Education’s Free Fall: Alarm Bells Ringing

Dr Chandra Mohan Bhandari

Recent past has witnessed many a dialogue and discussions on issues of national interest; consequently, to be pushed under the carpet or thrown into the dustbin of historical irrelevance. Among these appeared a particular news item and ensuing discussion that revolved around comments pertaining to Indian National Science Congress. It started with a remark made by a prominent guest participant who seemed to have labelled the entire exercise as a ‘circus’. The stated remark would normally be ignored as an individual’s personal opinion, as people were apt to have differing opinions. However, in this case many found an echo of their own disenchantment with the whole show and in spite of a stronger-than-desirable remark the comment continued to find an echo in many a thinking mind; it showed an undercurrent of disagreement and disenchantment with the particular activity, and also with some similar shows at the highest level. We, in this land of ours, are known to take extreme positions depending upon our linkages. By and large the intellectuals too are not sufficiently free from this kind of malaise, and that is going to be the biggest worry located at the core of the problem. Such events at times initiate a dialogue, forming a kind of chain-reaction which sooner-than-later diffuses to almost a state of irrelevance if not of total non-existence.
Building of a Process
Very often we hear about the success story of Indian diaspora abroad and justifiably feel re-assured of the good days ahead for the nation. The success story [1] has many dimensions including its mirror reflection which could as well portray it as a ‘failure story’. There may be an element of truth in all stories and portrayals, providing a glimpse of reality if the intention of the exercise is sincere and un-biased, else it could as well be part of the propaganda machine floated by vested interests for purposes known to them only. It is unfortunate that very often we tend to take extreme views on either side of the spectrum ranging from euphoria to depressive self-denigration. It would help if a balanced and primarily objective self-analysis could become an integral part of our thinking. And that to some extent is the purpose of this essay. It is going to be a difficult exercise in any case.
Nation building is a multi-dimensional, multi-levelled process of sufficient complexity and it’s not easy to divide the whole into bits and pieces. Taking one aspect at a time is perhaps the easy way out even at the cost of being incomplete or insufficient. We started with a statement pertaining to an activity closely related to the academic world in general, and science and technology in particular. Since our present concern is one among several such concerns in recent times, will it not be a good idea to take up the issue of raising and managing institutions that are supposed to look after academic matters at various levels: government managed departments and commissions at the top of the pyramid followed by  universities, technological institutes,  colleges, and schools. We, who often pride ourselves in having established and managed institutions like Nalanda and Taxila in the distant past, may now find it difficult to manage them with competence, honesty and integrity. A self-analysis of this kind is difficult for any group, society or nation; it is doubly so for us due to our mind-set, value-system in general and immature work-culture.
The so-called success story referred to earlier was a by-product of our educational set up that included universities and institutes including IIT’s. Most of them were established during British times but many of them were an independent nation’s proud initial creations. Added to this the easy availability of a large number of talented youngsters, the outcome was not entirely unexpected. Young and talented individuals graduated from universities and technological institutes and a good number of them chose to pursue scientific research and teaching as career in India or abroad. That was the beginning of the ascent on the forward march for a young nation, and things appeared to go in right direction. Few decades back (sometime in seventies) an article appeared in a British magazine which indicated India’s rise in matters of scientific research being the eighth country in matters of publications in scientific journals. The article also mentioned that number of Nobel Prizes won by a country in the given time interval was proportional to number of published work with India being an exception. During the given time frame there was not a single Nobel Laureate. A new nation trying to find its feet could not be judged along with the rest, and I knew that things would improve as time goes by. Moreover, Nobel Prize could not be the sole measure of quality. It was a matter of confidence and satisfaction that things were more or less moving in right direction but it was not at all a matter of great pride and euphoria. For a nation with a population of entire Europe put together such figures came naturally without being assigned any significant value beyond normal.
Pyramidal Structure
Pyramidal structures are often handy in correlating quantity and quality. A pyramid has a base with a given area, and a certain height. The base represents quantity whereas the height indicates quality. Larger base can support greater height; larger quantity can support more quality. Out of a large number of publications few could possibly be path-breaking and could represent the prizes won. Here we have the understanding that pyramidal inclination is kept almost fixed. In some situations it is also likely that even with large base the height is not attained accordingly; in such cases height is not proportional to base. A pyramidal structure which is truncated at a certain height will have its top missing. Most among our institutions are marked by such structures where quality is not proportional to quantity. We do not make our presence felt strongly in the world of education when it comes to quality. Often our academic institutions do not find a place among top hundred institutions across the world; at times not even among top two hundred. Even when one or two names appear in first two hundred there is reason to feel disturbed, and to initiate some serious self-analysis.
Unchecked Proliferation, Vanishing Ideals
There has been a tremendous growth in the institutions of learning at all levels: universities, technology institutes, PG and degree Colleges, so-called international schools and schools in general. All that reflects the growing need of a young nation in proportion to its size and population. Some institutes of higher education have no doubt done well and could not be clubbed with the rest, but by and large there have been hardly any path-breaking researches. Even otherwise good units seem to suffer due to general atmosphere where merit is not the sole criterion for selection and promotion. Even with some shortcomings, a reasonable degree of fair play is observable in some selected places and we have reason to feel more or less satisfied with them. However, with the proliferation that goes unchecked with virtually no work culture, one can easily find institutions, colleges and schools that go against all norms.   
Looking back at the educational scenario in the post-Independence era, we seemed to have started well. With the foundations of many good centres of learning from the British days, and a certain tradition of our own – things sailed relatively smoothly and in the initial decades after Independence, the educational scenario looked brighter. However, we seem to have become complacent and started compromising on things that should have been sacrosanct for us as individuals and as a society.
The case of JNU can be cited as an example which shows the validity of the statements made above. All over the world, people are known to have their lobbies, pressure groups and affiliations. Based on such affiliations, the decisions taken at times are unfair and partisan, and to some extent this may be almost a global phenomenon. However, in spite of all this, good institutions always provide checks and balances to safeguard the overall working and direction. In most cases, a minimum level of quality is maintained and there is a proper mechanism to identify and nurture talent. Political interference and ideological wrestling are not allowed to overrun the basic character and quality even though their presence is often clear and visible. However, a glance at our institutions displays that we are very likely to easily compromise things, with quality and character being the first victims.  
A fine institution has to evolve, it could not be implanted. JNU too has evolved over the decades into a fine institute and there was much to cheer about. Based on this working model or even as a role model, one should have expected more of similar institutes coming up elsewhere too. However, what actually emerged was quite different from the anticipated one. Over the years the university has emerged as a hotbed of politics, a place where your political inclinations override your commitment and talent, where your connections and associations become the defining traits. The issue of anti-national elements having a field day within the campus has been raised and it was not totally false, although somewhat exaggerated. Even to that extent it could be dismissed as a minor affair but even the teaching faculty seemed to ignore its influence and impact on the quality of teaching and research thereby defeating the very purpose for which the institution was established. The truth is, there were two warring groups – the leftists who were having an upper hand till yesterday and the rightists who appeared to be making inroads into former’s domain.  This kind of thing is not something unusual and unprecedented, but what surprised me was the extent to which ideological and group differences could descend. We have stopped thinking rationally and lost the capacity for a dialogue. This is my firm opinion that this malaise arises primarily from our incapacity for a serial thinking elaborated in detail in an essay titled “Land of Parallel Walkers” [2]. We are known to always walk along parallel lines that never meet. Probably it is impossible for our political masters and intellectuals to sit together and help evolve a middle-path which takes sensible reflections from the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘nationalism’. The matter does not end here, there is a growing tendency to appoint less talented persons with good connections. We seem interested neither in nurturing talent, nor in making the best use of it for nation’s development. We often talk of Indian diaspora doing very well in the West, yet most of the path-breaking work still eludes us. JNU was just an example to be cited, and majority among other universities and institutes are no different.
Long ago while in the UK on a post-doctoral fellowship in the University of Wales, I had time to interact with some research students from Pakistan. During an informal chat they seemed amazed to hear that I had done my graduation and post-graduation by paying a fee of INR fifteen per month. They could accept my statement when some other friends corroborated this. One of the Pak students in a reflective mood then said: ‘Now I can guess how your country has done so well in science and technology.’ Good old days do not last long. We are now on the verge of losing that advantage due to either complacency or utter mismanagement. Past the summit we are on a decline. And this gets reflected in almost all areas: be it politics, economics or academics. It often happens in the game of cricket when at times there is a good beginning by the opening pair but then it is followed by a middle order collapse; the same happened with us in matters pertaining to education. We seem to have lost the initial advantage.
Business Schools and Schooling-Business
There are many examples of gross irregularities and farcical mismanagement in this arena. Consider the case of sprouting International Schools: This nomenclature is totally misleading; something which is not even provincial, is given the name ‘international’, and one can see an unchecked proliferation of this category of schools. Some schools do not use this label but most of them do as they know the psychology of parents. These are a kind of shops (edu-shops) where you provide high-cost education to children from well-off families. Understandably an international school must have education in English medium, and that is the biggest asset. Among hundreds of students some are undoubtedly sharp, hard-working and inquisitive. However, a majority is dull and disinterested. In many schools overall quality of teaching and learning is poorer than the much maligned government-owned schools with negligible fee. Reason: having paid a hefty sum as fees the students are assured a certain minimum grade. That is why I call them edu-shops, where customers ‘buy’ grades and ‘certificates’. Ethics and quality has no meaning.
All this keeps students and parents happy; happiest are the management people who have been successfully running this kind of edu-shops. There used to be inspectors of schools to monitor educational standards in yester years. May be they are still present, but have become a part of the business. Three decades ago we started introducing the concept of business schools, and after evolving (?) to a higher level we have accepted the concept of schooling-business (edu-shops). That keeps everyone happy – management counts the notes; students count the certificates and grades; parents are satisfied that they have given their wards good education with good grades; and above all, the policy planners count the number of international institutions that have emerged during their regime. They are all gainers, the biggest looser is the nation. Among other losers are the talented sincere individuals who become unfit in the new setup. On the average the situation in terms of quality is worse than what it was in two decades following Independence. Schooling was not a business five decades back, it’s a flourishing business now. In many so-called prestigious schools the education is of high cost but low quality. We are thus destroying the very foundation on which educational future of the nation was supposed to stand. I often considered this a kind of ‘hara-kiri’. However, soon I realised that hara-kiri was the practice to end one’s life when one failed in his or her mission; to an extent there was something noble in it, some kind of repentance. What we have done with our institutions is a kind of ‘mara-mari’ for the sake of money. All this is not confined to schools. One can easily find names such as: institute of management and research, or hospital of management and research, or institute of technology and research. Why do we need to emphasize the word ‘research’; it’s like saying Oxford University of Teaching and Research or Cambridge University of Teaching and Research. A university is meant for teaching and research; obviously use of words like ‘international’ and ‘research’ is for some purpose – the business angle.
All these episodes gradually affect the value-system and in course of time this could become our second habit if continued unchecked. To be honest and frank, our roots in national context have always been weak; it was the British presence which by default provided us with a disciplined setup in defence as also in academics. With the memories of the days fading, some of us are sliding back to our old habit of managing things casually and in an ad-hoc manner. We seemed to have learnt little from history. Our old instinct of working for our own smaller unit (be it family or caste or region) overrides our newly acquired trait of thinking nationally and rationally.
There are innumerable examples of the educational decline: Vyapam in Madhya Pradesh showed the deep penetration of corrupt practices in education. The recent episode of Bihar toppers case is fresh in our minds. Earlier we used to hear of cases when failed students were promoted through unfair means but fraudulently awarding highest marks to such students was unthinkable. Such fraudulent practices in education are now a reality and are not confined to one or two states. What surprises me is, we do not seem to be disturbed by such events. Such practices in education are no less serious than the acts of terror as this strikes at the very roots of the society. We never hear of an exemplary punishment for such crimes. Recently there was a news item of one US University expelling twenty five Indian students after first semester for their very poor performance. They were not familiar even with the basics of the subject they were supposed to study. These were not isolated cases; in fact they were part of the overall educational decline.  
In the biological world one hears of the principle known as ‘survival of the fittest’. In several situations pertaining to our lives and living, ‘survival of mediocrity’ has become the norm. However, a look into the working of our institutions followed by a simple analysis would soon discard any doubts about the validity of the analysis. And this principle appears to be more valid for our academic institutions barring a few exceptions. Anyone with exceptional talent may not be noticed at all for long but once it is done, mediocrity will spring into action as a reaction doing everything in its power to reject it tooth and nail. Of course such reactions are not always visible, they have to be hidden and invisible. In some institutions talent may be rejected outright as its presence would be seen a possible threat to others of lesser standing. There are some schools where the average life of a teacher is just around two to three years; this helps the management in two ways: (a) a senior person is likely to be more assertive; and (b) a new person would be available at a lower salary. It’s all economics and business in the final run and that too short-term.
It is difficult to believe that our policy planners have no knowledge of this ‘circus’ being staged everywhere, be it at school level or at the university level, or in arranging science congress or cultural-festivals. The success of Indian diaspora in the west including America can also be seen as a reflection of our incompetent and illogical handling of our institutions. Many a talented young man and woman known in America for their brilliant achievements would be selling tea or peanuts for their livelihood had they not migrated; some of those who could not afford to go abroad are still doing that.   
And some students educated at edu-shops may get admissions in foreign universities only to be exposed sooner or later. We are among few selected nations where there is no serious effort to nurture talent and we don’t have a mind-set to identify the same. Building and managing institutions has rarely been our passion and without this we should not expect to be counted among frontline nations. What is most painful is the understanding that we have no dearth of talent but the wisdom to discover, nurture and use it is beyond us. We are good at dreaming but lack the will to convert it to reality. And in spite of all odds if some diehard talented person scores it big (like winning a Nobel Prize) we begin singing his or her praise in sweetest melodies.
Like the wandering eagle
Thirsty, restless,
The wanderer in me
Views at distance
A glittering lake;
Often that’s a fake -
A mirage – a deception.
        – G M Muktibodh
(Translated from Hindi by the author)

[1] C M Bhandari, ‘Discovering, Inventing India,’ Muse India, Nov-Dec 2015.
[2] C M Bhandari, ‘Land of Parallel Walkers,’ Mainstream Weekly, Vol 50, No. 45, October 2012.

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