It is very heartening to see that education has finally started to attract the attention it has always deserved but was given an inexplicable short shrift especially in the last 20 years or so. While India talked about financial and other reforms, the education sector actually saw even more regressive policy steps and more stifling of efforts to create high-quality capacity from primary schooling right through post-graduate studies.
At this time, there is a lot of optimism about the reforms in the education sector. Hopefully, many of the progressive reformist measures articulated by the Union HRD minister since his induction into the Cabinet last year will see their implementation in the current year itself, creating the right policy framework and operating environment for attracting large investments into the sector. Indeed, India’s challenge in the education sector, as it is in all other social and physical infrastructure sectors, is mind-boggling. For a population that is likely to touch almost 1.2 billion by the time the next census begins in 2011, India needs — just to illustrate this humungous challenge — over 1.5 million qualified doctors. Against that, we have no more than 550,000 and of this small number, probably 30 per cent or more may be concentrated in the four metros alone. The current annual capacity for MBBS seats is less than 40,000. India’s gross enrolment ratio (number of students in colleges) is just above 10 per cent, while the same for developed nations is over 50 per cent. Just to increase this ratio to 20 per cent in 10 years will require a near doubling of higher education seats in India (the school-going population would have increased by more than 100 million in the next 10 years), needing an investment of more than Rs 480,000 crore. Not only this, 45 per cent of all higher education seats in India are allocated to humanities and arts compared to 3 per cent in Brazil, 14 per cent in China, and 4 per cent in Russia. Not surprisingly, India is way behind in seats available for technical and business/manufacturing-oriented education compared to developed or major developing countries. And finally, while justifiably, a lot of attention is focused on primary education and higher education, and relatively less attention is given to those estimated 400 million out of about 460 million jobs which are skill-based and which require vocational training. Less than 6 per cent of this huge mass of workers receive any form of vocational training. The current landscape of vocational training in India comprises about 5,500 industrial training institutes and about 1,750 polytechnics. China, having a population not much bigger than India’s, has over 500,000 such institutes.
While this infrastructure is being created, it is now also important to start giving serious attention — through policy framework — to the 4 A’s: Accessibility, Appropriateness, Affordability and Accountability. Accessibility has to be universal in the context of all socio-economic strata of society and across the entire geographical spread of India. Appropriateness has to meet not only the aspirations of the individual but also India’s needs, and the demands of the Indian society at large. Affordability has to be seen both from the point of view of the individual who (or whose family) should be able to finance her studies from the school right through doctoral programmes, and also the country (how much it can afford to subsidise since available resources for all infrastructure are severely limited). And finally, accountability has to be seen first from the perspective of the student who would have trusted the system and the regulators with 16 or even more years of her life in the hope that once she completes her education, she would be able to find the appropriate job or vocation for which she has dedicated those years to school and college. Accountability also has to be to the nation so that there are no shortages of qualified people when the population is so large, and so young.
Hence, as the governments (both at the Centre and in states) have, in the past decades, come up with a slew of incentives and subsidies based on backward area development or promotion of specific industrial and service sectors, they must now come up with policies that can direct this new capacity creation in the education sector based on these four crucial principles of accessibility, appropriateness, affordability, and accountability.