later in the education continuum. 

Secondly, a hidden purpose of the Act is to eliminate the estimated 300,000 private budget schools which have sprung up across the country as a market response to the pathetic elementary (class I-VIII) education provided by the country’s 1.08 million government schools. S.19 of the Act prescribes stringent infrastructure norms — including teacher-pupil norms and playing fields — for private schools. However government schools are exempt from complying with these norms. Therefore the purpose of the Act seems to be to force the closure of ‘unrecognised’ private budget schools (PBS) which even the poorest households at the bottom of the country’s iniquitous social pyramid seem to prefer to dysfunctional government schools. Moreover while your editors encourage and celebrate the best PBS in our annual EW India School Rankings, mainstream media have joined the government campaign to denigrate them (Outlook magazine cover story ‘Bad schools as dirty business’ (October 9)). 

Third, s. 12 of the RTE Act devolves a part of the obligation of the State (Central and state governments) to provide free and compulsory elementary education on to ‘recognised’ private schools. Under s.12 (1) (c) private schools are obliged to admit poor children from their neighbourhood into class I (25 percent of capacity) and retain them free of charge until class VIII. Unfairly, private schools are reimbursed on the basis of average per child cost of elementary education incurred by state governments in their own schools. Inevitably this provision of the RTE Act was challenged in the Supreme Court which surprisingly upheld it by a 2-1 majority, exempting minority and boarding schools. However this ill-considered judgement of the apex court has prompted a plethora of rackets and litigation over the definition of the words ‘minority’, ‘neighbourhood’ etc. 

In the opinion of your editors these provisions of the RTE Act are anti-social ploys of the Central government which expends 20 percent of its annual budget on uncontrolled ‘establishment expenses’, to side-step its moral obligation to raise the annual expenditure on education to 6 percent of GDP (Centre plus states) as recommended by every official commission starting with the Kothari Commission way back in 1966. 

Battle to protect the autonomy of IITs and IIMs

Due to blatant political interference the great majority of post-independence India’s estimated 38,000 undergraduate colleges and 800 universities — some of them established 150 years ago — are run-down institutions and figure nowhere in the World University Rankings published annually by the highly-respected varsity rating agencies QS and Times Higher Education. Although a number of private universities are beginning to establish a national if not global, reputation as world class, India’s most respected institutions of higher education are the eight older Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and six Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), which are ranked by the QS and THE among the Top 500. Unsurprisingly the reputation of these government-promoted institutions of national excellence has attracted the attention of the neta-babu brotherhood. 

The first attack on their autonomy was mounted by Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, Union HRD minister in the BJP/NDA government, in November 2003. Out of the blue, Joshi slashed the already heavily susbsidised fee of the IITs and IIMs to Rs.30,000 per year to increase their dependence on ministry hand-outs, and directed all private donations to be deposited into a specially constituted government fund. 

These fiats were severely criticised by EducationWorld at the time. Fortunately in General Election 2004, the BJP/NDA government was ousted from power, Joshi lost his Lok Sabha seat in the Varanasi constituency and the proposal was dropped. But in May 2012 in yet another unwarranted attack on the autonomy of the IITs, HRD minister Kapil Sibal driven by nationalist fervour abolished the IIT-JEE (joint entrance examination) — one of the world’s toughest examinations — and announced a common entrance exam for all 64 Central government engineering colleges countrywide. Dangerously, the common entrance exam would accord 40 percent weightage to scores obtained in the school-leaving class XII exams of all 33 school state boards countrywide. Since it’s well-known that the curriculums of state examination boards vary widely, this proposal was strongly opposed by the academic councils and faculties of the IITs which feared a drop in the quality of entrants. 

In several detailed cover stories EW also strongly opposed this proposal on the ground of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it. Ultimately a compromise was reached — 40 percent weightage would be given to students writing the IIT-JEE (Mains), but the final IIT (Advanced) exam would be conducted by the IITs themselves. 

However this wasn’t the end of it all. In 2015, Sibal’s successor in the Union HRD ministry under the newly-elected BJP-led NDA government, Smriti Irani posted a seemingly innocuous Indian Institutes of Management Bill, 2015 on its website for public comment and discussion. “As per the provisions of the Bill, we need to take prior permission of government in matters related to admissions, courses, fee structure, establishment or maintenance of new buildings and regulating powers of the academic council. Further, we will be required to take government’s permission if we want to form a new department in the interest of the institution, as if expertise for this is available elsewhere rather than with the institute. Thus, nothing much is left for us. It is like operating here but the control is somewhere else,” said A.M Naik, then chairman of the construction major Larsen & Toubro and chairman of the board of governors of IIM-Ahmedabad, quoted in EW. In our cover story, we described this as attempted completion of the BJP’s “unfinished agenda” of takeover of the IIMs, and detailed the major provisons of the Bill and illustrated how they would effectively vest control of the IIMs in the HRD ministry. 

As a result of the media outcry and EW’s explanation of the proposed IIM Bill, following a minor cabinet reshuffle on July 6, 2016 Smriti Irani was moved from the HRD ministry to the Union textiles ministry. Moreover the new IIM Bill pending before Parliament and piloted by incumbent HRD minister Prakash Javadekar substantially expands the autonomy of the IIMs. 

Reckless disregard for child safety 

On July 16, 2004, a raging fire at the state government-licenced Sri Krishna/Saraswathi English Medium School in the obscure town of Kumbakonam (Tamil Nadu), tragically snuffed out the lives of 93 young children aged between six and ten years. The tragedy brutally exposed the complete disregard of state and local governments, school managements and education inspectors for child safety. Teachers reportedly fled the scene, leaving the children to their fate. 

This calamity prompted a short burst of reform stimulus in Tamil Nadu and several other states, which cracked down on the managements of thousands of private and government schools functioning on unsafe premises. Notices were issued to school managements to replace flimsy buildings with non-flammable structures, separate mid-day meal centres, and to implement fire safety guidelines. However, the role of venal government inspectors who turn a blind eye to numerous violations of safety regulations in private and government schools, was conveniently glossed over. 

In a comprehensive cover feature in EducationWorld (September 2004) we identified local education officials as primarily responsible for the Kumbakonam tragedy. Although mercifully no great tragedy on the Kumbakonam scale has occurred since, integrating safety culture into the day-to-day management of school education is far from realisation. Daily reports of sex attacks on minor and younger children and infliction of corporal punishment have become distressingly common. More recently the shocking murder of a seven-year-old primary student of the Ryan International School, Gurgaon outraged the nation and led to renewed calls for introducing comprehensive child safety measures in schools. But curiously mainstream media tends to be more harsh on security lapses in private schools than of government institutions. Moreover while middle class parents with children in private schools are very vocal about improved security, they are reluctant to pay for it. Be that as it may, the very important issue of security in schools is once again highlighted in the cover story of this 18th anniversary issue of EducationWorld. 

Continuous advocacy of skills education 

A shocking blind spot of the centrally planned Indian economy is the consistent neglect of vocational education and training (VET). That India’s Central planners and educationists were unaware of the great emphasis that not only the industrially advanced OECD, but even the newly emerging industrial countries of South Korea and Japan, accorded to VET, raises huge questions relating to their competence. 

According to iWatch (estb. 1992), a Mumbai-based NGO focused upon the areas of governance, education, economy and employment, currently 90 million youth are enrolled in 500,000 VET institutions across China, and 11 percent of its total labour (816 million) force has received formal VET. On the other hand in India, the number of youth enrolled in its 14,000 VET institutions (including 5,114 Industrial Training Institutes run by the Union ministry of labour) is a mere 3.5 million, and only 4 percent of India’s 400 million labour force has received formal VET. 

The price the Indian economy has paid for the neglect of VET has been heavy. According to a detailed 2007 study of the Brookings Institution, USA — the world’s top-ranked think tank — during the period 1978-2004, output per worker and total factor productivity in the economy increased by 7.3 percent and 3.8 percent respectively in China cf. 3.3 and 1.6 percent in India. Unsurprisingly India’s wheat production averages 2,688 kg per hectare (kg/ha) compared with 4,155 kg/ha in China.

Following sustained protest from the media, particularly from EducationWorld which made common cause with VET evangelist and iWatch founder Krishan Khanna in the early years of the new millennium, the Congress-led UPA-II government in New Delhi belatedly promoted the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), a government-industry partnership in 2009. Its mission is to build a sustainable ecosystem to promote skills development through provision of long-term loans to private sector VET firms, set up sector skill councils with employer engagement to prescribe standards and benchmarks, accredit training institutions to certify trainees, and encourage industry to employ trained personnel.

However, an equally promising development is that independent of government, a small minority of NGOs are seriously addressing the critical issue of skills-based education. In a detailed cover story (April 2014) EducationWorld profiled four enterprises promoted by extraordinary social entrepreneurs and more recently last month (October) another cover story on AISECT, India’s pioneer skills private university which has made it compulsory for all undergrad students — even in conventional arts, science, engineering, law, commerce study programmes — to acquire at least three-four skill certificates during their degree study programmes. Perhaps post-independence India’s belated VET and skills training revolution has begun.

EW annual institutional rankings

A landmark development in Indian K-12 education was the introduction in 2007 of the annual EducationWorld India School Rankings and the EducationWorld India Preschool Rankings in 2010. Since then, the EW India School Rankings and the subsequent EW India School Rankings Awards have transformed into arguably the world’s largest celebration of excellence in primary-secondary education, arousing huge interest and enthusiasm within the teacher, parents and student communities. 

Similarly the annual EW India Preschool Rankings  and awards which include seminars and workshops on ECCE (early childhood care and education) have been welcomed by young parents, teachers and educators countrywide. Because professionally administered ECCE is a relatively new phenomenon,  the rankings for the first time provided parents expert evaluation of pre-primaries rated across ten parameters of education excellence. Perhaps most important, these annual surveys and rankings have also had the salutary effect of instilling positive sentiments of institutional pride within K-12 schools and preschools across the country.

In higher education in 2015 after several years of rating and ranking the country’s best engineering, medical and business management institutions, your editors became aware that there was a sense of déjà vu about these rankings with almost all business magazines and some pink newspapers also publishing annual rankings of institutions of professional education. Therefore we have resorted to rating and ranking the country’s Top 100 private universities on the logic that firstly they are more accessible to the public than the top-ranked government universities with their sky-high cut-offs, and are less well known. Last June, at a seminar-cum-awards nite in Bangalore, the country’s Top 100 private universities ranked by EducationWorld were felicitated. 

Although following in our footsteps, several pretender education magazines of uncertain bona fides have also begun to assess, rank and award schools and preschools, there is a patently obvious linkage between their awardees and advertisers. On the other hand, India’s top-ranked schools in the annual EW India School Rankings have seldom, if ever, advertised with us. Draw your own conclusions.

EducationWorld’s long war for according primacy to education — to make education the #1 item on the national development agenda — is far from over. Curiously the task of transforming the country’s largest population of children and youth from a liability into a valuable national asset seems to arouse minimal interest in politicians (who perhaps have a vested interest in maintaining a large and gullible, illiterate and poorly educated population) and the self-serving upwardly mobile middle class which has no interest in public education. Also surprisingly, the country’s esoteric intelligentsia is content to debate high matters of state without paying sufficient attention to this vital building block of national development. 

This is a huge mistake. Unless the country’s public and private education systems make a dramatic leap forward in the next few decades, all hopes and aspirations of India emerging as an economic super-power of the 21st century will vaporise into smoke. There should be no illusions about this harsh reality.

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