Case for a fresh start in Indian Education

In 1921, just after the Influenza pandemic, H G Wells was writing "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." As we strive to look beyond the pandemic, it's a useful place to start.

Of course, we are still counting the bodies and the public health challenge must be met first. But it will be a mistake not to think about what comes after, as otherwise, the after-effects will linger on and may eventually break the society as we know it.

In the influenza pandemic, India lost approximately 5% of its population. This time around, even with the near-collapse of the healthcare system in some cities, the toll is likely to be lower. But the economic and social impact of the Pandemic would be far more severe, with the global supply chain reaching a breaking point and the dislocation of the health and education systems due to the pandemic. 

However, my objective here is to try to look beyond the pandemic and what needs to happen to contain the aftereffect. This is not to trivialise the scale of the current challenge, but to start a discussion that must eventually follow. At this point, in my opinion, the pandemic is no longer a science problem; it is rather a logistical and economic problem. The countries which could plan ahead and throw money at it, have managed to contain the virus (though that foresight and will to act have not, unfortunately, been extended to acknowledging the global nature of the challenge). India now has to pay a terrible human price for mismanaging the pandemic, but the road out of it is now known. The big unknown now is what comes after and we should now start talking about this.

The scale of that challenge is no less staggering than the vaccination drive that the country must get on with. There are a number of dimensions of this: The labour market is broken with the migrant labourers sent home, banking is reeling under all the unresolved problems from the past but also the impending debt defaults that may follow, export manufacturing looking at the bleak prospect of breakdown of global supply-chain, not to mention lingering effects of Covid that may leave millions less healthy than they would have been otherwise. But, in a country where more than two million people reach working age every month and which has a quarter of global college aspirants, education is where the discussion should start.

Pandemic has worsened what was already a big problem. There are now millions of children who are effectively out of school for a year or more. The universities have come to a standstill; worse, it has been thrown into chaos with student fees, on which most of them depended, becoming hard to come by. Skills education sector, underequipped at the best of times, has somewhat melted away to the background. As and when the country gets back to business, the wasted years are likely to lead to wasted lives, creating ever bigger social challenges and limit the possibility of economic growth catch-up. At this time, in education, the goal can not be getting back to business-as-usual. Instead, the policy imperative will be to explore fully the possibilities created by the pandemic.

It is true that the pandemic has been good for India's EdTech sector, which has benefitted from easy money supply and digital optimism, but like in other areas (as in demonetisation and hopes of digitisation), the country has put the digital cart before the horse. Apart from valuations being a bad indicator of the potential (at a time of zero-cost capital), the EdTech spectrum is too little and too shallow to have positive impact on India's education challenge. If anything, the EdTech enthusiasm is counter-productive, as it conflates the issues of access and equity, engagement and impact and quantity and quality. However, at the same time, this is a significant opportunity: Digital learning has been normalised; new models, such as studying for an international qualification from India, have now become common; new capital will help develop capabilities and infrastructure. If regulatory framework was lagging behind, the pandemic imperative has given it a big push and it is starting to catch up.

The pandemic has also provided the perfect cover for legislative activism, of which a New Education Policy is a part. In many ways, that indicated an attempt to make a fresh start, which is what will be needed. Equally, however, there is little detail as yet on how and when any of the policy ideas contained there would be implemented. Besides, this policy was a pre-pandemic creation and while it looked to address a number of fundamental issues in Indian education (and did so admirably), it has little to say about the challenges arising out of the pandemic. However, this has set in motion a lot of discussions, just at the right time when the limitations of India's private sector led education system have come in the open.

In this setting, the post-pandemic challenge - and the rapidly shifting digital and policy landscape - should call for emergency education legislations, if not from Delhi then at least in some forward-thinking states. Without such action, the Pandemic will become a permanent one. The country has to live with the destruction wrought by the pandemic and forego all the possibilities the opened up alongside.  






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