New American research study reconfirms distressing state of education in India

The recent report of New York based PEW Research Centre has analysed an inter-country comparison on the state of education, focusing on educational attainment among the major religions of the world. The Centre, part of the John Templeton Foundation, describes itself “as a non-partisan think tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, while not taking any policy positions”. In possibly a first of its kind analysis, the report focuses on average number of years of schooling among the various religions of the world – it concludes that Jews average 13.4 years of schooling, compared to the international Christian average of 9.3 years, 7.9 years for the Buddhist – the depressing finding is that the Muslims and Hindus of the world undergo 5.6 years of schooling, as against the global average of 7.7 years.

The startling conclusion is that Hindus continue to have the lowest level of ‘educational attainment’ among other major religions of the world, despite substantial educational gains in the recent decade. “Hindu adults (age 25 and older) in the youngest generation analysed in the study have an average of 3.4 more years schooling than those in the oldest generation” – the good news stops there. ‘41 percent of Hindus have no formal education of any kind. Despite large gains by Hindu women across generations, Hindus still have a largest educational gender gap of any religious group’ – these are some of the findings of the 160 page detailed report of PEW Research Centre entitled 'Region and Education around the World at Large'.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

The report measures ‘educational attainment’, but does not assess the quality of education, using four broad levels of attainment and categories based on Unesco's International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). The focus of the study is on shares of population with no formal schooling coupled with post-secondary education, along with the average years of schooling to express the “level” of ‘educational attainment’ in the country’s population in a single number, based on a methodology created to capture cross-country comparison of educational attainment. The report groups 151 countries and territories, with available education and religious data, also listing the data sources used for each country, along with a comment on the challenges associated with measuring change in educational attainment across generations.

The vast majority of the world’s Hindus live in India (94 percent), or in Nepal and Bangladesh. In India, Hindus average 5.5 year schooling while in Nepal and Bangladesh the average is 3.9 and 4.6 years respectively. By startling contrast, the Hindus living in the US have 15.7 years of schooling, on average a full year more than the next most highly educated US religious group (Jews) and nearly 3 years more than the average American adult (12.9 years); Hindus in Europe also are highly educated, average 13.9 years of schooling, according to the report.

All this depressing news can well be generally collaborated by the recent similar studies by other international groups. Without going into the academic nitty-gritty, the broad picture emerging is the same. Various reports sharply highlight the abysmal state of education in India, in comparison with other countries; pointing to the public policy neglect that this sector has suffered over seven decades of our democracy. It is disturbing to note that as against the education of total world population of 7.9 years of average schooling, the advance country’s average 11.3 years of schooling, all developing country’s average 7.2 years of schooling – India trails behind at 5.6 years, at the very bottom of the pile. The only possible consolation is that India is only marginally ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa in this regard, trailing behind every region of Europe, Central Asia, Middle East as well as Latin America and the Caribbean. These findings are quite consistent with other international comparisons, including the ‘Legatum Prosperity Index’ of countries, in which India is close to the bottom. It is noteworthy that the European PISA Index, widely used as a measure of educational attainment and quality, which covers over 80 countries, does not include India in its study – anecdotal information refers to Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh inviting PISA for the study in the first decade of this century, which resulted in India being ranked second-last among the participating countries, just ahead of the last-placed Kirgizstan – surely this was ‘bad’ news; it is easier to shoot the messenger than receive bad news – thereafter India has had nothing to do with the PISA measurement system, labelling it irrational and unsuitable for India! The latest Barro-Lee Harvard findings in respect of South-Asian countries in relation to the other regions are apparently consistent with the above picture.

At Independence, the literacy rate in India was 11 percent. In the mid ‘40s, India as a founder Charter member of the post-war created United Nations, participated in the Declaration of Universal Right to Education. It took India six more decades to translate this internationally announced intention to domestic policy, through the enactment of the Right to Education (RTE). The RTE primarily stresses increased enrolment, with focus on school infrastructure – it has paid little attention to the critical issues of educational quality, and also on inclusivity which is an extremely important element in the Indian scene, relating to the economically and socially backward classes. There is no doubt that education now is much more widespread, and there are major gains in school participation over the past decade, along with noticeably improved gender balance. However, the good news ends here.

The NGO Pratham has been bringing out its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) since 2005, on the basis of extensive household surveys conducted to assess children’s schooling status and basic reading levels in arithmetic. The 2000 survey covered 577 rural districts, and found that nearly half of the grade V students were not able to read at grade II level; and nearly the same proportion of grade V students did not have the basic arithmetic skills which they would have learned at the end of Grade II. The National Council of Research and Training (NCERT) has been conducting National Achievement Surveys periodically since 2001 for Classes III, V and VIII, covering all states. The latest NAS survey results which came out a couple of months back indicate a sharp fall in science, maths and English standards in comparison with the previous period. Clearly educational standards have fallen across the board, particularly in government schools all over the country. ASER 2014 also found that over 75 percent of children in Class III, over 50 percent in Class V and over 25 percent in Class VIII could not read text meant for the Class II level. At the all India level, the number of children in rural schools in Class II who could even recognise letters or the alphabets increased from 13.4 percent in 2010 to 32.5 percent in 2014. In the last year of the primary education in Class V, almost 20 percent of the children could only read letters, and are not literate even at this level; 14 percent could read words but not sentences; and 19 percent could read sentences but longer texts. Reading levels for children enrolled in government schools in Class V show a decline between 2010 and 2012. The gap in reading levels between children enrolled in government schools and private schools appears to be growing over time. Close to half of the children will finish eight years of schooling, but will still not have learned basic skills in arithmetic. While the PEW study focuses on number of years of schooling, the current fall in quality levels in India is a double-whammy – the current situation cannot be categorised as anything but catastrophic.

One additional word on the quality of the data which is recovered from the field will add to this disturbing portrayal. In 1994, the District Information System of Education (DISE) was introduced, designed to capture information from every school, routing it through the block level and aggregating at the district level for final compilation at state headquarters. U-DISE is now the ‘official statistics’; all other parallel connections for information is now discontinued. In concept, U-DISE is an extremely powerful instrument for gathering data, but its validity depends on the reliability of data being fed in the system. Since less than 10 percent schools have computers and reliable source of electricity, most of the data are generated manually and collated at block or district level. The reliability of the total data base at the state or national level is highly questionable, with wide variations among states.

The entire picture turns out to be one of great worry and concern. On the one hand, the average Indian gets less schooling than nearly every child in the world; even the existing data on average schooling and dropout rates are highly questionable. The quality of education at primary level, and indeed at all levels, is abysmal. All of this makes a terrible picture.

Indeed should this be so? As the PEW report points out, the child of Indian origin living in the US has higher educational attainments than any other ethnic community; the Indian child in Europe is among the most educated in that continent. There is enormous talent in the most backward regions of the most backward parts of India. There is sufficient evidence that the Indian child is as good a learner, given the opportunity, compared to any other in the world. In a relatively unknown experiment, the VidyaGyan school system of the Shiv Nadar Foundation, over the past eight years has been providing primary and secondary education to talented village children, selected only from rural government schools, coming from Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, and training them through good education and provision of minimal health care, leading up to the CBSE examinations – the results are amazing. Indeed in the 2016 CBSE Board examinations, every child passed the examination in the First Class, and most of them obtained merit admission to prestigious higher education institutions in India and abroad, some with full fellowship. No further proof is required of the potential to be educated – all that is required is give them basic coaching with decent nutrition facilities. It is a measure of the failure of governance over seven decades, that this fundamental aspect of human development in a democracy has been totally neglected.

This can be reversed in a decade. A new approach, with focus on quality, importance to the student and the teacher as opposed to the current accent on glorifying the politician and the bureaucrat in the field, with appropriate linkages with technology can transform the education scene. It is a tragedy that the critical importance of reforming the education sector has not yet been realised by our policy makers – the existing dispensation is apparently still under the illusion that continuation of existing policies, with incremental sporadic band-aid intervention is adequate. The PEW report is a reminder of our colossal blunders, and more importantly a call for urgent new action, if our democracy is to have a future.