The South Asia Channel

Modi's Got Homework: Fixing India's Education System

With lackluster legislation in education, a plethora of mediocre and money-minting engineering colleges, and lagging momentum in research, public-private partnerships, and innovation, the challenges that confront India's education system are clear. India's aspirational youth want better education, and they want it at all costs.

Realizing this popular desire rests largely on the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which were given a historic, overwhelming mandate for change. With a masterfully and meticulously planned campaign, Modi has evoked the great hope for which the nation has long been yearning. Among Modi's key policy issues that warrant reform, the country's education system should be on the shortlist. A five-year term is unlikely to cure the system, but Modi's coalition NDA government can take a few steps toward that direction. Here are five:

I. Revamp the Right to Education (RTE) Act

The landmark legislation, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), enacted in August 2009, was a good step toward improving the country's education system. But it now needs reviving, and its structural changes need reforming. While India has increased the number of schools in the country, a much-needed focus on quality within these institutes has been lacking. According to an Annual Status of Education Report, 50 percent of students in classes III to V (third to fifth grade) are unable to perform basic arithmetic. Among all students in class III, only 40.2 percent are able to read class I's content. One factor driving this trend is mediocre teacher training, which can see improvement by reforming the archaic and ill-equipped bachelor in education (B.Ed.) program, one that is unable to handle modern-day educational challenges. Additionally, there must be a larger focus on partnerships with private organizations such as Teach for India, a nationwide movement that seeks to eliminate educational inequity in the country and that can help facilitate the goals of the RTE. Although such organizations offer the RTE momentum, more opportunities must be made available for other educated individuals to jump on the reform bandwagon. For example, student internships in institutes of higher learning can attract young bright students into education. The government can also partner with the private sector to encourage their employees to support the RTE in a structured manner as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Increased efficiency and a stronger connection between people, industry, and the education system will result from such steps. Luckily for Modi, these moves also hold political points as such reform would require and reflect a bipartisan approach. Such legislation would also show greater statesmanship by the prime minister.

II. Leverage IIT's best practices, but don't franchise them

Replicating the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) brand throughout the country is a flawed approach. Although IIT's best practices should have some footprint in these new institutes, creating franchise IITs would only dilute its brand in a way that is already happening. India needs to evolve new large public institutes with the same excellence and caliber of IIT, but at the same time keep them away from its brand, one that is known globally for exclusive engineering skills. This exclusivity factor deserves preservation, much like the Ivy League schools in the United States, away from the other universities across the country. The maturity of new institutes takes time, and these large-scale institutes will ultimately cater to broader educational demands beyond the specialized offerings of the IITs. Education models from other countries should also be studied and molded, where appropriate, to India's academic needs.

III. Make private colleges more accountable

Driving more accountability into India's private colleges is also a must. Better regulation is first needed to ensure a bare minimum quality of learning in these institutes. One step, for example, is to strengthen regulatory bodies such as the University Grants Commission, whose dual mission provides educational grants and maintains standards of higher learning in India. Another move is to ensure private colleges do not charge students excessive fees. Many institutes charge exorbitant fees to make windfall profits under the umbrage that education is a social service (in India) and thus avoid taxation. One remedy is to apply a standard tax rate of 5 percent to the revenues of these institutes. Such a monetary disincentive would bring more transparency, trust, and accountability to the educational system. A beneficial byproduct is a stronger focus on educational quality rather than financial gains, which seems to be the primary goal for many institutes in India.

IV. Invest in Research and Development (R&D)

One pillar of quality education is research, and while India has equipped a few elite universities with support, the country must do more. A good starting point is legislation that benefits people doing research across the country. For example, the Protection and Utilization of Public-Funded Intellectual Property (PUPFIP) Bill and the Higher Education and Research Bill have been pending in Parliament for many years now. The PUPFIP Bill is very important as it mirrors the Bayh-Dole Act in the United States, which transformed the U.S. research ecosystem with greater financial remuneration for researchers and boosted world-class research in the country. India needs such legislation to make research revenue inventor-centric and partially detached from the state. In line with campaign-speak of building 100 model cities across India, the Modi-led government should ensure there are 100 education research hubs across the country. In developing these cities, India must facilitate the growth of these research hubs, which will require a budget allocation of Rs. 500 crore. Such a move could trigger the much-revered reverse brain drain that many Indian researchers abroad have wanted to have happen for a long time.

For comparison, India has 7.8 scientists per 1,000 people compared to 180.7 in Canada, 53.1 in South Korea, and 21.2 in the United States. Harvard University's endowment in 2008 stands at $250 billion, whereas the total extramural grants provided to Indian universities is roughly Rs. 12 billion. Clearly, more must be done if India wants to be able to compete abroad and reap research benefits into the future.

V. Improve public-private partnerships

Public-private partnerships offer another source for revitalizing India's education system through increased funding, training, and R&D. The endowment potential from these partnerships is significant. As a starting point, the new government should create 50 public-private partnerships to enhance the scalability of academic institutions and target an endowment that is on par with global standards. Such partnerships can also transfer knowledge and professionalism from the corporate sector and benefit the education quality of top public institutes. This is therefore a win-win model as such partnerships would boost R&D and innovation in companies and also result in increased endowments across universities.

While this multipronged approach is vital to reforming education in India, team Modi needs an even bigger vision that parses through these five steps: a culture of innovation. One major reason why the U.S. education system has succeeded for a century has been the deep-rooted pride the United States places on an innovation-driven education system. India's system needs the same and must also bring in a sense of domestic identity and inclusiveness that caters to driving innovation and growth. Such a framework must adapt to the needs of local universities and markets, while also ensuring mobility to the global economy. Much like the "National Cleanliness Drive" that Modi had envisioned in Varanasi, he should also launch a nationwide "National Innovation Campaign" aimed at boosting innovation throughout India.

In retrospect, the new government has its plate full with many policy areas needing reform. But chief among them must be revamping the country's education system given the systemic decay that has shaped it for decades. Addressing this issue, one so fundamental to the country's future and competitiveness, must have a dynamic and proactive government that can revamp the RTE, improve quality and accountability of higher education, enhance public-private partnerships, invest in research and development, and champion domestic innovation that can be exported to the world. Together, these steps have the potential to give hope not only to the country's future, but also to the millions of young Indians yearning for a better education and a brighter tomorrow.

Sriram Balasubramanian is a writer and a journalist. He can be contacted at @Sriram316 or sriram2424@yahoo.com.

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