June , 2018
Education system in India: a reality check
15:49 pm

Ankita Chakraborty

The Indian education system is focusing on quality education. But why are students going abroad for higher education?

Piyali Maity (35), a resident of Kolkata, complains that every morning when she wakes up her nine year old daughter to get ready for school, she gets the same request – “Please withdraw me from the new school. The teacher wants me to memorise and does not appreciate me by giving stars on the boring homework. What is the point of going to the new school, when I cannot chat freely with my new friends and make new crafts every day?”

If we look back at the colonial era, we could get a glimpse of what is now our ‘modern school’ system. The current education system is still dominated by the centrality of text books, rote learning, and stringent examination systems. We depend heavily on the colonial educational structure.  English was mooted as a medium of education back then by the British, predominantly to serve their own interests, and education was made largely accessible. However, it was never intended to be a universal education system.

Gradually, this system spread, prompted by various social reforms, involvement of the private sector and the relatively high employability quotient of Western education.  Yet today, in any Indian school, we continue to find ‘textbook culture.’

Educational roots from 1890s to 1940s

The first phase of educational reforms was highly influenced by social reforms, emancipatory ideas and the emergence of science. It was Swami Vivekananda who had articulated the vision of education for character-building and nation-building by drawing on the indigenous Vedantic philosophy. Rabindranath Tagore, an eminent poet, reacted to the alienating nature of colonial education and sought to build an alternative system that drew on art and naturism. Jyotirao Phule emphasised the education of Dalits and women and also argued for an education that was more relevant to the rural context. Mahatma Gandhi was also instrumental in formulating an anti-colonial educational vision.

However, as Indians gained control over their education policy after independence, these interests shifted towards formulating educational policies aimed to forge a national system of education, though not without contestation and perhaps were eventually subverted, assuming tokenistic forms within the mainstream educational system to give birth to a highly differentiated system of education. Here English-medium schools of non-government or private actors were seen as the most desirable centres of education and got equated with quality.

It is imperative that education supports self-reliance and does not only occupy pages of a mere text book. Additionally, education should not cater to government employment only.

Cognitive learning is an emerging concept. However, it is yet to enter into mainstream Indian education and India’s curriculum and pedagogy. Instead of the behavioural-objectives approach, India continues to draw on a behavioural-psychology base in teacher education and has introduced new scientific orthodoxies into education.

The current system

India is currently home to more than 1.4 million schools and records more than 230 million enrolments, and is one of the largest and complex school education systems in the world along with China. The present education system in India is guided by different objectives and goals but it is based around the policies of the past.

Employable education is the need of the hour. What is the point of such an education which fails to employ? No wonder, there are millions of unemployable graduates who either have to opt for vocational courses and learn afresh or take low paying jobs as they lack the confidence of doing something on their own. The formative years of a child is wasted as soon as he enters the schools and colleges and seek education that is primitive in its approach.  The grading system still persists and there is a factory like approach to complete the syllabus.

India’s mean years of schooling at 5.12 years is well below other emerging market economies such as China (8.17 years) and Brazil (7.54 years) and significantly below the average for all developing countries (7.09 years). Steep dropout rates after the elementary level and also at the middle school level and the increasing enrolment gap from elementary to higher secondary are matters of concern. Disadvantaged groups are worse off with the dropout rates for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes being higher than the national average. Weak learning outcome at each stage of education is attributed by high student teacher ratio, lack of professionally trained teachers and poor level of student learning.

Although the Twelfth Plan (2012–2017) places an unprecedented focus on the expansion of education, on significantly improving the quality of education and on ensuring that educational opportunities are available to all segments of society, the quality of higher education, scientific and technological learning, in-hand experience while studying, and employability of a student is not adequately looked into.

Private participation in education is being seen as a solution to India’s educational woes. Nonetheless, these higher education institutions charge a heavy fee from students and provide mere degree certificates. These institutions generally create their own curriculum and organise examinations to evaluate the student competency which fails to judge the students on a larger spectrum.

Anuradha Mazumdar, Professor, Prafulla Chandra College under Calcutta University, told BE, “The main reasons for students leaving India are the lack of quality education in India, positive reputation and validity of foreign universities and degrees conferred by them making students job-ready with a high-paying job and more importantly giving them a quality education which does not only impart knowledge but also develop their own self.”


Half the country does not even have access to proper education and only a very small fraction can go to university. Lack of quality primary education for the poor and limited seats in universities are major problems faced by Indian students. Everything is about rote memorisation, leading to behaviour which encourages cramming and forgetting rather than life-long learning and importantly, lacks a personality development programme. Standardised testing determines everything and aptitude of students is not recognised outside this format. The only thing that matters is marks and not curiosity. About 95% engineers and doctors are unemployable because of out-dated syllabi but the universities still refrain from changing curriculum. The school system in India including the government, private, and aided schools is also highly differentiated and stratified – not only in terms of its clientele groups, but also in terms of curricular and academic forms. It remains to be seen if the Right to Education Act can usher in positive changes in the education system.

Government battling shortcomings

Indian government’s District Primary Education Programmes (DPEP) and subsequent Sarva Siksha Abhiyan programme have increasingly oriented curricular towards the issues of inclusion and equity. However, there are still milestones to achieve in respect to basic literacy and numeracy through greater teacher accountability, professionalization, resource support, and more constructivist curricula.

A parallel development has been to question the ability of the state to provide quality education, and suggest that private providers provide better value for money and are more capable of producing and ensuring quality. There is a growing presence of privately provided educational services in India. 

With the DPEP and Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, the years of schooling of the working population for over 15 years old increased from 4.19 years in 2000 to 5.12 years in 2010. The growth of enrolment in secondary education accelerated from 4.3% per year during the 1990s to 6.27% per year in the decade ending 2010.

Mazumdar added, “I think government schools should allocate more funds and make quality education a reality. The government should also focus on investing in research and free it from bureaucratic red-tapism.”


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