Dawning of a Movement to Transform India’s Education System

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Dawning of a Movement to Transform India’s Education System

Mysuru: India’s education sector should be admitted to an intensive care unit. For all practical purposes, it has collapsed. This is happening at a time when we want to become a knowledge economy. When our graduates are in demand in the developed world, and there is an increasing amount of outsourcing of research activities to India, some are likely to disagree with this observation.

Most of the output from our education factories (called universities or colleges) or degree mills is used either in India or abroad for routine activities and not for developing innovative projects. Many even refer to them as IT coolies. Those few who are creators of new products, or ground-breaking theories or produce outstanding research have been productive despite our dysfunctional education system. In fact, the ‘phenomenal success’ of the IT sector in India has resulted in Dutch disease which has affected even the education sector by depriving it of talented people.

Two roundtable discussions

It is in the above background two roundtable discussions were organized on Oct 26 in Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheswara College, Ujre on Primary and Secondary School education and on Oct 27 on Higher Education at Justice K S Hegde Institute of Management (JKSHIM) in Nitte. The objective was ambitious – to transform India’s rote learning system. It was imposed by our colonial rulers to produce clerks. Now we need to change it to produce world-class thinkers, scientists, philosophers, administrators, managers to contribute to India’s sustainable development.

Participants in Round Table at SDM College, Ujre organized by Dr. Sooryanarayan Bhat

Since problems affecting the primary and secondary school education are vastly different than that in higher education, it was decided to have two different roundtable discussions. In the former, participants were mostly teachers of four SDM English schools along with the training specialists. In the latter round table it was experts from Nitte educational institutions, Manipal University, Jindal University, TAPMI, Alva’s Management College, retired CEOs from industry, former MLC, Govt. of Karnataka, etc

Dr. Sooryanaryan Bhat, professor at SDM College spearheaded the efforts in Ujre and Dr. K Sankaran, Director of JKSHIM led the efforts in Nitte. Yours Truly ( Dr. Bhamy V. Shenoy) was the moderator in both the places.

Pre School to High School (PSHS)

Ujre discussion started with assessing the so-called Minimum Learning Level and also Learning Objectives. These were the requirement imposed by the educational department of the Karnataka government. Some felt that they were not at all high in comparison to some well managed private schools in India and certainly vastly inferior to schools in Finland or Japan or China. The question raised was still why the students in SDM institutions were not performing satisfactorily when tests were conducted to assess their performance?

SDM’s training expert discussed at length various innovative and attractive initiatives taken to promote all-round development of student performance. Students were encouraged to read library books. There were several opportunities to participate in various extracurricular activities like drama, debate, music, painting, games, etc. Teachers are expected to give regular reports on the performance of the students which is done today on paper. A suggestion was made to digitize in the future. This should help in holding teachers accountable and also to take remedial steps.

Dismal performance of govt. schools.

If in a well-managed school system like SDM, there is a lot of scope for better performance, one can only imagine the fate of government schools. This has been well documented by Pratham’s Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) which shows the shocking level of student performance. ASER (2017) found that rural youths, ages 14 to 18, do not have foundational skills in reading or basic arithmetic. About 25% cannot read the basic text of second-grade level, more than 50% struggle with simple three-digit division and 34% could not name the capital of India. Tests conducted by SDM were of the much higher standard than the ones by Pratham and appropriate to the grade levels.

Five strategies to reform govt. schools.

To improve educational standards in government schools five key reform strategies were discussed. They are: (1) Total decentralization of education system. Each taluk/big city to have an independent school board rather than one board for the entire state. (2) Getting rid of public examinations like SSLC and PUC and replacing them with an objective type of examination to test analytical abilities rather than rote learning (Scholastic Aptitude Tests). (3) No transfer of government school teachers. (4) Developing a system to hold teachers and administrators accountable based on the performance of the students as envisaged by the SDM school system. (5) Closing down of ‘small’ schools and to integrate them into larger and integrated schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas with the library, and laboratory facilities. Children residing away from schools can be transported by bus like the children going to private schools.

While there was total agreement that public examinations do not promote any creative thinking and only result in rote learning, there were doubts about the practical problems of convincing the authorities and also replacing them with a viable system for selecting students for higher studies.

What SDM teachers have agreed to do.

Teachers and administrators agreed to implement two key strategies without waiting for the above-mentioned policy changes. One was to offer help to government schools to work with the existing number of teachers to give remedial teaching to their students. Second, SDM schools will implement “True Education” program to ignite creative thinking, motivate students to read library books like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavath Purana stories and to impart proper value system to be socially responsible students. SDM College has been experimenting with good results, “True Education” since few years and high schools can learn from their experience.

It was inspiring to find wholehearted enthusiasm on the part of all teachers present to learn about ways of promoting creative thinking among their students and their willingness to get involved in village development. During lunch breaks, we had an opportunity to meet two outstanding young “inventors”. One had developed mosquito repellant compound to be sprayed on clothing. It is so effective she is thinking of securing patents for that product. Another student has developed an App which predicts the potential hazard of driving and warning the driver to stop driving to prevent accidents. While these are praiseworthy, it is difficult to give credit to our educational system to have produced these inventive students. However, these students show that our students have a tremendous capacity to be creative and inventive only if we have the proper education system.

Round Table on Higher Education.

Since pre-schooling to high school (PSHS) is the foundation for higher education, we had decided to discuss the problems facing the former first. Because of the critical importance of PSHS education, while discussing higher education, participants often reverted to the problems of PSHS since most students entering the portals of higher education do not have a sound foundation. They do not have the habit of asking questions or reading books and they also lack proper values. It is difficult to instill such values later in life.

Lack of choice to students.

The first topic we took was lack of choice for students. For example, if engineering students want to study say music or anthropology or comparative religions today it is impossible the way our system is set up. For that matter even at PUC level itself, students are forced to decide on specialization like science, commerce and humanities. This is most unfortunate. Often students are forced to take science by their parents against their interest, Most parents want their children to become engineers or doctors. However, we did not come up with any strategy to solve this problem and only highlighted it by concluding that the country needs experts in other fields like economics, history, psychology, anthropology etc.

Lack of autonomy.

Though the benefit of self-regulation and autonomy are fully appreciated, only lip service is paid to their true implementation. It is true that some colleges/universities are given “autonomy”. However, participants strongly felt that regulatory bodies are not prepared to give real freedom for higher educational institutions to exercise such autonomy. We are a long way off to bestow autonomy on our educational institutions.

Since India getting independence, there have been several commissions (Kothari Commission in 1966, Knowledge Commission in 2007-2009, Yashpal Committee in 2009, Subramanian Committee in 2016 etc) to recommend reforms in the education sector. But none of these government committees have been able to bring about any transformative changes. It is about time that civil society should play a role in bringing about million mutinies in the education sector.

Is there Real Autonomy?

National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) came under attack for the perceived corruption in assessing the quality of institutions assessed by the experts. The vision of NAAC is to make quality the defining element of higher education in India. One of the missions of NAAC is to encourage self-evaluation, accountability, autonomy and innovations in higher education. However, all these have remained distant dreams for all but a handful of institutions. This was because of the entire education system is driven by final examination with undue importance on getting high marks and rank and not a desire to learn. Unless the teacher is given full autonomy to assess students, today’s examination driven education system will not result in quality education.

CEOs present in the meeting stated that while selecting candidates, they are not paying any attention to marks given by their colleges/universities and have their own testing process. If this is the reality, why have an elaborate system of public or final examinations using external professors?

Rote learning to creative thinking: How?

As in the case of primary and secondary education, rote-based examination-oriented education system has killed the natural curiosity among the students, in higher education. Such a dysfunctional system is preventing the all-around development of students. Unless we completely change the emphasis on examinations, it is impossible to promote an environment of learning in our colleges and universities. More energy, time and resources are spent in conducting examinations than in teaching. This was another unintended result of affiliated colleges imposed by colonies as argued by Prof K. Sankaran (http://www.vidyagateway.org). When Macaulay imposed English on India, along came a system of affiliated colleges unlike stand-alone universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Affiliated College system emphasized compartmentalized, degree-oriented eco-system then research-oriented learning. Thanks to an independent Act to give autonomy to IITs they became premier institutions in Independent India. Otherwise, they would have also seen the decline as we see with most Universities today. An outstanding example is the decline and fall of once famous Mysore University which is today a playground for caste politics. UoM has been functioning since Jan.2017 with five successive in-charge vice chancellors which clearly shows the low priority given by the government to education.

When Vice Chancellors are appointed based on the amount of bribe paid, what quality can be expected from the universities? Cap. Ganesh Karnik, one of the participants who was MLC in Karnataka government readily agreed that education is not a high priority for any government. Doling out subsidy in every form and shape to get reelected is more important than improving the quality of education. A few years back there were only whispers about the corruption involved in awarding Ph.Ds. Now in UoM, there are an increasing number of such allegations including ghostwriting of the thesis by some advisors. To what level we have fallen and the sad part is that there are no whistleblowers to expose these wrongdoings.

Social entrepreneurship in education sector.

While India’s social entrepreneurship can play a significant role in improving quality as they have been able to do in PSHS education sector (there are world-class private high schools in India today), there is a need to create a better ecosystem for private enterprise. Today most such private enterprises are driven more by maximizing profit than contributing to higher standards in higher education. IITs, IIMs, IISc, etc though are not ranked high in comparison to other world-class universities they are miles ahead of state and private universities. It was Manipal Educational Institutions which pioneered self-financed higher education. The current explosion of private engineering and medical colleges is attributed to their success. The same entrepreneur spirit which led Dr. T M A Pai to open outstanding institutions may influence others in private sector to develop world-class private universities like Stamford, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, etc in India.

Adaption of IT may turn out to be a mirage.

India has a great opportunity to adopt Information Technology to promote quality education in higher education. Thousands of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on every conceivable topic prepared by professors from premier universities are available. Famous Universities from the US are offering online degree courses though relatively expensive. UGC has come up with guidelines to offer degree courses by top Indian Universities. While all these are welcome, one needs to be careful of where all these efforts will lead to. These MOOCs may certainly impart some skill and tons of information. But will they ignite critical thinking in students which the Indian education system has failed spectacularly as argued during both these two days? While the participants appreciated the potential benefit of technology, there were serious doubts expressed the way it is adapted. Online courses are also likely to be driven more by passing examinations and getting high marks rather than learning.

Need for million mutinies.

While several aspects of India’s dysfunctional education was discussed during these two days, it became obvious that participants were like the proverbial blind people figuring out the shape of the elephant. Still, a beginning has been made to bring about million mutinies by promoting massive decentralization and giving real autonomy to colleges and universities. All participants have agreed to get involved in transforming the system in their own capacity. One important suggestion was to form a cyber-based think tank of concerned experts in the education sector to carry out research to transform education sector to begin within Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts and then to advocate policy changes at national level. If all the participants implement their assurances of promoting reform, then these two-day deliberations indeed may prove to be the dawning of a movement to transform India’s education.

Note from the author: The above report is on two roundtable workshops conducted at SDM College, Ujre and Management Institute, Nitte. Many reform suggestions were discussed. One of the most significant reform was getting rid of public examinations, SSLC and PUC and substituting by objective type of tests like scholastic aptitude tests. This is likely to shock most of you since we are so much accustomed to it, we cannot think of getting rid of it. If we are serious in improving our education system which should have been admitted to ICU a long time back, we need transformative change and not band-aid type of solution suggested so far. Hope you will find the report interesting to give exposure to ideas discussed here.

About the Author:

Dr. Bhamy V Shenoy served as member of governing council member of SVS College Bantwal, and Manipal Institute of Technology. Currently governing council member of Nitte Engineering College, Developed a unique program “True Education” to ignite critical thinking which has been implemented in several colleges. Advisor to Pratham, Mysore.

He attended Executive Program in Business Administration, 1982 at Columbia University; University of Houston, Ph.D. in Business Administration, 1972; Illinois Institute of Technology-Chicago, M.S. in Industrial Engineering, 1966; Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, B. Tech in Mechanical Engineering, 1965; St Aloysius College, 9 the rank holder in Mysore University conducted PUC 1960; and S.V.S High School Bantwal, First in the school in SSLC, 1959

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