Column inches have been dedicated to the poor standards of India's education system. Another confirmation of this sad reality came in the form of the 11th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) that measures overall learning level among Indian school student. Data collected from 589 rural districts in India lay bare the challenges facing school education. Through its findings, the report concludes that the overall levels of learning among Indian students are "pretty disappointing". Despite the near-universal enrollment in elementary schools (Grade I-VIII) mandated by the Right to Education Act, which makes education a fundamental right for all children in the 6-14 age group, barriers to learning remain strong. "India is close to schooling for all, but our journey towards learning for all is yet to begin," said Madav Chavan co-founder of Pratham, the NGO that publishes ASER. "Many parents and policymakers still believe that schooling leads to learning. More than ten years of data show that issue of learning needs urgent attention." As per the report, the proportion of all children in Class V who can read a Class II level text (book) declined to 47.8 per cent in 2016 from 48.1 per cent in 2014. In other words, every second student is unable to read a piece of text meant for someone three classes below. The report gathered similar findings in arithmetic and English comprehension skills. In an acute observation, Subramanian also said that politically, education is still not seen as a vote-gathering topic. Greater political will is required towards "educating millions of students," he said. "We have to move out of the curriculum cycle and address the learning issue in schools," said Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia who was a speaker at the event. The political class at least recognises the problem. How does our school system move towards better learning outcomes? One of the primary aims has to be improving teacher accountability, better assessments at each class and more efficient monitoring and support systems. Beyond these concerns, better use of technology and tackling the gender barriers that still exist for young girl students in large parts of India are some of the other aspects that governments need to address.
In a recent column for a leading Indian publication, Pranab Bardhan, a leading academic, said: "The state of higher education isn't any better. The (erstwhile) Planning Commission had estimated that only 17.5 per cent of our graduates are employable. Many of the graduates lack the even basic language and cognitive skills. In the Information Technology sector the main chamber of commerce, NASSCOM, estimates that even for engineering graduates, only 20 per cent of graduates of engineering colleges in India are employable in IT companies. In terms of quality of post-graduate research, while some of it is no doubt significant, overall our research quality is much below the world average." The conclusion drawn from such observations is that the Indian economy will be unable to absorb the millions of young people entering the workforce. As a country with the average years of schooling of just 4.4 years, allied with serious problems in our public health system and poor human development index indicators, the challenges before governments, both at the Centre and State, are immense. Various reports indicate that India needs anywhere between 12-23 million jobs annually. How many of them will be qualified for a job?
Last year, the unemployment rate in India had shot up to a five-year high of 5 percent. According to a report by the Labour Bureau, the figure is significantly higher at 8.7 per cent for women as compared to 4.3 per cent for men. The manufacturing sector has been pegged as a saviour for greater employment generation. But the Indian manufacturing sector today is highly automated. Increasing automation in the manufacturing sector further reduces the scope of job creation. Why would a factory owner need to pay additional workers when a single machine can do the job? The Boston Consulting Group, an American global management consulting firm, believes that robots will do 40 per cent of manufacturing tasks in the years to come. A booming manufacturing sector will contribute to higher growth, but not necessarily more jobs. Also, one has to be highly skilled in acquiring employment in the manufacturing sector. To obtain these jobs, good quality education is mandatory. But, as argued above, India's education system has failed miserably in its bid to deliver quality education to India's young populace. For example, an earlier Annual Status of Education Report published in 2014 revealed that only one in four children in Class V could solve a three-digit by one-digit division problem. With a fragmented marketplace, low job generation outside tier 1 cities, and rising income inequality, the prospects are rather frightening. Without the crutch of reservation, many are left behind. Add demonetisation to the equation, and the reality before the Indian populace is rather grim.