Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Teachers: The Biggest Impediment to Education in India

A small portion of the Indian population is experiencing unprecedented prosperity levels as a result of the new globalization wave and the economic reforms of the Narasimha Rao government. These forces have led to India being catapulted into a "knowledge economy". The press, both Indian and foreign, often cite figures comparing the number of engineering graduates from India favourably in comparison to Western countries. There is a general sense of optimism, a feeling that our educational system is at par with or superior to the Western systems.

However, the truth is that the economic prosperity is masking the mess into which our educational systems are devolving. The Indian educational system at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary) is worse off than it was a decade ago. The reasons we are not seeing immediate effects are manyfold. Perhaps the two biggest reasons are: 1. there is always a lag of a decade or two in the manifestation of the effects of such a lapse; 2. globalization cushions the effect, providing easy access to skilled workers from elsewhere.

However, the devolution is real. The scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, esteemed scientist C. N. R. Rao, has in his official capacity advised the Prime Minister that Indian science education has been on the decline for almost two decades, and that the effects will be felt soon. (See, for example, this article.)

At the primary and secondary levels, India's education programme has been a failure. Although literacy levels have been creeping upwards gradually, the rate of progress was far lower than what was envisioned when the constitution was adopted (free compulsory education for all children upto 14 years by 1960; see Constitution of India, Part IV Article 45). Often, the government is blamed for not providing teachers with sufficient resources, not paying them enough or for not monitoring them well enough.

However, an alternate viewpoint is that the teachers are themselves responsible for aggressively demoting the status of education and making education subservient to politics. Teachers in India are overwhelmingly unionized and political, and resist positive change in an organized fashion. Politics is endemic to the teaching profession. These views from the book The Political Economy of Education in India by Geeta Kingdon and Mohammed Muzammil are explained in detail in this article by Swaminathan S. Aiyar, consulting editor of The Economic Times. I think this viewpoint might explain the reason why, despite struggling against illiteracy for so many decades, we have failed to make inroads into universal education in India.

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