Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Happy New Year - 2021

It is after a while I am writing something; not that I did not get time to write in the last few months. My enthusiasm to write was significantly down. What to write was another question. I thought about educational bills, farm bills, new industrial labor codes, my last Gujrat trip, the India-China standoff in the high Himalayas, and of course COVID-19. There were a lot of topics, but someway it was hard to finish anything. I started with many of them and dropped it in the middle. 

Then came the possibility of restarting everything in 2021. The attraction of new year resolutions was hard to resist. It was my habit for last 15 years to do the ritual of new year resolutions. It is not that I followed through all those resolutions; I was not. I might have implemented 70% of resolutions in two out of those 15 years; for the rest, it may be anywhere around 2-10%. I am not sad about it, at least the ritual resulted in some progress. 

I no longer think the first day of a year is some significant date in life that will change everything; it is not. It is just another date in the calendar. Of course, there may be some internal resistance for not breaking the pledges took on January 1 on January itself. 

In any case, wish a happy new year to all the readers. In case you took any new year resolutions like me, then best wishes for your success. Do not worry if it fails, life gives numerous chances to everyone to reset and restart. 


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

COVID - Appreciating a slow-moving life

For a long time, I wanted everything to move fast. While I was traveling in bus, I wanted my bus to go fast and overtake all others on the road. While having food, more than enjoying the taste, I wanted to be the first one to complete it. This may give you the wrong impression that I completed a lot of things in life. Well no; I just wanted to complete something quickly and then sit idle or binge-watch movies. It was never about taking another project!!! 

I still remember our 11th class excursion trip to the Nelliyampati forest range in Palakkad district of Kerala. Nelliyampati is a wonderful area to get lost for days. There time moves slowly, nature sings in your ears while pure white cotton clouds massage you. Here one can forget everything about the outside world and just be with yourself. Unfortunately, when I went there, my only objective was to finish all viewpoints and come back first. At that time, it looked like a great achievement. Now, after another decade and a half, when I look back it was one of the stupidest things I did. I wish someone told me those words at that time. I continued the same practice in my numerous journeys across India - always sprinting.

Now stuck at home in this COVID time, I got enough time for reflection. Did I achieve something by sprinting? Honestly, I can't say yes. Slowly that realization is coming to me, life is not sprinting its marathon. Many people told the same sentence before; but unless and until one experiences the same, live through that; it is difficult to understand its true meaning. 

To understand and enjoying the real beauty of a place or to feel the taste of food, one needs to invest time in it. Here you need to spend a currency called time. It is better to do a couple of things right rather than just completing a dozen items. Now I am not jumping from place to place, and trying not to finishing food in seconds, or reading books just to reach my yearly pledge. It is better to take a step back and enjoy it.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

National Education Policy 2020: 3 - Key Problems In Indian Educational Sector Part II

5. Ignoring phenomenal works in Indian languages

A lot of world-class literature in Indian languages are ignored in preference to English. It is an irony that in social media age we are even ignoring the best of English as well.

Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Elliot, Blake, Kipling, Yeats, Coleridge, Rossetti, Lawrence, Dickens, Woolf, Orwell, Forester etc. are great no doubt. At the same time, there are a lot of wonderful writers who produced seminal works in other languages.

English is one of the greatest languages of all time; and in India, it is probably the only pan-Indian language that equalizes all. But, do we really care about some of the greatest works of Indian languages, other than the names which we learned to crack some quiz questions?

How many of us read Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, Randamoozham, Pathummayude Aadu,  Oru Desathinte Katha, Durgesh Nandini, Kapalkundala, Devdas, Chokher Bali, Anandamath, Kulliyat-i-Sauda, Umrao Jan Ada, Nadaar Log, Jangloos, Godaan, Laal Passena, Gunahon Ka Devata, Karmabhoomi, Nirmala, Madhushala, Kamayani, Svapna Vasavadattam, Vikramorvasiyam, Mudrarakshasa, Kadambari, Makam, Mayabritta, Bheda… list is endless.

I am not saying we should stop reading English works and start with these ones. Of course not. Being said that, we should also give some attention to these works. If one cannot read it in the original language, then at least read its translation.  

Life is much more than just engineering and medicine.

6. Refusal to accept failure

Society fails to accept failure as a reality. We consider failure as the end of the world. Though we read about thousands who failed first and then went on with a blockbuster life, we do not change our opinion about failures in schools and colleges. Society considers those people are good for nothing.

To fix this issue and for political mileage, we started making everyone pass. Better pass percentage was good for optics. This only made matters worse. When half of the people were failing it was ok, but when 99% people are passing the stigma on failed people became even higher. We gave extraordinary importance to marks; at the same time ignored whether there is any value addition.

Studies showed that a lot of kids in 6th and 7h were not able to do 3rd class’s math. Companies are complaining that they need to retrain graduates to make them employable.

Society must accept the fact that failure is the other side of the coin.

7. The flawed Teacher Recruitment process

I did not study the teacher recruitment process in other states. However, in my home state - Kerala, there is a flawed policy exiting for a very long time.

The current educational system in Kerala represents the socio-political condition of the state. Here, the private school management is very much organized and protected by the power of communities’ politics. Most educational institutions – aka aided schools – are at least partially or fully supported by the state government. Government pays the salaries of both teaching and non-teaching staff on the same scale as that of teachers in government-run schools. The catch is the government does not have a say in the recruitment of teachers in these schools. Management collects money from individuals and appoints them as teachers; the amount they swallow is quite high. Once appointed, are eligible for government salary and pension – in one buying a government job.

Huge networks of these schools are run by caste and religious organizations. This often led to giving preference for those people who belongs to the same caste/religion of management. Since a good percentage of these schools are minority-run, governments do not dare to intervene. This is mainly due to two reasons. One, these actions will be considered a breach of freedom for minorities to run their own institutions. Second, upsetting them costs a lot of votes in the election. Hence, this process of buying government jobs is going on for decades. For those entering government, schools must pass PSC exams, be in rank list and wait. Vacancies in government-supported private schools are not open for them.

Now in unaided schools, where government does not pay salaries, are run by taking money from students as tuition fees. The problem here is, teachers are paid very less compared to that of government. Teachers are not organized. They cannot raise any voice, as there are people out there who are ready to work for lesser salaries.

Nowadays government and private schools are engaged in a bitter competition to get kids. For the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, kids switched to private unaided schools in mass, where English was the medium of education. Numerous schools popped up and fees became affordable even for the lower middle class. This created problems in government schools (especially in government-supported private schools - aided) and threatened the security of teacher’s jobs. If the teacher to student ratio come below a certain level in a school, then the teacher will lose their jobs. There is catch with those who bought their way to school, they cannot get a transfer to a fully government-owned school or to a school which is government-supported but under different management. Stiff competition from unaided eventually forced government and aided schools to get their act together.

In many other states, especially in tribal belts, there are too many ghost teachers. A report came out during, All India Survey on Higher Education stated that there are around 80,000 or more ghost teachers in the Indian higher education system. This is just in the higher educational system, think about the school level.

Poverty runs so high that; parents send their kids to school just to get the mid-day meal. Many schools have just one teacher for multiple classes. If they got transferred or retired, then there may not be any replacements immediately.

State and central governments spend very less percentage of GDP on education. To make matters worse, primary and secondary education is neither glamorous nor a vote-catching scheme. Unlike many takes pride, Indian origin students passing spelling bee test in the US does not represent the quality of education in India.


8. Outdated Syllabi

Indian school syllabus is outdated; may not be that much in ICSE or CBSE, but definitely at state level.

A lot of things happened after the discovery of Newton's law and Kirchoff's theorem. Science, history, and geography are especially bad. History books are often written as novels. Indian history is often started with Harappan civilization, Aryan invasion then jumps to Alexander, Mauryans and Ashoka, Guptas and other empires here and there, then Sultanates and Mughals. After Aurangzeb, it directly jumps to East India Company, British Rule, the Indian independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi and then independence.

Decorating this will be, a couple of social movements, INA, WWI, WWII, a couple of revolutions like – American, Italian, French etc. Over a period, there were changes but history is not yet taught at a scientific level. History is not only about Emperors, kings, and princes it is a lot more about common people and their life. When I was in school, China’s cultural revolution was written as a success story; it was only years later I found out that it was one of the worst human tragedies.

The world war was not fought in Europe alone, there was a lot of fight that happened in the East Asian theatre. Millions not only died in Europe but in Asia as well.

East of West Bengal comes as one-liner when we discuss INA. Otherwise, history textbooks across India hardly refer to any seven sister states of North Eastern India. Currently, it is heavily loaded with colorful stuff rather than culture, art, and least of all - common people.

Geography is also not different. I think literature is far better compared to other subjects.

As I mentioned several times in this article, education is not as glamorous for governments from an election point of view. However, it is the foundation of India and a passport to the future. If we miss once, then an entire generation must end up paying the prince.

In coming articles, we will start exploring new National Education Policy 2020.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

National Education Policy 2020: 2 - Key Problems In Indian Educational Sector Part I

1. Can education be free when private capital is involved?

We hear statements from policymakers – education should be free and available to all. Is this possible? First, the government does not have enough capacity to build institutions and infrastructure for India’s huge population. Private sector fills the void to an extent. Major players are - religious institutions, charity foundations, private trusts, and a plethora of for-profit (especially in higher education) organizations. Some are for social improvement; others have their own goals and to make money.

In this scenario, could education be free? I do not think so. The next question is, should that be affordable? Yes, all should get the opportunity. If capital is the problem, then the government should fill the gap.

I am a true believer in capitalism. However, in education, I believe the government should play a critical role. We as a country need to spend a higher percentage of GDP on education, build institutions, focus on girl’s education. 1 rupee here will save 10 rupees in other places. At least double educational expenditure as a percentage of GDP.

Another key factor in the educational sector is the regulatory mechanism and funding agencies – UGC, AICTE, State boards, CBSE, NCERT etc. There are talks about creating a single, all-powerful regulatory mechanism that governs everything from Delhi. Is that good? There are pros and cons.

One, a single body enough for education at all levels? Two, the concept of a centralized institution a good idea? For both, my answer is no.

Answering the first question, the needs of pre-primary and post-graduate education is totally different. There is a reason why kids even on 6th and 7th are not able to do additions and subtractions. We neglect preprimary and primary education. Building these institutions are not as glamorous as setting up IITs. This is exactly what is going to happen if we push everything to the same bracket. Let there be multiple regulators focusing on specific areas of child development.

Answering the second question, education is a state subject and there is a reason for that. The needs of each state and the level in which they are currently in are totally different. A lot of educational initiatives were in fact introduced and driven by states.

Consider the case of mid-day meal system which drove kids to school. British, introduced it in Madras presidency and French in Pondicherry. Later in independent India, Kamaraj started a whole scale program in Madras (now Chennai) and later extended to other districts.

Travancore started a noon-meal program in the 1940s; this was extended after independence with assistance from ‘Co-operative for American Relief Everywhere (CARE)’. In 1984, a feeding program with Kanji (rice gruel) was introduced across LP schools. State also started offering travel concessions to students way back in the 1950s. Even now students in Kerala can use public transport systems by paying 25% of the actual fee.              

By 1990-91 number of states implemented mid-day meal program swelled to 12.

People who run the state administration and educationalists from there are in the ground and understand the realities better. Let them have the flexibility for customization. At the same time, we need to make sure, all states are doing the minimum expected out of them.


2. A mess nick-named as ‘self-governing’ and ‘autonomous’

The second problem is regulation.

Numbers do matter, but hundreds of colleges coming up like mushrooms in the rainy season is not a good thing. For e.g. Plethora of engineering colleges in southern India are run by private entities where the quality does not even peep through the gate.

It was only last month Haryana state vigilance bureau arrested 14 senior ranking officers of state for obtaining MSc Zoology degrees illegally from Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan based deemed universities. (TOI). As a matter of fact, in India, MSc Zoology is not part of distance education. What more, many of these officers were not even on leave in exam days!!!

In 2005, the Supreme Court of India declared ‘Chhattisgarh Private Sector Universities Act’ as unconstitutional. Under this act, 112 private universities came up in one year!!! As per some reports, approximately 30,000 students were studying in these universities.

In Karnataka, it was IT department which exposed MBBS admission scam.

Education is an industry now. People are here to make money; it is the regulator's job to make sure that none of the colleges operating India are fake or giving fake degrees. They also need to make sure; colleges are not giving degrees without students attending classes or writing exams.

When someone asks me whether a college is good for their son’s/daughter’s admission, I have no clue. There are no specific numbers that I can look in to. All have the highest qualifications on paper. So mainly I investigate their placement records. Not a very good parameter to look in to, but something which one can rely on. In a way, this also has its flaws. Colleges in big cities often have better placement records than far better colleges in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Just being close to the industry is an advantage for them.


3. Apathy towards non-STEM subjects

Everyone wants to be in the science stream; if that is not available then in commerce/business stream. No one wants to be in humanities.

Parents often find arts and humanities as a risky field for jobs. Also, not good for their social status. Most often top rankers are not interested in taking majors in history, arts, geography, and subjects like that.

If you look around, many great people of all time were experts in multiple areas. Great universities like Harvard encourage students to have an understanding of multiple subjects. But in India people focus on STEM (Science, technology, Engineering, Mathematics) which is good; but the lack of appreciation of other subjects is the problem. This often leads to a place where students lack an understanding of history and humanity.

In society, all problems are not engineering problems, and all cannot be solved in that way. It's not that there are no opportunities in other fields. Just look at the DataScience area, there is a lot of demand for people who understand sociology, human behavior, statistics etc.  

Lack of understanding in history is leading people to believe in things which divide society based on caste and religion. I often heard many educated people talk about avenging for things that happened centuries back; people who bar fellow human beings in their gated communities, just because of their religion.

4. Utter disregard for physical work

I do not know how people get the idea that physical work is beneath them. Many of those who talk hours on the plight of farmers hardly have any idea how to use gardening and farming tools.

Parents prohibit their kids from playing in the dirt; in the same dirt where humans flourished for millions of years.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

National Education Policy 2020: 1– An Introduction

"I was impressed by how Amy customizes learning. She told me about one of her students, who is completely non-verbal, visually impaired, and can’t move his arms or legs. Rather than focus on what this student couldn’t do, Amy instead identified something he could do: nod and shake his head. She came up with a writing system based on yes-or-no questions, so that he could journal about what he did over the weekend with family just like all of his classmates.

Amy’s goal is to create an inclusive environment where her kids learn alongside their peers. Instead of the traditional model where special needs students are siloed into their own program, her students are integrated into the broader school. Each one learns and socializes in homeroom, eats in the cafeteria, and participates in recess and gym class.

The result is a school where students with special needs are treated as valuable and important members of the community. In addition to making sure her kids are integrated into the broader student body, Amy also works with the general population students to help them understand their differently-abled peers. They start learning and talking about disabilities in the classroom as early as kindergarten- Gates Notes, Bill Gates

Amy Campbell is ‘Teacher of the Year’ in the state of Washington (Gate’s home state), US.

Malcolm X once told, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” If one is denied of this passport, then it will be difficult – if not impossible – to open so many doors.

In a philosophical sense, education is not limited to formal education. Being said that, formal education is essential for livelihood and upward mobility. One can always see a lot of people, who are phenomenally successful in life, without any formal education. However, we should always remember, people who dropped out of schools /universities and attained great things in real life are exceptions, not the rule. There are millions on the other side, who, because of the lack of formal education are struggling in life. You may ask this question, what about those millions who completed higher education and still struggling in life. Well, that is a different question – the one we are going to discuss in great length in this series.

As a matter of fact, we did not inherit a deeply flawed system. We cannot always blame history for everything.  We had something, which was created by the British and we had an opportunity to fix/modify it over a period. That educational system failed to enroll the masses. Before blaming this one also on Nehru, let me remind you that all governments got fair chance to fix it. Education is a state subject; hence even the regional leaders also cannot wash their hands out of that. Our refusal to accept the changes happening around the world only made the matters worse. Currently, we have an educational system that is partly flawed, corrupt, unfair, and out of date (especially the one run by state boards).

Let us discuss the problems first.