Education: The Key

Article - 50

We have arrived at the fiftieth article: One of the regular reader of this series told me that fifty is a milestone and I should choose the topic very carefully. I was deeply thinking within myself as to what is the key for the modern world and India. I was also surveying Arulchelvar’s thoughts and actions. I was reading various well researched articles about the emerging future. Also let us look at various schemes being thought of or launched to reach the benefits to the poor e.g. Jan Dhan bank accounts; linking accident insurance with that; plans to link subsidies directly to people; ideas about Digital India. None of these benefits can be accessed only with a thumb impression. Also for a farmer or artisan to get a better price for his/her products, learning more about the markets is vital. The levels of cleanliness that will be insisted upon in various “simple” job markets like working in restaurants or hotels (using a fashionable term “hospitality sector”) require much more knowledge and continuous learning.

In about two decades those Indians who cannot use computers, smart phones etc... will be washed away as “illiterates” though they can read and write their language. I myself after many decades of experience and learning, am now trying to learn many new computer and ICT based skills, to access new information. The amount of current research material and review documents, I access though internet is large. They are vital for writing these articles or other books; to give meaningful talks with updated information; many of which are not available in print.  

I therefore came to the conclusion, Education in all forms of modern knowledge bases and related skills are vital for every person living in the modern world. That education should be such as to make each individual a continuous learner all though his/her life, as technologies, business, the jobs, the governance systems, social interactions, resources, the laws etc.. are continually changing. The progress which is based on new knowledge and skills, is also making us obsolete in a short period.

Within a generation, with active life span extending to 85 years plus (soon to be for most Indians) one will get obsolete about 8 to 10 times in one’s life. This includes teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, artists, accountants, administrators,  yes in all professions, including the “ordinary” levels of economic activity like farming, water management, policing, maintenance etc...


Is India or Indians prepared for it? I have to say no. “Education for All” is another fashionable statement. “Global Ranking” is a new fad with which academics are obsessed and they are pushing Indian elite institutions more away from India related problems, in order to get a better citation index in an international journal with higher impact factor (that has become full time goal of many academic leaders, administrators and academics whose promotions depend on these).

Falling into these traps, Government keeps on announcing more of IIT’s, IIIT’s, AIIMS like medical institutions, IISER, NIT’s  etc...  Thinking at the Government level be it Delhi or state capital, seems to be “you create more Government schools or institutions and/or increase funding for Government schools/colleges/universities”; then India’s educational problems will be taken care of. Reality is that Government funded/aided schools/colleges/universities including elite IITs’ IISERs, IIMs, IISc, AIIMS etc... cater to a very small percentage of the total students.

Also Government statistics generators are happy with entry numbers Gross Enrollment Ration (GER). Let us have a reality check. Let us look at a research report “Internal Migration for Education and employment among youth in India” by S. Chandrasekhar, and Ajay Sharma (Indira Gandhi Institute of Development  Research, Mumbai January 2014.

The perceived failure of India's education policy to arrest dropout rates and deliver quality learning along the various stages of education ladder is empirical fact. While India has steadily moved towards universal primary education, the age specific attendance ratios need to be improved. The age specific attendance ratio is calculated by dividing the number of persons in a particular age-group currently attending educational institutions by the estimated population in the age-group 6-10 years and then multiplying the resultant number by 100. In fact in 2007-08, the age specific attendance ratios were as follows: 6-10 years - 88 percent, 11-13 years - 86 percent, 14-17 years – 64 percent, 18-24 years - 18 percent and 25-29 years - 1 percent (Government of India 2010a).There are also considerable variations in the age specific attendance ratios across of India.

The least gains have been recorded among those in the age group 18-24 years - from 10 to 15 percent in rural India and from 23 to 27 percent in urban India. In contrast to the age specific attendance ratios where we do not take into account which class or grade the individual is attending, the net attendance ratio is defined as the ratio of number of persons in the official age-group attending a particular class-group to the total number persons in the age-group. The net attendance ratio drops off sharply after class V and is only 8 percent among those pursuing post higher secondary education (Table-1).

Table-1 : Net Attendance Ratio by Broad Class Group (All India)
  Rural Urban Rural+Urban
Class Group Total Total Total
I-IV 84 85 84
VI-VIII 57 65 59
IX-X 38 51 41
XI-XII (General Education) 22 39 27
XI-XII* (All Education) 23 40 27
Post Higher Secondary (General Education) 6 14 8
Post Higher Secondary       (All Education) 8 21 12

* includes diploma with minimum requirements below higher secondary
Education is categorized in three classes in the survey: (i) general education, (ii) technical and professional education and (iii) vocational education. All education includes (i) (ii) and (iii)
Source: Government of India (2010a)

“A scenario where the net attendance ratio at higher levels of education can be doubled would augur well for India's youth and hence for the prospects of the economy. The fact that the East Asian countries managed to achieve a sustained high growth rate beginning the decade of sixties is often attributed to their singular focus on three outcomes, viz. improving educational attainment, increasing workforce participation rate and stepping up the higher investment rate.

While India' has a healthy savings rate of 34 percent and investment rate of 36 percent (Government of India 201la) it still lags in improving the quality of human capital and increasing the workforce participation rate, and in particular that of women.  There is  evidence to suggest that educating and skilling India’s youth by improving access to tertiary education and increasing the completion  rates have significant implications for the economy”.


It is certainly true that large sections of the population in India do not have access to quality education. Every year, at the time of college admissions in Delhi, there are reports in newspapers about the extremely high ‘cut-off marks’ set by colleges for students seeking admission. In some streams, 100 per cent marks in the school-leaving examination are required for a student to gain admission to college. We thus have the somewhat ludicrous situation that a student who has got 99.9 per cent marks in the school leaving examination cannot even be considered for admission to a college. It is true that hundreds of students do boast 100 per cent marks; but where are the remaining students to go? The problem is compounded by the fact that the colleges under Delhi University are funded by the University Grants Commission (UGC), and hence the fees students’ fees  in these colleges are nominal. If a student goes to one of the private colleges outside the ambit of Delhi University, they have to pay much higher fees and also do not get the coveted Delhi University degree.   

It is not that these problems of exclusion exist in higher education alone. Admission of small children to nursery schools is another area that is fraught with tension. In response to several cases filed by parents alleging arbitrary selection methods, the Delhi High Court had to set a number of criteria for admission. 

Meanwhile, the Right to Education (RTE) Act, formulated with good intentions, has also been causing problems to the neighbourhood private schools that cater primarily to children from lower middle class families. The RTE Act has enabled state government officials to intrude into their functioning as inspectors. Several private schools have closed down as a result. Perhaps a thrust on the betterment of government schools through a vigorous pursuit of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, rather than the inspection of private schools, would have served the children of the lower socio-economic classes better.

The government typically reacts to the need for a more extensive education system that can serve many more Indians by levying an educational cess over and above the income tax that citizens pay. But when it comes to expenditure on education, a fairly large fund goes to the creation of new IITs, IIESR and NITs etc... often without adequate preparation. The money could be better utilized in equipping schools and polytechnics with skill-imparting institutions. But such an approach is not thought of because imparting skills actually comes not under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) but under the Ministry of Labour. It appears that the new government is looking to combine the two. But it is not enough to integrate departments. It is crucial to look at skill development at every level of education. 

One of the results of the difficulty of getting admission to good colleges in India is the trend on the part of parents to try and send their children to foreign colleges and universities to complete their education. Most middle-class parents, of course, cannot afford the high costs of foreign education; but the aspiration to send children abroad for education, sometimes without tangible benefits, creates unnecessary financial pressures on the parents, a drain in the foreign exchange reserves, and a false social disparity between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot.

Even more worryingly, coaching classes becoming the norm actually indicates a failure of the education system, which is clearly unable to prepare students adequately for professional degrees or competitive examinations.


The seriousness of the problem becomes clear when we look at the numbers. Parents who can afford to pay for their children to go abroad collectively remit about US$ 6 billion (about Rs. 3,6000 crore) abroad every year. The same parents would have spent about Rs. 4,000 crore a year to prepare their children through coaching classes. At least the money spent in coaching classes ploughs back into the national economy and creates jobs. But the money that goes abroad is lost to India, and more often than not so are the students, many of whom do not return to India after acquiring a foreign degree.

We are referring in the above, the students who are qualified for higher education. Much worse is the situation of a large number of students who do not get the chance to get a good education at the primary or elementary stages. About 70 per cent of all students in India stagnate as this stage. In government data they are technically called literate, but they cannot read or write well, nor do they have the requisite social or technical skills to compete.

In the age group of 15-18 years, this student population adds up to about 56 million. About 2 million of these students might have relatively better skills. 

In the age group of 22-25, the total number of such students is again about 56 million, a very large population of young people completely unprepared for the challenges of the modern economy. About 2 million of these youths, who are relatively better prepared, may get into the IT and financial sectors, but even many in this 2 million do not get the jobs that they aspire for. Many more are left unemployed.

If we take into account all those who get a college degree, the number we are looking at in the age group of 22-25 is 8 million, students who come out of the 40,000 colleges in India with largely inadequate social, economic and technical skills.

The two tables below (Table 2 and 3) present all the relevant numbers for these two age groups of students.  (Figures estimated by the author from Government data and other public information.

Table-2 : Human Resources in India (Age Group 22-25) @ 2014
(a) All India Total 80 million
(b) Those with reasonable skills and higher education 2 million
(c) Those poorly equipped yet having a degree 6 million
(d) Those without a degree, may have passed school, poorly skilled 16 million
(e) Those who may have some primary/elementary school education, poorly skilled 56 million


Table-3 : Human Resource in India (Age Group 15-18) @ 2014
(a) All India Total 80 million
(b) Those who have done well in 10+2 and hope for better studies (professional, degree, etc.) with reasonable skills 2 million
(c) Those who have done 10+2 schooling but can only aspire to get into one of the 40,000 colleges which do not prepare them for higher modern skills 6 million
(d) Those who do not hope to get studies higher than the 10th class 16 million
(e) Those who have dropped out before the 8th class 56 million

For those in categories (d) and (e) in Table 3, the situation is particularly bad. Over the past two decades, many of these persons have gone into life unprepared. Those who were in the age group of 15-18 in 1991, the year of the liberalization of the economy, will be in the age group of 38-41 in 2014 and struggling to meet the basic needs for themselves and their families. They will typically be in the unorganized sector, often with an irregular job, leading a day-to-day existence. They would aspire for a better future for their children, but how can they build that future?  

In fact, the fate of the children of those , who might be in the age group 15-18 in 2014, is almost shockingly similar to theirs: many of these children would fall into the categories (d) and (e) in Table 3. These are, however, post-liberalization children, exposed to the global consumer culture, harbouring very high aspirations. They want to have a life similar to that of their cohorts who sit in category (c), or even (b), in Table 3. But is there a chance for them to improve their life even in a decade’s time, by 2025, when they are still under thirty years of age?

So far, the government has only been able to come up with stop-gap solutions to address this vital question, in the form of food security for all or a minimum guaranteed employment of hundred days for every person. These ambitious schemes are difficult to implement, and even if they are implemented, they do not make for a productive action plan that will help develop and sustain the national economy.

The real solution is to ensure that all those in table 3 in categories (c), (d) and (e) acquire the high skills required for the modern economy and earn more through the productive activities unleashed by rapid economic growth. In fact unless these people are relevantly skilled very fast, India’s economic growth will stall. Action needed is immediate!

That is the challenge before the Indian education system. What should the action plan for education be?

Does the solution lie in stepping up the government budget for education? Not exactly; merely pumping funds into building more schools is money-intensive and might not be very productive. It is reported that in order to comply with a provision under the RTE Act that no child should have to travel beyond 1 km to go to school, a number of government schools have been constructed and the number of students admitted in these is very low. This is a terrible wastage of taxpayers’ money and does not benefit anyone.

Here are our recommendations to reboot India’s education system.

For Schools in Villages

There is a simple scheme with far-reaching impact called Providing Urban Facilities in Rural Areas (PURA) that has been propagated by Dr. Kalam for some time. Its model for improving the rural education system is clear and precise. Working with a network of about fifty villages that are fairly close to each other, the aim is provide physical connectivity, electronic connectivity and economic connectivity to this network.

Where physical connectivity is concerned, if the fifty villages are connected by a reasonable road, all of them together need to have only one high-quality school with a number of good teachers teaching a variety of subjects, rather than several smaller schools in individual villages with limited teacher and resource strengths. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (Prime Minister’s Rural Road Scheme), started in the early 2000s, can help in ensuring the road connectivity.  

This can ensure the reach of tele-education to the children, using satellite and broadband services to connect with resources, data and instructors around the world. Multimedia and interactive channels can impart relevant skills to children right from the primary school stage.

All this connectivity will, however, be meaningless if the curricula, syllabi, pedagogical methods, teachers’ knowledge, etc... remain as they are now. Most schools in India use a unified curriculum. This one-size-fits-all system of education excludes many children from the benefits of education. What is needed is to provide many more options for schools and teachers to select from. 

The primary and elementary stages of school should be the time when children are given an orientation towards the hundreds of skills that are required and relevant. They should be made aware of forms of learning beyond the three R’s: reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. With such an exposure, when they go past elementary school (eighth standard) and reach fifteen years of age, they will be confident enough to choose their preferred career paths, from multiple options.

To enable this transformation, what is needed is also a teaching and training mission. We need to find innovative ways to create new teachers, going beyond our dependence on teachers with degrees in education training. A large number of educated women drop out of the employment stream after childbirth because they cannot adhere to extended work hours. Many of these women, who are based in small towns, can be deployed for part-time teaching. The same is true of our senior citizens, who are now 100 million strong; many of them are skilled and well educated. Instead of emphasizing formal qualifications, we can also utilize the skilled workforce in the country for teaching. All of these teachers can be accessed by the tele-education mode from villages. 

For Schools in Towns and Cities

What we have said for villages can be adapted very easily for towns and cities. Again the emphasis should be to collect networked students into a good school rather than spreading them out. When looking at the urban part of the education system, the government must be careful not to discriminate in favour of government schools and against private schools; it must assist all schools with materials and facilities equally.

In urban and semi-urban areas, colleges and nearby schools can be converted into powerful knowledge-skills-imparting centres, and engage in distance learning through broadband connectivity. The broadband connectivity should aim to transform our 40,000 colleges at the first instance from institutions steeped in the conventional rote learning mode to modern global-level skill imparting centres. Again a transformational change in curricula, syllabi and pedagogical methods will be essential.

A Time for Change

What we have discussed so far applies primarily to the children in categories (c), (d) and (e) of Table 3 aiming to transform them from their current state and thereby create a formidable human resource for India. 

When the levels of children in categories (c), (d) and (e) of Table 3 are raised higher – and this can happen in a few years, by the year 2020 – Table 3 in say 2025, a decade from now, will look very different from what it looks like today. All of the people in categories (c), (d) and (e) will be highly skilled. Category (c) and (d) will each have about 30 million people, with category (e) at close to zero. Meanwhile, the numbers in category (b) will have risen from the current 2 million to about 20 million. That is how the supply chain works. If we attempt to raise the numbers in (b) without improving (e), (d) and (c), how can we have the excellent inputs we will need to support the larger numbers at the higher level?

That, in a nutshell, is the problem facing professional education today. Opening up more and more IITs and IIMs does not solve the problem, it only dilutes the brand equity of these institutions. As we’ve said, the focus needs to shift to providing the relevant skills and knowledge to students at the primary, secondary and college levels. Alongside, there is a need to create many more educational institutions in India, so that more options are available to students. For this to happen, India should remove all the fetters against foreign direct investment in education. The government, on its part, should stop subsidizing the cost of education and instead provide widespread scholarships to the poor and needy, so that they can benefit from the best that modern education systems have to offer.

This change of mindset would not only help the many millions of students who are currently stuck in categories (c), (d) and (e) in Table 3, but also liberate the ‘high flyers’ in the elite institutions who are currently trapped in their own private rut of excessive expectations and limited scope, which stops them from performing to their fullest potential. 

In the right environment, they will flourish, as the other parts of the student spectrum blossoms. Original creative work, new discoveries and above all new inventions and innovations will then emerge, with India-invented, India-designed, India-produced products and services spreading all over the world.

The day this can happen is not far away. A decade from the year in which we liberate our education system from government control and enable the inculcation of relevant skills and knowledge at all levels, India will truly excel.

Let the starting year be 2015, so that the year 2025 brings glory to India.



The most important action to be taken to provide all villages remote areas with:

  • Good physical connectivity (roads or rails or even waterways)
  • Good electronic connectivity (to jump the many lost opportunities a 3G type of connectivity)

For those of Indians who get into much higher studies and research, in addition to freeing the existing elite institutions under govt, we need to encourage them to fly high. It is described in detail in the book Way Beyond The Three R’s: India’s educational Challenge in the 21st century” by Y S Rajan (2010, Penguin),  it elaborates how to cater to these avant garde persons and how to enable world class institutions to emerge. This will be in all disciplines of knowledge including arts, literature, philosophy, law, archaeology, history etc., in addition to science, technology engineering, mathematics, and medical sciences. 

Y S Rajan