Reviving Education in India
With a focus on engaging parents and children in the learning assessment process along with teachers and providing more transparency by putting registered institutions in public domain, efforts are being made for the resurgence of the Indian education system, says Irani.
What was the ‘International Conference of the Zero’, held recently at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, about?
Last year, we started a program called Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan, to give impetus to innovation and research in the school based knowledge. We wanted schools and higher education institutes to collaborate on science and mathematics, so that focus could be brought to innovation and technology. Looking at the wide international interest in this segment, we organised this conference to invite best mathematical minds of the world to come and reflect on the journey of mathematics so far. This was the first leg of the conference – eventually we want to take it to our country. It is a UNESCO initiative, which is the fulcrum of culture and languages. The fact that mathematics has also been taught through poetry in our country, it gives us an interesting mix for dialogues and deliberation. I am happy that in one visit itself this plan has come to fruition. Many people have taken interest and we are running full house.
You said you want to regenerate inventions and discoveries in mathematics and science in India, where do you think we stand today?
In the past few years, a drop in mathematics and science outputs has been recognised specially in schools. Much of which is to be attributed to the fact that just like the US has No Child Left Behind Act, India has No Detention Policy under which the students up to class VIII are automatically promoted to the next class without being held back even if they do not get a passing grade. This has resulted in many children not focusing on the basic concepts of mathematics, especially in government schools. We are now re-energising our school system by engaging parents, children and teachers in learning outcomes of mathematics and science. We have had an added interest in encouraging girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sector. As a pilot we started the Project Udaan, under which girls from economically disadvantaged families were given 24×7 support structure of remedial learning measures. Through this we can help them get into any technical institutions. There are indeed success stories where girls from poor families have gotten into the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) system – which is considered to be the Institution of National Importance (INI). An integrated approach through the school system and higher education system has been adopted to push more and more children, especially girls, into the field of mathematics and science.
For too long the education sector has been ignoring terms of reform. The performance output per child, per classroom etc. is something that is not discussed actively in the country amongst the parents and the teachers. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi himself, has been on a huge thrust to ensure that more citizens are engaged with learning outcomes as until now they were being ascertained without the child or the parent knowing them exactly. This is sheer injustice. So our intention is to engage our citizens, inform them of the benchmarks and outcomes expected per class, per child and per school. Then perhaps we will have the resurgence of quality education.
Do you think India can bring home another Nobel Prize in mathematics?
I think instead of giving something that might become a headline, one has to be pragmatic enough to see that the government has to facilitate a platform, which academically enables as many citizens as possible. It is then upon the citizens to see and seek excellence.
Are you satisfied with the current dropout and enrolment rates?
As a minister one can never be satisfied with reform or with resurgence. The fact that education gives you a new purpose every day is to be ingrained and duly facilitated within the system. So be it girls, boys or children with special needs, one has to see that the changing environment across the world is complementary with efforts even in our country. For me it is important to bring to my country any technological, academic or administrative intervention, which is successfully implemented globally. For the first time in the history of India, Prime Minister has set up a skill development ministry that is separate from the HRD (Human Resource Development) ministry, though we work parallel with to ensure that the very seeds of skilling children are sown into our system from secondary education level onwards.
We recognised that after the eighth grade, until where we follow the No Detention Policy, we have many dropouts. We want to facilitate their return to the system by recognising their skills and work time in the sector of their choice. It makes sure that those who actually want to learn find a facilitation to go ahead to the ninth grade and then all the way to PhD. Recently, I visited North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, India, where a 76-year-old gentleman graduated with PhD degree – that’s the desire to keep learning. It was heart-warming for me to see him standing there amongst youngsters to take his PhD. My ministry also looks after adult education in the country. In the last two years we have seen the highest number of people enrolling for the adult education programme and even appearing for the examinations. With UNESCO we are unitedly working on lifelong learning and want to propagate that going forward.
What kind of efforts are needed to improve quality of education in public schools?
The best performing schools in the country are Kendriya Vidyalaya and Navodaya Vidyalaya, which are government-run schools. It shows that when there is added focus on quality, government schools can be as competitive as private schools. However, there’s still a lot that needs to be done. The fact that we have built around 400,000 toilets for girls in a year – shows that within a short span of time, country’s Prime Minister has fulfilled his commitment. Now we are in the process of engaging with every school in terms of learning outcomes. In India the learning assessments prescribed by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) was done every three years. By the time reports came to the government and corrective steps were taken, four years passed. This time we have ensured that our learning assessments are done yearly. We have also ensured that learning samples are done from every state and every union territory, thereby giving us a state by state and class by class perspective, which wasn’t done earlier. We are now going to link teachers’ promotion to the performance of their students. Before this, we had students failing and teachers getting promoted which is an anomaly. We have in the past year provided all our NCERT books from grade 1 to 12 through a mobile app. We are now cumulating all the state council books for the mobile and online platforms. In short we are trying to do as much as possible in the context of learning outcomes and learning resources.
Apart from putting the pressure on teachers how are you equipping them better?
Yes, we have recognised that teacher training is a big challenge in the country. We are engaged not only with our regulators but also private institutions that have done well to understand their processes in order to help improve teachers’ performance. In the next six months, we will leverage technology to ensure that teacher training is audited and mandated, in a way that it can be physically checked and verified.
In the last decade, we have seen a number of international universities tying up with the Indian universities, is there any quality control?
Yes, we have the UGC (University Grants Commission), a statutory body set up by the government of India, which takes care of the coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education in the country. There is a template for any Indian university to give a degree in conjunction with a foreign university. We also have a system called Know Your College. We have put out in public domain all the colleges and institutions that have registered with all our regulators in higher education. We have given details about faculty, labs and all the other facilities. We have also empowered the students and parents through a mechanism under which if they do not find mentioned facility in any institution, then they can inform the regulator for our action. We are providing more transparency by putting it out in public domain. Alongside, we use the regulatory mechanism to monitor those who look at education as just a prospect to make money do not get away.
Many international collaborators have been asking for the liberalisation of the Indian education system. What do you think about that?
They are invited. There is some fallacy about stagnation from inviting more people to come into the education sector. The only thing is that education should not be looked upon as a profit-making sector. So any individual or organisation that comes to India to open an institution within this ambit is more than welcome. If it is a foreign institution, it has to do it in collaboration with an Indian organisation that is the only legal requirement.
What about players who want to come to make money?
Education is a not-for-profit sector. It would be a contradiction of terms if we allow people to make money off our students. We are not looking at students as banks to earn from. We are looking at it as a sector that services communities and humanity. Indian business houses that have gotten into education through their trust, have done tremendously well. They have not profited from students but have given back to the communities. So it’s liberal enough to help those who want to help others.
But there are examples of things like capitation fees?
Through our regulators, we have submitted the Srikrishna Committee Report (a report by the government appointed committee that regulates excess fees charged by private institutions), which frowns upon capitation fees and increasing cost of education irrespective of what they have provided in their prospectus. It has been shared with all the states to ensure that students are in no way inconvenienced.
Are you satisfied with the quality of output that we are getting from the vocational training institutes in the country?
We have changed the template for that as well. We have now allowed for adjunct facility in our engineering institutes, which means that industry experts can come and teach there. We have also ensured that industryacademic relations are strengthened. In IIT for example, we have started a programme called Uchchatar Avishkar Yojana, which means if an IITian wants to innovate and industry backs that innovation then the government will also put in 50 pc of the cost for that particular innovation. It has been met with much success.
To infuse an international outlook towards academics, we have started a programme called Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), which is a pet project of the honourable PM. We at the cost of the government invite foreign academicians to come and teach in government institutions in India. In the past six months, we had about 400 foreign academicians coming to teach and by the end of this year 700 more will come. They all are going to government colleges and institutions at no extra cost to the student.
Are you satisfied with the Education Budget?
They have a woman[me] manning the field and I try to use the money in the best possible manner without squeezing any part of the sector or affecting any other segments. One needs to understand that in terms of infrastructure for our schools, we have everything in place. The idea is to utilise that infrastructure better in coordination with our regulators.