That human capital is nothing but a culmination of education. That capital creates future innovations, productive ideas, creative products and processes, which in turn contribute to economic growth.
So our biggest investment priority for the future should be education. How to plan for the future? A Confucian proverb answers it best. It says: If you want to plan for a year, plant some rice. If want to plan for the next ten years, plant a tree. If you want to plan for a hundred years, then educate your children.
The New Education Policy (NEP) announced this week is not too soon. And it is also not the first one. The first one was passed by Parliament in 1968 based on the recommendations of the Kothari Commission. The second one was passed in 1986, which was revised in 1992. The present one is the third one. In essence it is a paradigm, a framework, which lays downs certain key focus areas and priorities. It is to be implemented jointly with the states in the next 20 years.
Some of the key features are making school board exams “easy”, moving away from 10+2 to 5+3+3+4 with multiple exit and entry flexibility, laying more emphasis on experiential learning and critical thinking (rather than rote learning), abolishing top level regulators such as the University Grants Commission or the AICTE, increasing the national spending on education to 6 per cent of the GDP. Some of these are revolutionary changes, although they become effective only when they are implemented. Till then these are just proposals.
There are some features that have become contentious. The big one is about English medium. The NEP says that students until Class V should be taught in their mother tongue or a regional language. This proposal seems at odds with the on-ground reality. Firstly, education is on the concurrent list of the Constitution, so states have as much say as the Centre in deciding whether to ban English language till Class V. Secondly, people “vote with their feet”. Whenever there is an option of a good-quality English medium school that is affordable, parents scramble to it.
Urban elites will move heaven and earth to ensure their progeny gets admission into a good reputed school, which is invariably with English medium instruction. Even the poor readily pull out their kids from the free municipal schools and enrol in English medium schools, even if the quality is not great. English is aspirational. It is a passport to global mobility. As the economy increasingly turns digital, lack of English language will be a severe handicap. Google did a great service, when Indian language typing became possible on Android devices, but the input is still with English keyboard.
Teaching social sciences in local language is feasible, but science and mathematics won’t be easy.
Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that more than 100 million people are migrants, moving from one linguistic state to another. English is then a portable language for such frequent and annual migration. Finally, there may be no incompatibility between early teaching in local language or mother tongue, and English language instruction. Picking up two or three languages in early childhood is much easier than later.
India’s educational attainment at the school level, as documented for more than a decade by the Annual Status of Education Report, is dismal, in comparison to any East Asian peer. Even a fifth standard student does not have reading or math skills of a second standard kid.
This is a mountain of challenge to climb. One of the weak links is shortage of high-quality, motivated and well-paid teachers. Another weak link is the absence of any role or autonomy for the key stakeholders and beneficiaries, i.e. the parents. How can we build human capital when the foundation is so weak? India “imports” quality education worth $10 to $12 billion (nearly Rs 1,00,000 crore) every year. This is the amount spent annually on sending kids to foreign countries for undergraduate degrees and higher education. No wonder foreign universities eagerly look forward to welcoming Indians with student visas every year. We can reverse this only when high-quality options become available in India.
Education reform and progress is a long haul. It’s like planning for the next hundred years.