Digital Edtechs are now thriving by promising to do what appointed schoolteachers are supposed to do in exchange for their salaries. They come at a very high cost, affordable only to the relatively wealthy.
India and China have the largest number of young people in the world, Despite China having gained independence two years after India, it has achieved nearly 100 per cent literacy and numeracy, and are now progressing to the cutting edge of knowledge. Over 20,000 Indian students are studying in China.
India, on the other hand, is still lagging far behind, both in the spread and quality of basic education, despite having made school education free and compulsory and, with European Union support, running the largest school education programme in the world. The accent on quantity over quality will have adverse effects on the quality of India's human resources for the next couple of generations. Unless we can inculcate curiosity, thirst for knowledge and a 'can-do' attitude that seeks solutions rather than state ''can't be done' or 'we don't do it that way", we will not be able to innovate or develop new technology, sciences or arts. This will always keep us at most in the second rank, behind field leaders everywhere.
In other countries where I served, I noticed a strong hunger for knowledge among young and old. Almost everywhere I noticed people reading - while waiting for a bus and in it, in the subways, trains, parks and public spaces. There were book exchange points in subways, railway stations and airports, from which one could pick up a book for free to read on the journey and drop it off at a similar exchange point at the destination. There was very little pilferage of such books, as most readers understood it as an important public service there was an abundance of public libraries at the municipal and state level, which citizens could consult or borrow books from usually free of charge. There were bookshops like our own Oxford Book & Stationery Store at Park Street in Kolkata, where you could read, browse and even discuss books and authors with your friends. In Moscow, my personal chauffeur was a Ph.D. student. He told me that driving a car gave him the most time to study and research his field while giving him an income enough for his needs.
Since returning to India, however, I have been noticing a growing and distressing apathy for reading. There seem to be numerous children working instead of being at school, while numerous young people loitering on the streets and in shopping malls. Millions of person-hours are lost in this way. Bookshops used to be ubiquitous in Kolkata while I was growing up, but now they have almost entirely disappeared from most neighoburhoods. People are engrossed all day with their smartphones the average price of which could buy them a couple of hundred books instead. Little wonder then that an eminent Padma Award-winning scientist recently bemoaned that people no longer read. If this is the state in West Bengal which, along with Kerala, has the highest readership levels in India, how poorly must the others fare?
Reading culture vanishing
The solutions to this are many and can be implemented at many levels. Firstly, parents should not give smartphones to preschool children but teach them to read their mother tongue, Hindi and English with printed matter and write in longhand instead. Thereafter, the state and the local authority must ensure the enrolment of the child in school and ensure regular attendance. Those who are forced by penury to augment their family income by working may be accommodated in an evening shift, while interested adults may join a night shift. This will be the fastest way to ensure 100 per cent literacy and numeracy in India within a couple of years While children continue in school, interested adults may avail of the National Institute of Open Schooling and the National Open University or other distance learning systems. Smartphones and laptops become essential from the senior secondary level, but books remain essential for a multi-disciplinary approach to learning and research. The silence of libraries helps concentration, reduces distractions and aids the cogitation process necessary for original ideas and novel approaches, especially in tertiary education.
Improving availability and access to books is a marketing strategy for publishers and booksellers. Our Publishers and Booksellers Guild will shortly hold the annual Kolkata Book Fair, reputed to be the largest in the world by footfall. If books are still so popular here, why, should they be content just with an annual event? Couldn't smaller editions be held between November and June in other divisional or district headquarters? Could publishers not give unsold copies to libraries or start book exchange points, rather than sending them for re-pulping into paper again? Publishers associations may campaign to promote reading under the slogans "Read India" and "Padho India" at the national level". At the state level "Bangla Paro" is a possibility to increase their sales.
Edtechs replacing physical teaching?
In my school days, it was almost unheard of to take extra tuition or coaching classes. It seems to have become the norm now from a very early age. Are our schoolteachers unable to teach the set syllabi within the time frames allotted? Or are they venal or greedy enough to seek extra remuneration to privately the task they are being paid by the school or taxpayers to perform? Educational costs are now putting unnecessary financial burdens upon hard-pressed parents, who need to forego other necessities as a result. Schooling should not cost parents more than the fees demanded and the cost of stationery, uniforms, books and sports kit.
Digital Edtechs are now thriving by promising to do what appointed schoolteachers are supposed to do in exchange for their salaries. They come at a very high cost, affordable only to the relatively wealthy. However, school final results in West Bengal revealed that those who did well included disadvantaged children and those from rural schools.
China has banned all coaching classes because of the high time and financial burden it places upon students. The time spare after completing the allotted study and homework should be used for sports, fitness and extra-curricular learning, as well as building up social and communication skills and growing up into wholesome, erudite, skilled and healthy adults motivated to pursue their own dreams and goals in life. Adults, too, need to be motivated to become lifelong learners, pursuing new disciplines, interests and new frontiers of knowledge, retraining themselves to cope with emerging challenges in the workplace or society.
Indian education was once sought after by the world. We have educated thousands across the developing world and continue to do our bit of educating and capacity-building in Africa and Asia. However, our best and brightest are now seeking foreign shores and institutions and thriving therein, even winning Nobel Prizes. We were once among the best in fundamental research, discovering radio waves, postulating what is now called the Higgs-Boson or "the God particle", the Raman effect and many more.
Need for an educated India
Our modern heroes are, however, relatively unknown and we are behind the world in innovation of transforming or cutting-edge technology and the frontiers of science. From computer operating systems to nanotechnology, AI and machine learning have all been conceptualized, invented and developed elsewhere. Our best universities are starved of funds, laboratories lack equipment and consumables our student hostels are often unsafe and uninhabitable.
Education is an important marketable commodity that India needs to develop a thriving trade-in. We have numerous retired teachers who are still competent, capable, and willing to work a few hours a day to augment their pensions. We have thousands of young people who have passed TET and other teaching eligibility tests but have no jobs. The retired personnel could be used to run extra teaching shifts to fully utilise school buildings, etc. while young people could be sent to teach overseas under our DPA programmes, as we had once done for Ethiopia. There is a strong demand for English medium education even in our neighbourhood. India has the most developed syllabi in STEM, Economics etc in the English medium. Small teams could be deputed to foreign universities, along with reference books and materials to take classes and train local educators to take over from them after a while, this would upgrade their universities and create more goodwill for India and strengthen her soft power.
Upgradation of hostels for international students is essential to attract candidates. We should make them in sufficient numbers to fully utilise the 15 per cent foreigners quota with Self Financing Students, which will augment our foreign exchange earnings and create goodwill useful in the long run around the world. As we have recently done with the UK, we need to reach mutual recognition agreements on school leaving certificates with target countries and universities in Asia and Africa. We also need agreements on the recognition of professional qualifications with countries like China, Russia, Bangladesh and other countries hosting significant numbers of Indian students. The doctors, for example, produced by these foreign countries we need desperately to augment our healthcare services, particularly in the rural areas, provided they can communicate adequately in their mother tongue, Hindi or English. It is a waste of resources to keep otherwise qualified people on the shelf simply because their professional associations do not want more competition.
An educated India will be able to properly use its demographic dividend to enable young people to develop the ability to utilise every opportunity to monetise skills and generate employment and income necessary to become a developed and prosperous country in the near future.
(The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)