Education as a fundamental right has held great importance in an ever-evolving complex, industrialised society. It provides space for children to socialise and develop skill-sets to become contributing citizens, validating the potential growth of a country economically and socially. In short, education is the primary indicator for sustainable developed nations of the future.
India participated in the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 and signed up to achieve Universal Primary Education—one of the eight goals outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It met with limited success, which saw ambitious measures undertaken and new initiatives being introduced through policy-level changes that focused on elementary education.
The ministry of statistics & programme implementation released the India Country Report of the MDGs in February 2015. Its findings showed that the net enrolment rate (NER) in primary education (children aged 6-10 years) had increased to 88% in 2013-14. At the same time, there was a decline among children who never enrolled—the number fell from 4% to 2% as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). While this undoubtedly was a major achievement for our country, the attention to higher education, research and innovation ended up taking a back seat.
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The challenges in the status of higher education remained in the form of unequal access, poor quality infrastructure, lack of relevance, and routine-based importance on curriculum designed to obtain only a rote model of learning with more emphasis on examination-based results.
In fact, scientific and technological activities that play a vital role in the economic and social development of a country have received less than 1% of GDP towards research and development. This trend has become the basis of a paradigm shift in the way we look at and respond to the needs to an ever-changing Indian and global climate.
It has been disheartening to learn that not one Indian institution made it to the list of 200 most preferred international universities in 2016. The list comprises of institutions from 28 countries, and India failing to make it to the list reminds us that we need to recognise the full potential of education as a catalyst for development in delivering research, innovation and curriculum that addresses the needs of the future.
Reflecting on the above, finance minister Arun Jaitley in his Budget speech addressed many of the gaps, such as an ‘innovation fund for secondary education’ that will be created to encourage local innovation for ensuring universal access, gender parity and quality improvement. This is a bold step in the history of our education system and will be adopted in the new financial year.
Another noteworthy step to be undertaken is setting up of 3,479 educationally-backward blocks. These are high-need communities which require the assistance of not only non-profit organisations or corporate support, but also needs the long arms of government-type institutions in delivering the needs of communities that have been left outside formal systems of learning.
Realising the role of innovation in contributing towards the country’s well-being, India launched the initiative ‘Science, Technology, Innovation and Creation of Knowledge framework (STICK)’, whose process has feedback mechanisms and involves interaction among science, technology, learning production, institutions, organisations, policy and market.
To address the quality of education that’s imparted, a system to measure annual learning outcomes was introduced while weightage around science and innovation would continue. The government also addressed the fundamental issue of accessing education through the SWAYAM initiative—which offers 350 online courses along with quality reading material, discussion forums and the ability to take tests and earn academic grades.
This year’s Budget committed to launch the National Testing Agency that will be responsible for conducting all entrance examinations for higher education institutions. The intention is to free premier institutions from administrative duties and remain focused on academia.
The measures to reform the UGC, with the intention to encourage institutions or universities to deliver outcome-based accreditations and credit-based programmes, will not only reiterate the importance of education among children, but also attract students from around the world, bringing that much-needed global context into the picture.
Higher levels of education lead to greater awareness, contributing to the improvement of social and economic conditions, but it needs to be undertaken in a balanced way across levels and in equitable ways across demographics and geographies. This year, we are hopeful that India will take giant strides in equipping its citizens with rational, innovative characteristics, to bring a desirable and revolutionary change for the nation.
The author is vice-chairman, PwC India Foundation