Education: The Mess Within

Education: The Mess Within

Our colleges are producing thousands of unemployed graduates, and the quality of research in our Universities is debatable

The Education sector in Jammu and Kashmir has seen a systematic erosion over the past years. From the primary to the higher education level we are confronted with a system that has been denuded of even the most fundamental standards. Consider this: no one I know would send their child to a government school even though the teachers in these schools are better paid than in private schools.  Our colleges are producing a cadre of thousands of unemployed graduates, who are only employable as white-collar workers in the government. And the quality of research in our Universities is debatable. We need a thorough overhaul, not just incrementalism. The paradox is that the state has a pool of some of the most talented young people, who – if given the opportunity – could make a mark anywhere, from Srinagar to the Silicon Valley. We cannot afford to fail them and let them down anymore. Fortunately, Jammu and Kashmir has a wise and patient Minister for Education who has not shied away from taking hard decisions.

Despite the huge investment in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (‘Education for All’, RET) programme and other literacy campaigns, one-third of the state’s population is illiterate. This means that at least a quarter of our children are still not capable of reading and writing. We need to devise real incentives for parents to send their children to school wherever they exist, create new ones wherever needed, and ensure that there is real learning happening within them.

The annual learning outcomes surveys, for instance, of the Mumbai-based NGO Pratham provide evidence of big learning gaps in primary education. Much more needs to be done by government and the non-government sector who believes that J&K can only be great if education is truly inclusive. And one of the most important indicators of inclusiveness is that all citizens are at least literate. Yet schooling means much more than mere familiarity with the 3Rs.

In my opinion, too much emphasis is given to infrastructure development even in the Right to Education Bill. In 21st century Jammu and Kashmir we need not just capable and skilled young men and women but people who are upright, honest, tolerant, and at ease with the state’s diversity. Therefore, in addition to the 3Rs, we need to introduce, what I term, the ‘3Ss’.

The first ‘S’ is for sensitivity. This is more important than is usually acknowledged. Sensitivity implies an aesthetic capacity to appreciate beauty in all its forms and to be considerate of differing points of view. Sensitive education also injects compassion and humanism in students.

The second ‘S’ is security, and freedom from fear. Only when children are free from the fear of punishment and competition will they be able to excel. Geniuses are born not in the rat race but out of self-motivated races for perfection. Security is also freedom from stress, where neither too much academic work nor peer pressure burdens children.

And finally we need our children to develop their spiritual and scientific temper — the third ‘S’. On this, I would prefer to extensively quote my favourite teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurthi (1895-1986). In one of his lectures, he said: “The spirit of science has nothing to do with individual conditions, with nationalism, with race, with prejudice. Scientists are there to explore matter, to investigate the structure of the earth and of the stars and the planets, to find out how to cure man’s diseases, how to prolong man’s life, to explain time, both the past and the future.”

In another of his many insightful lectures, he stated: “The religious mind does not belong to any group which calls itself religious. The religious mind is not the mind that goes to churches, temples, mosques. Nor is it a religious mind that holds to certain forms of beliefs, dogmas. The religious mind is completely alone… not being nationalistic, not being conditioned by its environment; such a mind has no horizons, no limits. It is explosive, new, young, fresh, and innocent.”

The challenge, therefore — in government and private schools — is to ensure that the 3Rs are taught in tandem with the 3Ss. In that freedom let Jammu and Kashmir awake!

At the higher education level, there is even a greater crisis.

The rankings of Global universities, is a glaring reminder of the bleak state of higher education in India and in J&K. Not even one Indian university is included in the top 20 Asian universities. While Japan is, as expected, the leader with as many as nine universities in the list, China — including Hong Kong — has six institutions that rank amongst the first 20. Even South Korea with three and Singapore with two, outclass India.

The crises in Indian and J&K ‘higher education have been documented ad nauseam. Any plan to transform higher education must work with the following two objectives. First, there needs to be a massive expansion of institutions of higher learning (including universities, community colleges and vocational training institutions), which are well endowed and do not compromise on quality. To ensure that the “demographic dividend” of our youthful population does not become a demographic nightmare, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education must increase from to 30 per cent over the next decade. Hence the need for massive growth. 

Second, most existing institutions of higher learning need to be restructured and reformed. A majority among them are badly governed, over-regulated, poorly funded and lack even basic infrastructure.

Stemming from these objectives are three issues: regulation, funding (including infrastructure), and governance. It is clear that the existing system of regulation, currently within the ambit of the University Grants Commission and as many as 13 professional councils, has not worked for a number of reasons. An independent regulatory authority for higher education must be established which should be responsible for “setting the criteria and deciding on entry… monitoring standards… licensing accreditation agencies and it would apply exactly the same norms to public and private institutions, just as it would apply the same norms to domestic and international institutions”. An independent regulator would, hopefully, not just end the licence-permit raj, but also help to create an environment in which growth and excellence go together in a strong competitive environment.

State universities require massive infusion of funds and so will new universities. Private-public partnerships, including with top foreign institutions, is essential, as is the need for giving universities more autonomy and incentives for innovative and imaginative fund-raising. But so is a more optimal use of infrastructure, nationally, particularly information and communication technology-driven, through the creation of instruments like the national knowledge network.

The single most important reason for the decline of universities, especially state universities, is the almost day-to-day political interference and the unfortunate petty political and bureaucratic role in the appointment of heads of institutions. There are also thoughtful suggestions, within these reports, to ensure that vice-chancellors, among other university leaders, are selected after careful consideration and after applying the highest standards of integrity, administrative skills and academic contribution to the potential candidates. Equally essential is the need to think of imaginative ways to attract and retain top-grade faculty. The challenge is not just to offer greater financial incentives, or streamline the selection process, but also to create a research environment which can generate academic excellence.

Finally, of course, we must think in terms of a few grand projects which can become models to be emulated in the years to come. Education and skill development can be J&K’s global opportunity. The time has come now to translate that opportunity into reality, within the term of this government.

(First published in September issue of GK magazine Kashmir Ink)