Our Moribund Educational System

The Indian education system is in distress. It is critically in need of reform since it is inefficient and ineffective. What exists today is something that was designed to serve the needs of a different era with different objectives and compulsions. For sustainable development of India, the country needs a new system which is economically efficient, socially equitable, functionally effective, and consonant with the altered needs of the present.

Fundamentally we have to recognize that there are severe resource constraints. There is a capital constraint, of course, but more importantly we have a human capital constraint, mainly in terms of limited numbers of trained teachers. The former can be circumvented by borrowing the required capital; the latter is much harder to overcome because it takes years we cannot afford to train the millions of teachers required.

To meet the challenges of the different world we live in compared to the one for which the existent educational system was designed, we have to fundamentally rethink the educational institutions. Merely tinkering with the system will not suffice. However much one modifies a bullock cart, one cannot transform it into an efficient fast all-terrain vehicle.

The fact that our age is characterized by high technology is both a challenge and an opportunity. To participate in today’s economy, one needs not only to be literate and numerate, one has also to be fully competent to use the technology. Fortunately, it is technology itself which can help in the transformation of the educational system.

Here is a short list of specific problems that plague the system and a brief suggestion on possible solutions.

  1. Financially too costly. If money was no object, then the tens of millions who need education could be accommodated with ease. A good education is affordable only for a vanishingly small percentage of the population. The costs can be brought down by substituting the most costly factor: teachers. Use ICT (information and communications technology) as a substitute for costly teachers.
  2. It wastes too much time. The current system does not efficiently use time. It should not take over a decade to provide students with the basic foundations of a good education. It can be done in much less time, so that the student has more time to build upon that foundation. Greater specialization of the economy requires that the foundation be laid more efficiently so that more time is available for specialization. The recommendation is to reduce the time spent in the foundation to about 8 years and allow five years for specialization, to arrive at a fully qualified employable person by age 20.
  3. Students are overburdened. The few who are lucky enough to be in school, have a pretty hellish life. They have very little free time, between attending classes, doing homework, going for “tuitions” and so on. A lot of disjointed information is thrown at them and they are never able to fully comprehend what it is all about. The solution is to reduce the amount of information that the student is fed, and instead motivate the whole exercise of learning so that the student spend more time internalizing a comprehensive coherent set of information. The system has to allow the student more free time.
  4. The system is inflexible. It does not encourage creativity and does not reward individuality. The system must be made ‘student-centric’ instead of ‘teacher-centric.’ The student must have the freedom within to system to follow the path that is most natural and which is consonant with his or her talents.
  5. The system is supply constrained. The competition to enter the limited number of educational institutions is fierce beyond description. In the scramble for limited seats, a very large number do not get a chance at getting an education. The supply has to be increased.
  6. Credit constraint. Even after the supply is increased, individuals have to be able to afford the quality education. The returns to education are positive. Which means that those who cannot afford the education due to credit constraints are unable to get the returns of education. The solution is therefore to increase the amount available for loans and to massively subsidize primary education.

Education is the master key which can unlock the potential of the nation of over a billion people. If we continue to neglect education, all our efforts in other spheres is likely to be in vain.

Author: Atanu Dey


15 thoughts on “Our Moribund Educational System”

  1. Amen to all of this.

    Our capability to lift India out of poverty and backwardness is tied closely to our ablity to creat real human capital that can power productivity multi-fold.

    Of all the contraints, I feel the biggest is going to be teachers. ICT per-se can help; but we need teachers ot superb content creators. Also, the current mode of delivery using the net is mostly passive and doe not allow for interactive learning. I am not saying it cannot be done, but it is going to take a lot of genius to create effective interactive learning modules.

    Also, while at one end our children are being taught too much; the current system misses imparting important ‘must have’ knowledge. For example, you can go through school and say, engineering college and be completely innocent of the basics of economics, pol. science or even some parts of world history. That the training in physical sciences that you may have acquired in the process may also have huge gaps is another matter!


  2. The biggest problem I think is mismanagement of resources. Contrary to what most of us think – the government actually spends quite a lot of money, well at least on primary education education! But despite so much expenditure, most kids who pass out of govt. run schools are almost illiterate! So cleraly we’re getting what we are paying for. Now that isnt surprising, is it? considering the fact that these schools are run by the govt. Unfortunately the solution isnt as straightforward as simply privatising the whole thing. It requires genuine visionary leadership & thats something we’ve never had which again isnt surprising coz much of that leadership has been provided by a dynasty of undereducated morons!! Sadly I dont see that changing in the near future either!


  3. I agree that the Indian education system needs a lot of work, and all the concerns you’ve listed above are valid points. However, I don’t think even solving all these problems would necessarily guarantee positive results.

    Consider the American system. With the exception of point 2, it addresses most of the concerns you’ve raised; money is less of a concern, students aren’t overburdened, the system is flexible. However, their system also finds a way to be quite a mess at the high-school level.

    I’m afraid I don’t have any easy suggestions for how to fix the system. There are a few obvious improvements that can be made, but I doubt they’d suffice.


  4. The Great Potential Divide I

    Atanu, as always makes excellent points. He is the analyst supremo. I haven’t seen anyone else with such crystal clear thinking on India’s problems. Allow this ignoramus to share a few things..

    Premise: Men Drive the Nation. The Momentum is directly proportional to the number of Men. And of course, orientation. It is the number of brains that are being effectively utilized in core areas that matters.

    To be used effectively, the brain must be trained properly.

    Every human’s intellect can be summarized as “information processing”. Every human gathers information continuously, finds some variables, some constants and solves the equation. This ability to process information increases as increasing amounts of information is thrown at the mind. When in school, the information is limited, just a few books, and the information processing divide is not that significant.

    In India, the best 2000 brains go to IITs, a few hundred go to AIIMS, become doctors. Now, lets not worry about these doctor chaps, they do not create large companies, in small groups, they form Nursing Homes and Small Hospitals.

    However, there are people of all sorts of intelligence. Only in the IITs do we find slightly better teaching.

    It is at the undergraduate level, the brain is exposed to massive amounts of information, add to that the excellent quality of teachers, competition that pricks the ego and drives humans to new levels of information processing abilities.

    Now, these IITians have the ability to understand a lot of things with this information processing abilities, and most of them land up in good jobs in US, a large number of them become tenure track professors, some CIO/CTO/CFO, a minor fraction start their own firms. The very few (about 1%) who stay in India go to IIMs/IAS stream where they land up in a good company or work for the Govt. Both of these are dead ends. Those who go to US are dead ends too. Don’t believe anyone who says it is not brain drain. It is!!! At the very least, it is a resource drain. Dr. Dey estimates it at $100K. I guess he is just using the cost of education. But, this is just the investment till now. The return on investment on education is several hundred to several thousand times. If we do the math, the numbers will be mind-boggling.

    Lets take a look at the rest of the Indians who go to other colleges.

    The kids who didn’t get into the IITs inspite of the tremendous effort they put in, what would their output be? An ex-IITian estimates that “There is practically little distinction in terms of merit between the top 2000 students in the JEE and the next 2000 or even the next 5000.” http://srikaar.blogspot.com/2005/11/graduating-from-be-to-btech.html

    I’d extend this further and say that, there are at least 30,000 people who have just as much or maybe 10% less merit. I’m not going to argue whether this is a good indicator of merit, that’s another topic. Another 30,000 or so with maybe 10% less merit and so on and so forth.

    We are all aware of the tremendous impact the IITs have on the world. The other blokes who didn’t cut it, could have made similar impacts, of a slightly lesser magnitude, had they been trained properly. However, because of the ridiculously low quality of education, their potential is misused.

    From my own experience, I was admitted into CBIT, which was among the top five engineering colleges in AP. The less I speak about the quality of teachers, the better. Most of them couldn’t comprehend a flowchart. At the undergraduate level, we actually need people who understand and make the students fall in love with the subjects. The system kills the spirit of all these people, forcing them to learn the last two years question papers, using the syllabus from a Triassic age, killing whatever spark of life is left.

    As always, there are outliers, for example a miniscule 0.00001% are lucky.

    At the end of undergraduate, there is a insurmountable divide of potential, IITians potential growing at an exponential rate, that of the rest flattening out and going lower, it goes lower as there is no *challenge* and that reduces the rest of Indians to menial jobs while the IITians go on to achieve greater(??) things.

    By not unleashing the potential of all these people, by denying Indians the exponential growth of potential that rightfully belongs to us, the country is in a state of perpetual misery. The thousand or so IITians, run away from the country, become CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, tenure track professors, giving nothing back to the country, other than some funds to IITs which perpetuates the cycle of massive brain drain.

    Every other country realizes the distinction between men and tries its best to maximize everyone’s potential. It is men that drive a nation and not vice versa. In US, if one can’t get into MIT or CalTech, there is Princeton, if not Harvard (the name is not tarnished even though Bush graduated from there), Yale, and finally University of Mississippi for the dumbest of them. No one’s potential is wasted. Everyone’s brain is optimally utilized. Anyone who was lazy and has changed now, can join the highest, which is not the case in India.

    This, I believe is the first step we must take. Build centers of learning that unleash the potential of these people. Instead of lamenting on the lack of primary education, literacy, health and all those things, we should first learn how to utilize what we have on our hand. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

    I am going to create a system, which will unleash the potential of the literate people first and then use the resources to drill down and solve the remaining problems of primary education, health, economic independence and all that.

    All these IITs will be bested by the people from the colleges I build. Not that I have anything against the people who go to IIT, but anything owned by the Govt is fundamentally flawed. It CANNOT compete with a tremendously dedicated individual.

    Warmest Regards,


  5. Hi Atanu:

    I know that this is a jist of your ideas. However, the solutions you provide need a multi-role thing from the govt., private sectors and the general public.

    Where do you think the change should start?



  6. I’d advocate the following procedure

    1. Enforce minimum wage guarantee for every job
    2. Ensure unemployment stipends
    3. Make professional degree education free (engineering, medicine etc)
    4. Enable free markets


  7. I’d advocate the following procedure
    1. Enforce minimum wage guarantee for every job
    2. Ensure unemployment stipends
    3. Make professional degree education free (engineering, medicine etc)
    4. Enable free markets

    Its contradictory stuff that you are recomending here…
    Under ‘free market’ minimum wage seems contradictory….
    India for the most part has proffessional education subsidized at the expense of primary education.


  8. Hi!

    Some more ideas/suggestions. I agree with most of the post anyway.

    1. Evolve measures to gauge teaching productivity. These need not be individual measures that tie up with promotions etc. Instead, a department/university could be acknowledged for creating a socially effective individual. There can be more ways. For example, an individual may be asked about the teachers who have been influential for his/her professional growth, every five years for the next 20 or so years after graduation. In other words, usefully track the alumni.

    2. Have conferences devoted to discussing good teaching techniques. This could provide better peer respect and ideas exchange than techniques like Quality Improvement Programmes – which tacitly imply an inferiority. This is ‘student centric’ IMHO ;). Maybe we can exchange teachers between institutions just like student exchange programs.

    3. Remove subsidies to expose the true costs of Higher Education. The present incentive to view Education as a for-profit business esp. by some politicians needs to be countered.

    4. Teaching and Research go hand in hand. Present research is not introspective. A good teacher working to solve his/her community/society problems is a powerful subtle motivator.

    5. In accordance with the global practices, the present emphasis is: publish or perish. Change it to: publish or teach or perish.

    6. A warning: Emphasising education to be ‘student centric’ should not be interpreted as a job guarantee/probability. The purpose of Education is not eventual employment. It is to enhance the inherent productive abilities of an individual.

    7. Susidising primary education victimises the teacher today. That trap must be avoided.

    8. Present organisational practice has teachers at anything but focal point of the organisation and a student is just a roll number who eventually seeks a marksheet at the window! That the teaching faculty is the apex responsible authority of an educational institution is a necessary condition to have student centric systems.



  9. “Economic safety and social security is mandatory for free markets aka capitalism to succeed.”
    That poll simply shows why most people elect idiots.
    Most people choose a safe econmomic position for themselves.
    It is an easier generated by product of letting people make money easily.
    Governments role in wealthier countries is to do a socialy desirable redistribution of wealth.
    It is still a game for governments with luxury.
    Minimum wage is a function of markets.
    Who decided that engineers in us should get
    80k median salary… no one it was a supply and demand scenario.
    And all such efforts to enforce minimum wage have an economic cost.
    The government has to hire some one to do that job….Thats why all those are games for the rich governments to play.
    India has a load of industry inspectors
    it used to be a gazzeted officer position when i was in india.
    It was one of the worst thing the GOI has done for industrial policy,
    because what these inspectors were inspecting were not industrial pollution or smokes coming out of chimneys(which their analogs do in most western and eastern(japan) countries)
    but enforce labor laws and quotas and license.
    For india to do a descent job in primary education is to empower local governments and individuals to make decisions not a top down approach.
    CBSE,NCERT are examples of what is wrong with governments….If u beleive they have been doing a good job then i dont have much to say…I dont think they have been.
    Do you know that if i take some cash from US and hire a teacher in india i can not call that a school. It is this kind of licensing accreditation that is screwing india more.


  10. Atanu,

    1. You may want to visit the President of India website. It is Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam.

    2. President’s office has acknowledged the speech on similar lines. Pls. scroll to the bottom of

    3. The gist here is “Are Indians suffering from too much sarcasm”
    How can we explain this

    Pls. note that BBC is legal bound to be impartial

    Atanu, I’d like to submit that I’m trying to be ‘objective’ here with no offence to any individual…


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