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The ABCD of Education


This is the season for percentages ... .


Are students brighter? Or have examinations got easier.

ALL the newspapers are full of special categories and double decimal points. Toppers in Vocational Stream (95.83 per cent), Topper in Handicapped Category (91.17), Topper in Backward Class (92.00), Topper in Night Schools (75.83) ... And even a Topper in Minimum Competency Vocational course (84.17), whatever that is. The real toppers in school leaving or Standard XII examinations, of course, score higher: this year's Higher Secondary Certificate exams produced a top rank with 96.17 per cent marks.

We take this for granted, but it's all quite incredible. Students missing out less than four marks out of 100 across each subject of their curriculum! Three years ago, the highest mark was even higher at 96.83 per cent. At the Class X level, the percentages hit the stratosphere.

What does this mean? An analysis of marks in similar examinations 40 to 50 years ago will show that the merit list could be reached by students getting three distinctions, which would suggest an overall average of less than 75 per cent. While those at the very top of the list were at the 80 per cent level.

This can mean one of two things. Students have got brighter. Or examinations have got easier. The total pass percentage figure suggests the second possibility. The HSC pass percentage during the last five years has ranged from 80.28 per cent to 85.57 per cent, which means that only between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of all the students who appear for exams fail in it. This is really high when you think of the variety of students who appear: the handicapped, those who work at normal jobs during the day and attend classes at night, students in poorly staffed rural or small town educational institutions ... Perhaps, examinations are now geared to ensure that you cannot fail. This may, of course, be good from the psychological view point of the student, but does it not devalue education? The toppers' very high marks also tell you of a third possibility. That students now study to do well in examinations, which isn't the same thing as getting a good education. The proliferation of coaching classes is proof of this. These are Merit List factories, not places of study: pupils do nothing but get coached in how to tackle papers, sit for hours and hours doing mock examinations, prepare for their coming exams by doing "model papers"... At the end of their coaching class terms, they are real experts at getting high percentages. Their success rate is so visible that they have replaced the conventional educational institution in parents' and children's priorities: pupils register at schools and colleges, attend as few of the lectures as they can get away with, devoting their time and energies to the coaching class in the evening.

It's a pity that no educational or sociological institution has done a study to track the course of a topper's career. Anecdotal and personal observation tells you that often boys and girls who do brilliantly in their school-leaving standard 10 exams, have begun to fade by their standard 12 exam. i.e. in two years. Of those who do manage to sustain their performance at the HSC level, not too many continue to do well at the degree level. Beyond that, the real world catches up very, very rapidly.

That's because the real world needs skills which go far beyond what your coaching classes teach you. You don't need a PhD to see this. When I was in school, one student in our class stood out for his consistently brilliant academic performance. All of us were certain he would do really well in the final exam (he did), but all of us were also certain that his future wouldn't be as exceptional as his percentages (we haven't heard of him since). That's because he was a loner, he didn't have what we now call inter-personal skills, he took part in no extra-curricular activities and he was not particularly articulate. Even a research fellow (the position we all guaranteed for him) needs to knit into a community.

The purpose of education, after all, is to primarily train your mind. But its broader goals are also to equip you to live and let live with others, to develop inter-active skills, and India's worse ever education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, showed this during his destructive term. Apart from pushing ideology into the curriculum, his priority was to place idealogues into top positions in every educational and cultural institution that mattered. And his Big Battle for education was to get at the autonomy of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) rather than do anything at all for primary and secondary education.

His battle against the IIMs, seemingly to help the poor student, ignored the very real fact that education everywhere else has become a money making racket. Coaching classes, of course, are such huge money spinners that their advertising now runs to full pages in the country's most expensive ad-space newspapers. Higher education, particularly in the fields of medicine and engineering, is so lucrative that each State has seen the emergence of Educational Barons. Most of them are politicians. They take advantage of tax breaks, concession in land rates and other infrastructure, educational grants and the like to set up colleges which sell seats to the highest bidder. That most of them do not have the infrastructure, the teaching staff or the facilities required to produce good engineers or doctors wasn't of sufficient importance to attract Mr. Joshi's attention.

There are, probably, too many vested interests in the system to disband it completely. But just think of how well the country would do if at least some of these colleges did what they are required to do. Expand that thought to include the primary and the secondary school levels as well, and you will have increased the base of our educational pyramid to such an extent that we would have multiplied our talent pool to an unbelievable degree. We would then see an India Shining in the true sense of the word.

It's a massive task, but not an impossible one. To start with, the Human Resources Development ministry can start cracking its whip at non-performing State education ministries. HRD has enough clout, money and the power of patronage to do that. Then, the ministry can encourage corporates to adopt schools in their neighbourhood, possibly giving them some tax sops to help them along. Corporates will do so even without tax benefits once they realise that better educated youngsters in their neighbourhood can only be good for them by raising the quality of the available work force.

The high ratio of government money going into college education can be reduced and those funds diverted to school education by also allowing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in higher education.

Many foreign universities are keen to tap this particular Indian market. Why not let them in? After all, our Education Barons have already made colleges into markets without giving the required high standards. FDI will bring in that missing bit of quality.

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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