Wednesday, May 16, 2018

India’s education mess

Today I saw a full two page ad in the national newspaper from Byju, the online student’s coaching startup. A full two pages about their free conselling session at home. This is despite the fact that their ads were recently blocked by ASCI in January this year for un-substantiated claims.
The Indian education system is a collage of contradictions. Its surprising that the world's largest democracy does not have a stable, self-sustaining system of eduction which can cater to the needs of millions of youngsters seeking education in the country. Successive governments have tried to 'reform' the education scene, whatever that means, but every time they have attempted so, something else has been broken. I  have been reading all kinds of news relating to India's education these past months, and they remind me of the hurdle I myself had to go through to reach where I am today.

These are the weeks of student winners, it is the time when various education institutions in the country announce the results of the 'toppers' in their examinations. It starts with the central government's CBSE announcing the names of students who scored highest in each of India's 29 states. There are two sets of exams, for 10th and 12th grades. I never understood why the 10th grades are so important, seeing that it is the 12 th grade marks which act as the qualifier for college admissions.

But wait, these are just central board. Every state has their own 'board' of education, and have students enrolled for 10th and 12th grade exams. And with 29 states, that is a lot of student toppers ! And then there is one more private, central school education board called ICSE, but no one seems to care about them.
Admissions to India's public colleges are based on the marks students score in these 'board exams'. Arts, science and language colleges setup a cut-off mark as the minimum marks required to gain admissions to their subsidized education courses. But simply scoring these minimum marks does not automatically guarantee admission, frequently parents arrange 'recommendation letters' from ministers and high profile officers and even religious heads as additional assurance. colleges also arrange for their own admission tests inorder to screen candidates. And some of those screening test are the toughest to crack in this country. 

The two streams of education most sought after after 12th grade education are Engineering and Medical courses. Students who pass out of these courses are trained engineers and doctors. And because of the demand and the overwhelming population of students applying,  the central and state governments have been organizing these 'entrance tests' at central and state level. Objective style reasoning tests with negative marks help screen the best of the best of millions of science graduates attempting to gain entrance to subsidized education. And there are so few seats up for grabs that there is immense competition.  For instance, only 4 of the 100 candidates attempting The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medicine will win a seat. It is a little better for engineering seats, but that is only because there are more seats available.

And so, when the results of these entrance exams are announced, the toppers are again celebrated in the media. There are long interviews of the students, with their families and teachers, to understand how they cracked the system. And what are their tips and tricks to similar students who are attempting these tests in the future. Hell, some even appear on national TV, speaking about their experiences and giving out advise. Probably no other country parade their top scorers in TV like India does. In India, toppers are celebrities !

But again, these are the subsidized education seats we are talking about. The mafia in the private colleges are at an entirely different level. Education has turned to business in India, and if you don't have the wits to get a seat, you can definitely buy one. This is where the picture starts to turn bleak. Anticipating huge number of students who will not be able to clear the national tests, private colleges have mushroomed across the country, offering the same courses for a much higher price. In a way, private education is for the rich, but not academically gifted. The fees being charged at some of these institutes is so high that in recent years, majority of the seats remain unfilled.
Recently there was a directive to shut down as many as 150 colleges across India how had less than 50% of their seats filled. Just let that sink in.

Instead of trying and subsidising these additional seats in some way for the poorer students, the government simply wants to shut them down. Amazing governance.

But no test, repeat, no other is as tough and prestigious to crack as the Indian Civil Service exams. IAS exams. These are not education courses, but actual jobs people are applying for. Candidates need to have college degrees, and have to study additional subjects which are not covered by their college education. The civil services exam has among the lowest success rates among competitive examinations in the world, with a success percentage of less than .1 percent. Less than .1 percent of the applicants will land a job. Only one in every 10 candidate succeeds in the first attempt. There are people attempting upto 6 times, and some candidates can keep on trying until age 37 ! 
And as always, the IAS toppers are the media's favourites. The sheer prestige and security of the jobs means that anybody IAS topper is seen as the hardest, most hard-working and able minded of students. I think the assumption is that they will never have to face any problem in their life from that point onwards. They have cracked the system. Now they can sit back and reap the benefits, while the rest of us fight it out among ourselves.

The tale of getting into the civil services is one of hard work and dogged perseverance. That’s why it is all the more baffling how the Indian bureaucracy, which comprises such hard-working and committed people, earned the disrepute of running what is considered an inefficient government machinery.
They say history is written only by the winners. And this is in fact , true. Nobody talks about the trials and tribualations of the losers. Those who put in whatever they could, but failed to clear the system. Despite all these ‘free seats’ or subsidized seats, millions of students fail to get a chance to pursue their choice of education in this country. India also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, one student kills self about every hour in the country. 

Yet, no one talks about them. They are just the collateral of having a skewed public education system, one which relies on intense competition. It is a broken system, and somehow the authorities have managed to make it even worse everytime they try to change something. I had it much better and easier 15 years ago. The future generations are going to have to struggle very hard to just maintain the pace.

It is case of textbook Darwinism: survival of the super-ultra-mega smartest.