The Chance to Try: How India is Rethinking Education


Yours Humanly

March 25, 2020

The Chance to Try: How India is Rethinking Education

In 2018, Bollywood produced a film called Hindi Medium, a comedic, heart-warming take on class issues in Indian education. Centering around a young, upwardly mobile family, the plot thickens as the parents do all that is humanly possible to secure a place for their child in a private school. They are adamant that their daughter continue to climb the ladder to high society, which hinges on not being subject to the sub-par education that a public school typically affords.

It was a fitting release for that year, as a tri-partite public-private partnership to develop the labor force needed for the next decades. One problem highlighted in a report published by the World Economic Forum was that India’s workforce faced a huge skills gap—a problem that loosely translated into not reaching the potential of economic growth. In June of the previous year, the Economist ran an article about the impressively mediocre education system in the world’s largest democracy, pointing out that “primary school enrollment is nearly universal…[W]hile learning is not.” According to this article, a handful of participants in the 2009 PISA exam had scores that showed five years of learning gap between other nations in East and Southeast Asia.

While inequality in education has an inextricable tie with opportunity and upward mobility, perhaps the first discussion and policy plan for Indian education needs to be addressing quality of learning. In fact, in a 2019 editorial discussing Modi’s most pressing policy preferences listed those concerns as environment, education, and administration. Despite overall improvement in school facilities and a small uptick in learning levels, less than half of the students were reading at grade-level, and of the entire surveyed demographic, less than a third were able to do basic mathematics. The World Economic Forum correlates the lack of employment skills with an education system that prioritizes theoretical and conceptual work over tangible and practical knowledge gathering. In early October of 2018, the World Economic Forum, in conjunction with Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship of India and the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Infosys, launched a public private task force to not only measure learning outcomes, but also hopefully improve those outcomes. More data on the task force remains to be seen. “It is easy to ascribe such poor outcomes to low government spending on education…[A] disproportionate share of that, too, has gone to higher education, to ensure that India has a trained elite to run the country,” declares the Economist. Yet economists and academics alike believe that throwing money at the problem will not address the root culture and structure of education, which, like the US, is exam-focused.

Modi’s education policy effects are currently unclear, and with him running again as the incumbent candidate, education will need to be on his watchlist. A member of another BRIC national on exchange to the United States sums up his position entirely:
“We need schools, we need hospitals…Our country needs to give everyone the chance to try.”

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Eleanor Chin

Eleanor is a freelance writer crazy about international public policy, micro-mobility, ed-tech, venture capital, and of course, education. A native of the Bay area, she can normally be found reading, writing, eating, or listening to podcasts.