By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl is our talented young India correspondent. He is a keen student of global humanist history and democratic politics.
He dedicates this article to Dr. Meenakshi Sarkar, his esteemed professor at the University of Leeds who supported him, and encouraged critical thinking, during his master’s programme. Also to his friend Dushyanth, a promoter of scientific education, and Mrs. Mamta Chhawachharia, a tutor who is promoting education to kids in a kind and interactive way.
The development of education in India has seen some progress in recent decades, but funding has often fallen short. While earlier budget constraints may have been due to limited resources, it's worth noting that even as the Indian economy has grown rapidly since 1995, educational investment has not kept pace. The National Education Commission (1964-1966), popularly known as the Kothari Commission, recommended that public educational expenditure should be raised from the then level of 2.9% of GDP to 6%, to be achieved by the fiscal year 1985–86. The 2020 National Education Policy reiterated the need to push up public investment in the sector to 6% of GDP. According to The Economic Times, the National Education Budget remains stagnant at US$112bn which equates to 2.9% of GDP (see Reference 4) although there is considerable private spending on education in addition to public spending. Other countries appear to invest more of their public spending in education. For example, Mozambique spends 6%, Norway spends 8%, and Singapore spends 13%. Remarkably, the Marshall Islands, a small island nation, leads with an education budget of 14%. (2020 figures.)
Public opinion in India supports increased public spending in this sector. According to a 2023 Economic Times poll, nearly half (48%) of respondents believe that the government should prioritise spending on health and education.
Private v Public Education
The Indian education system faces two major challenges that undermine its framework: Casteism and Capitalism. According to UNESCO, seven out of ten schools in India are privately run. A survey reveals that 73% of Indian parents prefer private schools, citing inadequate standards in public schools. However, in a contrasting finding, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) reports that many students opt for government colleges due to their lower fees and the prestige they bring.
Private education in India has gained significant traction, with institutions like FIITJEE, a coaching centre for Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) entrance exams, boasting a turnover of 4.5 billion rupees (US$54m). Times Now reports that parents invest a staggering 173 billion rupees (US$2bn) in private schools annually.
The 19th century social and economic thinker Karl Marx argued that capitalism commodifies human beings, and this notion seems to hold true in the context of India's education system. He believed that "bourgeois education" serves the interests of capitalist employers, perpetuating inequality. This sentiment has echoes in the Indian education landscape, where business-minded school operators place undue pressure on students to perform. Failure to achieve high marks can result in students being ostracised or even expelled, much like unproductive cows being separated from the herd. This system perpetuates an environment where students face extreme stress and societal pressures, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities.
It's striking to note that major private educational institutions in India such as FIITJEE, Aakash, and Sri Chaitanya don't publicly disclose their tuition fees on their websites, unlike most mainstream schools. According to the Siksha blog, the annual fee for 12th grade at FIITJEE is 115,000 rupees, and a two-year programme costs 300,000 rupees. I wonder if these business-oriented institutions underreport a substantial portion of their earnings?
Despite these high fees, teachers in private schools are frequently criticised for lacking both relevant qualifications and effective teaching skills. While many hold degrees, they may not have the pedagogical skills needed to educate effectively. Less-qualified individuals can, of course, often be hired at lower salaries. Some educators still resort to rote learning, and there have even been reports of teachers using physical discipline.
The impact of capitalism on Indian education
Private educational institutions often start with a single centre and then proliferate to major Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Visakhapatnam, Varanasi, Chennai, and Trichy among others. These cities have a considerable middle-class population willing to invest in their children's education. Even economically disadvantaged families take out substantial loans to fund their children's schooling. For example, Aakash, a coaching institute for medical students, has expanded to 300 branches across India.
With capitalism deeply entrenched in the education sector, these private institutions invest heavily in advertising through digital and print media, as well as social platforms. It's not uncommon to see large billboards showcasing students who have excelled in entrance exams. These schools have robust marketing departments that are adept at highlighting their faculty, infrastructure, and success rates. They often claim to provide a guaranteed path to prestigious institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), thereby attracting the aspirations and finances of middle-class families.
In a capitalist system, professions that do not directly contribute to capital accumulation might be devalued. The emergence of private education has led to the perception that subjects such as English, History, Basic Sciences, Philosophy and Political Sciences are less valuable, compared to fields like Engineering, Medicine, Management and Law. This tendency is exacerbated by economic conditions which often prompt parents to prioritise stable jobs and good salaries for their children over following their passions. This has led to a highly competitive environment for both jobs and educational opportunities, where even small advantages can be crucial. Many parents become intensely concerned about their children's futures, to the point that their worries can become harmful. Parents often invest their life savings in their child's education.
Like many organisations, private schools aim to attract the best talent. They often focus on admitting students who excel academically and may not provide substantial resources to assist those who struggle. Students usually undergo an initial admission test and may face ongoing assessments. Based on test performance, students are sorted into different sections:
• Section A includes top-scoring students
• Section B contains those who perform well but not at the highest level
• Section C is for students who earn satisfactory or lower grades.
The teaching quality can differ significantly across these sections. For instance, experienced professionals usually teach Section A, while less experienced teachers handle Sections B and C. This is akin to having a highly skilled doctor treat a healthy person while a less qualified individual cares for a patient with a severe illness.
Students often find themselves in a relentless cycle of study to meet high parental and societal expectations. Remarkably, this intense focus on academics starts as early as 6th grade, with 13-year-olds enrolled in institutions geared towards competitive exams.
High-Stakes Environment: The pressure to perform extends from school all the way to university, subjecting students to what can be considered an educational grind. In addition to mastering their regular coursework, school students also prepare for common university entrance exams. Meanwhile, college students juggle assessments for both employment and higher-level degrees.
Unyielding Schedules: The quest for academic success often sacrifices any sense of work-life balance. Students typically spend 8-9 hours at school, followed by an extra 3-4 hours of classes for 3-4 days a week. As they move up the grades, this intense schedule expands to six days a week. On top of that they have homework, adding up to a staggering 15-hour study day.
Limited Breaks: Unlike their peers, who might enjoy 45-day holidays, students in these high-pressure environments often get only 15 or even just 10 days off. In extreme cases, some are confined to their rooms and forced to study against their will.
Rote Learning: The focus of education often appears to be more on producing a workforce rather than fostering holistic individual development. Students are trained to memorise and regurgitate information, leaving little room for creativity or independent thought.
Questionable Outcomes: According to the Annual Employability Report of 2019, only 25% of Indian engineers are actually qualified to perform their jobs. Additionally, in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates competencies in Science, Maths, and Reading, India ranked 72nd out of 73 participating countries. This poor performance led the government to boycott future assessments.
Educational Scams: According to Article 21 of Indian Education Law, private educational institutions are supposed to operate as charitable organisations. However, many have strayed from this mission. They are often controlled by families of influential people, and funds intended for institutional improvement frequently end up in their personal accounts.
Financial Mismanagement: Worryingly, this money may not be properly tracked or taxed, adding to the problem of unreported, or "black" money, in the economy.
Misuse of CSR Funds: While these funds are often initially presented as contributions to social welfare under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, they may ultimately be diverted for personal use. This raises serious questions about the transparency and accountability of India's private educational institutions.
Student well-being under siege
In some private institutions in India, the student experience can resemble that of indentured labourers. The relentless workload and lack of holidays place enormous pressure on students, echoing concerns raised by thinkers like Karl Marx about workers' conditions. The intensity of this academic environment is reminiscent of oppressive labour systems and even slavery.
Prominent thinkers like Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, and Yuval Noah Harari have all emphasised the importance of human creativity. Yet current education systems, influenced by societal factors such as religion and caste, often suppress this innate creativity in favour of rote learning. Private schools have an excessive focus on subjects like Maths, Physics, and Chemistry, often at the expense of extracurricular activities. Additionally, more than 60% of urban schools don't have playgrounds.
When students excel in board exams or entrance tests, they are publicly celebrated. However, if they fail or underperform, the societal pressure, parental disappointment, and financial strains can lead to severe emotional distress, including suicidal thoughts. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 35 student deaths occur each day in India, many linked to academic stress. A UNICEF report indicates that one in seven students between 15 and 24 suffer from education-related depression.
Pressure to choose specific careers
India's youth population of 459 million is in fierce competition for limited places in 586 government colleges. While many are attracted by lower or free tuition fees, parents often push their children towards high-paying jobs, sometimes with the prospect of opportunities abroad in countries such as the US or UK. This leads students, who might not have a natural inclination for fields like engineering or medicine, to invest heavily in preparing for competitive exams.
After graduation, many students end up in careers such as banking or management. This not only leaves a gap in the workforce for engineers and managers but also affects colleges that have invested in these programmes, ultimately impacting the economy.
The Reservation System - positive discrimination?
What happens to individuals who fail competitive exams? If they don't belong to Scheduled Classes, Scheduled Tribes, or Other Backward Classes, they often attribute their failure to the reservation system which, among other things, provides access to education for marginalised communities. The concept of reservations was introduced by the Justice Party in the Madras Presidency during the 1930s. It aimed to address the privileged situation of Brahmins, who were only 3.7% of the population but held 85% of educational and governmental positions. The reservation system was designed to allocate a certain number of places to marginalized classes. The social reformer Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was a strong proponent of reservations for marginalized communities, making it mandatory in India after its independence. This policy provided these communities with access to education, government jobs, and political roles. However, it has also been a point of contention, especially when Open Category (OC) candidates need a higher score to qualify than a Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidate.
Reservations mostly affect government-run educational institutions in India. For context, the US has 2,200 universities for its approximately 31 million young people and China has 2,756 government colleges for its youth population of 110 million. In contrast, India has only 485 government universities for its youth population of 116 million. Due to the limited number of places in government colleges, even small differences in exam scores can result in vast disparities in student rankings. This problem is rooted in the government's failure to establish enough colleges for India's large youth population.
While reservations are crucial for levelling up marginalised communities, they should not overshadow the broader issue: the need for more educational opportunities for all deserving candidates. According to the Social Justice of India website, marginalised communities are still the most economically disadvantaged, highlighting the continued necessity for targeted support.
“Schools ought to be sanctuaries for happiness and personal development, rather than sources of stress and mental health struggles.”
The increasing commercialisation of education under capitalism poses the risk of transforming education from a basic right into a luxury. To counteract this, government oversight is essential in regulating fee structures and decision-making in private schools. Schools that fail to maintain basic sanitation standards should be shut down, and their management teams should face legal consequences. Additionally, public schools require improved infrastructure to ensure that quality education is accessible to students from all economic backgrounds. Teachers should undergo thorough evaluations that assess not just their academic knowledge, but also their interpersonal skills. Only those who successfully pass these comprehensive assessments should be allowed to teach. Furthermore, the mental well-being of students should be a priority. This can be achieved by offering affordable or free education, reducing the school day to six hours, fostering critical thinking skills, reforming examination patterns, and increasing the number of public universities. Schools ought to be sanctuaries for happiness and personal development, rather than sources of stress and mental health struggles. The focus should be on encouraging students to compete with themselves for self-improvement, rather than fostering a harmful competitive environment. Ultimately, the goal must be to redefine education as a fundamental right and necessity, rather than a commodity to be bought and sold.
References and further reading
Kothari Commission 1968 link
The Economic Times Budget 2023
The Economic Times online poll: What India wants from Budget 2023
Education in India Wikipedia
List of countries by spending on education as percentage of GDP Wikipedia
Indians spend Rs. 1. 75 lakh crores [1.75 trillion Indian Rupees] on private school education: Private Schools of India Sector Report
Budget 2023: Major Impetus to India’s Education Sector report
FIITJEE’s profit shrinks 99% in FY22 with flat revenue report
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Wikipedia