Investment in education can change people's lives
03 May 2012
A recent Gallup poll has revealed that 240 million or 30 per cent Indians are unhappy with their lives and are 'suffering' instead of 'thriving' or 'struggling' as compared to 24 per cent last year. Gallup ranks people according to how they view their current and future lives on a scale of 0 to 10. Those who rate their present life at 7 or higher and their lives five years hence at 8 or higher are 'thriving'. People who view both dimensions at 4 or below are considered 'suffering'. In between ratings are termed 'struggling'.
Most people who are suffering are also the least educated. Education undoubtedly holds the key to prosperity and people thriving. People with a low level of education obviously feel insecure as they cannot switch jobs easily and are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. Moreover, burdened with rising food prices, bringing up children becomes more cumbersome.
Thus, even though the Right to Education Act ( 2009) has been one of the best reforms so far and, according to the government's Economic Survey, has resulted in 95 per cent enrollment in schools, the problem arises regarding the quality of school education. India has a much smaller number of students going from primary to secondary education, and gross secondary enrolment is 57 per cent which is less than many countries with the same level of development. Even fewer students ( 13 per cent) go for tertiary or college education.
It is difficult for children from poorer families to go even for secondary education because they face problems in primary schools doing home work and getting books, and as they also fall sick more often, their attendance falls. There is lack of incentive to attend school also because with an average of 40.7 pupils per teacher, there is hardly any individual attention. Hence once the child starts falling behind studies, he or she drops out. Children's attendance declined from 73.4 per cent in 2007 to 70.9 per cent in 2011. Most children start helping as agricultural labour in villages or find menial jobs in towns.
As compared to the semi-literate agricultural workers, blue-collared workers' who are better educated have more options and better wages. Their suffering, according to Gallup, has increased by 4 per cent and white-collared, college-educated workers' suffering has risen only by only 2 per cent.
It is clear that to reduce the suffering, there is no better investment than education, specially the quality of school buildings, teaching and other facilities which are not improving at an even pace in all the 28 states. Since education is a state subject, many states have invested well and have achieved a good standard of teaching in primary and secondary schools. Unless primary schools are improved, children cannot go to the secondary level. Both primary education and secondary education are important for skill training of workers in the future, otherwise the demographic dividend that India is enjoying over China may turn out to be a big problem instead. Currently around 35 per cent of the labour force is not literate and by 2030, around 426 million youth will be looking for jobs in the labour market. They all will require employable skills and at least secondary education.
A big incentive for children to go to school especially at the primary level is the mid-day school meal which is often their only square meal of the day. Also having girls' toilets in the school premises is important for retaining girl students. Other attractions can be a playground, library, and computer training in the school premises. All these are important for encouraging children to go to school regularly and not to drop out. Regular attendance of teachers is also essential and separate classrooms for different classes. Putting two or three grades together leads to teachers not being attentive and children learning nothing and parents withdrawing children from schools. More than half the classes in rural India are multi-grade or mixed.
Contrast the present state of primary and secondary education sponsored by the state governments with the private schools for the well-to-do children in towns and cities. They often have airconditioned class-rooms and school buses, holidays abroad and high school fees ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 14,000 a month. Private schools are flourishing all over the country despite the high fees they charge. From these top class private schools, students enroll into foreign universities easily.
Even in rural areas across North India, 30 to 50 per cent children go to Private schools. Income inequalities in India are most prominently manifested in the way the rich educate their children.
Indian students studying abroad are one of the largest in the world from any country and they spend Rs 5.9 billion or $ 113.5 million per year. Students with foreign degrees often get high paying jobs in the private corporate sector or in private universities when they return home. Service sector jobs, though lucrative, are accessible only to those with a secondary school education and who have a working knowledge of English. Low end service sector jobs like plumbers, janitors, guards, carpenters, construction workers and electricians are also growing but many require skills.
Even with skill training, there may be a dearth of jobs because industrial expansion is not happening at a rapid pace and most of the expansion involves capital investment with fewer jobs being generated. Most job seekers who are without college education will have to be in the informal sector where they will be without a social safety net and will have to fend for themselves in the case of accident, illness or job loss. The future looks bleak for many such workers. No doubt, their angst about their life's prospects and uncertainty about the future of their children is currently rising. It is indeed an inflammable situation and could trigger another 'Arab Spring'.
As long as the standards of school education differ by a wide margin between government schools and private schools, the elitism embodied in private school education will continue which will perpetuate income inequalities unless students from low-income families also have access to such schools. In this regard, the recent Supreme Court judgment, making it mandatory for private schools to have a quota of 25 per cent of students from the weaker sections even in state-unaided schools, is important and worth watching regarding its effective implementation. The state government is supposed to reimburse the private schools and also provide the students mid-day meals. This may bring about some amount of equity in the education system and reduce the future 'suffering' of millions of people. Meanwhile, the standard of education in government schools would have to be greatly improved.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)
Courtesy: The Tribune