The education system is embedded in the bigger socio-political order of the economy. To a large degree, the larger system dictates the characteristics of its subsystems. In the broadest terms, the government of India is an extractive and exploitative system created specifically for that purpose during the nearly one hundred years of its existence as a British colony before India became politically independent. The British, as a colonial power, created a system designed to control every aspect of the economy to maximize extraction. The challenge of administering such a large population required a certain small percentage of the native population to be educated in a very specific way. Therefore the total and absolute control of the education system was a necessity.
Even after British left, the structures they had created for controlling the economy in general, and the educational system more specifically, remained intact. The new political leaders saw it was beneficial for them not to deviate from the old colonial goal of imposing an extractive and exploitative government on the people. By continuing to control the education system, they were able to impose a degree of control over the population that would be unthinkable in a free society.
Universal primary education was especially neglected because it would have given rise to universal literacy. Universal literacy is not a good thing if the status quo is to be maintained in a regime which allows freedom of the press. It is safe to allow a free press if two out of three people cannot read. Freedom of the press is not meaningful — and is not a threat to the power structure — in a society of illiterates. We should note in passing that whether literate or not, people can hear and speak. So while the press was allowed freedom in a largely illiterate society, radio was absolutely government controlled, consistent with the aim of an exploitative and extractive system.
To be perfectly clear, whether a system is judged to be a failure or not depends on the objective that the system was created to serve. The Indian education system is definitely successful because it does meet the objectives that the British created it for, and which the successive Indian governments have implicitly endorsed: control the supply of education and dictate to the finest detail the nature of the education provided and to whom. Universal primary education, or even universal literacy, was never its goal. To fault the current educational system on its inability to meet the needs of a developing society is to miss the point that it was meant as an instrument for extractive purposes.
If the preceding picture painted hastily with broad brush strokes is reasonably accurate, then it implies that for the education system to serve the needs of a developing nation, the objectives of the system will have to change. Since the same structure cannot serve an orthogonal set of objectives, the whole system will have to be redesigned. If there is one thing I would like to convey in this brief series, it is this: change the system radically if it has to serve a different objective. It should be evident that anything less than a radical re-thinking of the system would be a pointless waste of time.
The current educational system has an objective dictated by the British and which the governments of independent India inherited: To choose from within the huge population a small subset and educate them so that they will serve the needs of the government. That objective should have been replaced with something like this: To develop the human potential of every citizen in the broadest sense, so that the individual is best able to serve his own interests and the interests of the world he lives in. In other words, the citizens are not seen as serving the interests of the government but instead the government’s objective is to serve the people.
The alternate objective would require liberalizing the education sector from government control. I will go into some specifics of the liberalization of the sector later in the series.