March 28, 2019
Things are not much better as one moves down the ladder of learning. At the school level, as the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2017 reveals, nearly half the school-going children in rural India, aged 14 to 18 years, struggle with basic mathematics skills, and their language skills are not much better. Yet, instead of increasing spending on education, in both absolute and relative terms, our rulers at the Centre have decided that the distribution of such funds, already inadequate, should be further skewed — taking resources away from those who need them the most and pushing them instead towards already well-established institutions of higher education. The thinking behind schemes such as “Institutions of Eminence” or “Challenge Funding” seems to be that if one gives an already nationally well-ranked institution (such as the one where I am employed) a couple of hundred or a thousand crores over a period of a few years, these institutions will somehow hop, skip and jump up the scale of global academic excellence and become enshrined in the Top 100 of some recognized ranking scale or the other.
Alas, even here, the thinking can be at best described as woolly-headed. There is no Indian institution of higher education in the top 100 in any recognized global ranking and, given our present state of affairs, there is unlikely to be one in the next couple of decades. There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, the incomparable gap that exists between the resources available to even the best-funded Indian institutions as compared to their globally-ranked counterparts. For example, the University of Pittsburgh, ranked 100th by The Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2018, had an operating budget of Rs 1,400 crore, and assets worth Rs 2,000 crore in 2017. It also had an endowment fund of Rs 22,500 crore in the same year which was roughly 67 percent of India’s entire outlay on higher education in 2017-18. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if you do not strengthen education at the primary level, from where will you get the top-notch scholars who will bring glory to your institutions of higher learning? If 50 percent of rural high-school-going children do not know the fundamentals of mathematics, from where will you find the researchers of tomorrow? If millions of Indian children are not being educated properly, what good will creating institutions of eminence do in the long — or even the short — term?
Fortunately, this is not a zero-sum game. Funding must be increased to those institutions that have already established themselves in terms of academic excellence, but never at the cost of institutions down the ladder the schools and colleges and other institutions that feed into these centres of higher learning. The obvious solution is to increase the overall funding for education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels; to try and allot at least 5 percent of our GDP for education. Only then may we hope to increase both the spread and the quality of education, to balance the demands of equity and excellence.
In a pre-election survey conducted by this newspaper, eight issues were identified as being of the most immediate and urgent concern, of which education was identified by 27 percent of all respondents as being of crucial importance for the future well-being of our nation. No political party has yet come out with anything resembling a well-thought-out plan for taking education forward. Perhaps they do not remember that nearly 29 percent of all Indians are below the age of 15 years. By neglecting them today and sparing no thought for their tomorrow, our present and future leaders are taking us one step closer to disaster. And this, in spite of Kothari’s clearly-sounded warning bell from half-a-century ago.
Courtesy: The Telegraph
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