Economists have written a lot about the importance of investment and capital for economic growth; and we have measures to track how many different kinds of capital are growing. We know, for instance, that the investment-to-GDP ratio in India has been falling over the last three or four years (which can cause a serious growth slowdown). However, the most important form of capital, namely, human — the education, vocational skills and creativity a population possesses — is one of the hardest to measure.
For that reason, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which began in 2005, has established itself as one of the most vital documents for analysing the long-run prospects of India’s economy. As a data source on the state of children’s education across the nation, it has no peers. It gives us a broad sense of what is happening to human capital in India. ASER 2017, which was released last month, is focused on the age group 14 to 18 years. This constitutes roughly 10 per cent of India’s population. This is a group that will be in the driver’s seat over the coming decades. So the way it is being skilled is going to be a major determinant of how the nation performs.
Reading ASER 2017 is a depressing experience. Of the 14 to 18 year-olds, 86 per cent are enrolled in a school or a college. However, 25 per cent of them cannot read a basic text meant for children, five to seven years old, in their mother tongue; 57 per cent of them are unable to do basic division — a three-digit number to be divided by a single digit number, such as 999 divided by 3. Of the 18-year-olds enrolled in colleges and schools, 60 per cent can read English, though one-fifth of those cannot tell you what they read. And 36 per cent of rural adolescents could not correctly name India’s capital, with some of them thinking it is “Pakistan”. Bhakts clearly have some work to do here.
These disturbing numbers hide large inter-state differences, which is both good news and bad. Consider the percentage of youth with the ability to read basic English. At the top end we have states like Kerala with an impressive 94.9 per cent and Himachal Pradesh with 82.4 per cent. But at the other end we have UP, with less than 50 per cent, and Rajasthan, with less than 40 per cent. If someone dismisses this on the ground that English is an alien language, we can look at the ability to solve simple division problems (I hope no one will dismiss division as a foreign imposition). We see similar gaps. In Kerala and Himachal, 67.1 per cent and 58.4 per cent can do division whereas the figures for UP and Rajasthan are approximately 35 per cent. (I should clarify that these data are not based on full random sampling of the states and so should be interpreted with some caution.)
Turning to the causes behind these dismal numbers, the first thing we must try to avoid is to put it all at the doorstep of one party or one political leader. The numbers suggest a collective failure and an accumulation of faulty policies over a long time. However, matters are being made worse now. There is a surge of hyper-nationalism in India in recent years that, in the name of respecting our ancient wisdom, is making the mistake of putting it on a sacred pedestal. This can do great harm to modern education and scientific learning. There are groups perpetuating superstition and decrying modern knowledge, not recognising that we must embrace the best ideas no matter when or where they originated.
What this is doing is enhancing the importance of form over content in our educational system. The gross enrollment ratio for those in the age-group 18 to 24 (that is, the per cent of population of that age that is enrolled in educational institutes) has gone up from 11.6 per cent in 2005 to 24.5 per cent in 2015. Likewise, the number of students enrolled in standard eight has gone up from 11 million a decade ago to 22 million now. These are impressive increases but where they are not being matched by improvements is in the main purpose of going to school, which is to learn.
The rising enrollment shows that the desire to get a certificate or a degree is high in India. What is falling by the wayside is the content behind the degree. For long-run development what matters is what we actually learn, on whether we have the scientific temper, the courage and intellect to challenge old ideas and texts. The importance of the ASER report lies in the fact that it draws attention to precisely these fundamentals.
Postscript: Luckily, the worship of the degree has its comical side. While mulling over the above depressing numbers, my mind drifted back to my PhD days at the London School of Economics. I had become friendly with a new student (who will have to remain unnamed) who came for the one-year MSc degree from another country (that will also remain unnamed). A warm and friendly person, with poor educational background, he used to come to me for help with economics and calculus. But to no avail. At year’s end he failed the exam. Determined and always full of good cheer, he decided to stay on another year, telling me: “All I need are three letters—M, S and C. That is enough to fool the masses.”
And he struggled on; another year passed. Then the day the MSc results came out, walking past his apartment in the evening, I saw a party in full flow, with champagne popping. My friend was in the centre, with the room full of his country folks. I decided to walk in and congratulated him. He thanked me and introduced me to the others as his “teacher”. He said he was happy he could now go back home. Then putting his arm around me, he walked me out to the balcony and said, “You have been so kind to me, spending so many hours teaching me, I must tell you what no one in that room knows. I have failed again.”