"Basic education" should now also include "undergraduate education"

Many wouldn't dispute the fact that everyone should get free quality basic education, irrespective of their income levels. By basic education, people mean school education. It's now time to extend the definition of basic education to include under graduation.

Recollecting the rationale behind current consensus on basic education will help us understand the rationale behind extending the definition to include under graduation.

The question thus is - why should government sponsor basic education of children? Economists will tell that education is a public good, there are huge externalities etc.  But, this is a misleading argument. Historically, this wasn't the rationale behind funding school education. People didn't sit and say "Ok, there are externalities. Let's fund it.". Morality was the fundamental rationale.

Depending on the timescale we want to consider, one can trace the roots of debate way back to Aristotle. Those days, even all humans weren't treated equally in all aspects. It was believed that only some have qualities to vote etc. After numerous struggles, revolutions and debates, people first got rid of divine right theories and got political rights. After political rights, there was new realisation about social rights. After that, slowly other positive rights started emerging - education, health care etc. The strong moral foundations for these were established by thinkers like John Rawls, Amartya Sen etc.

Fundamentally, the point being, the consensus behind government funding of school education is moral. The rationale varies slightly among different thinkers but the basic point is that education and healthcare are crucial to offset inequalities at birth. This argument presumed certain structure of economy, where school education is enough to offset inequalities and give a decent life to a person.

It's now time to revise these arguments because the structure of economy has changed. School education is no longer sufficient to bridge inequalities at birth. In these days, one needs at least undergraduate education.  This is due to what economists call "job polarisation", where more jobs are being automated creating a void in middle skill jobs. Only two categories of jobs remain - routine manual jobs like gardner which are difficult to automate and the high end jobs that require higher cognitive and professional skills. 

In olden days, school education could propel people from routine manual jobs to at least middle skill jobs. With disappearing middle section, school education is no longer sufficient to get decent job. Even 10th graduates have to end up taking up routine manual jobs. The only way out of this is to get into the higher end of jobs, which mandatorily require at least undergraduate education. Thus, undergraduate education has become the new equivalent of basic school education. This calls for more active role of governments in providing undergraduate education to people.

Finances may be an issue here as undergraduate education is costlier than school education. Countries like Germany can afford to make higher education free for everyone. Low income countries may not be able to bear that burden. However, these countries should at least try to reduce the financial burden of undergraduate education as far as possible. If they can't fund all, they should at least fund the top universities and provide scholarships to others.

In summary, bridging inequalities at birth was important rationale for public funding of school education. This presumes that school education gives decent life. But, times have changed. These days, one requires at least an undergraduate education to get a decent job. Hence, our definition of basic education should be extended to include undergraduate education. If governments can't fund it for everyone at the moment, it should at least consider significantly reducing the burden of top few and for others in varying degrees.

Why do IIT graduates quit engineering?

Often, there is a lot of outrage saying that IIT graduates don't pursue engineering careers and hence the money invested on their education is going waste. The question to ask is - is it the mistake of IIT graduates or the economy that doesn't provide enough good engineering jobs.

Pramath Sinha, found dean of ISB has a good interview in Business Standard where he answers this question - why do IIT graduates quit engineering?

Pramath Sinha says that IIT graduates quit engineering because Indian industry is not sophisticated enough to absorb IIT-quality engineer. You can pursue aeronautical engineering from IIT Kanpur but there's no good aeronautical firm in India to attract that talent. The very few existing companies can't cater to all students.

This explanation is bang on the target. Among other things, non maturity of Indian industry is the major reason. Further, non-maturity of Indian industry is because of the structure of India's economy. Many people forget that Indian economy is service based. There's little manufacturing. In such cases, it is natural for people to work in sectors where there are jobs, which happens to be services sector.

If you notice, this is not case just with IIT graduates. It's the story of majority of engineering graduates. There are no core engineering jobs in India (other than IT). Everyone is thus forced to take up service sector jobs.

In fact, it may be better for talented people to pursue non engineering jobs than engineering because the value add to economy by being in engineering may be much less, as compared to the value add by the same person if he/she is in services sector.

It also tells us that one should not narrowly measure the value of money invested in a particular branch of engineering by the value created in the sector related to that particular branch of engineering. One should instead use the value add to the economy as the metric. If we do that, we realise that India has got 100 times more than what it invested in IITs, as per this GoI report.

In summary, we must thus note that outrage over IIT engineers not pursuing engineering is misplaced for three reasons.

One, it's not the mistake of engineers. The real reason is the structure of economy.

Two, it's not case just with IIT engineers. It's the story of majority of engineering graduates in India suggesting that structure of economy is the major driving factor, not the individual preferences.

Three, using narrow metrics of value addition of different branches of engineering to the particular related sectors of engineering is incorrect. We must use the over all value add to the economy.


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Other related reasons

As mentioned above, non maturity of Indian industry is one of the major reasons why engineers pursue non engineering careers. The other inter related reasons are:

1. Even if someone is interested in engineering, the relative salary of these jobs is very low. 

2. With the recent hike in IIT fee, good luck to Indian engineering industry. Even those who might have pursued engineering will never even dare to imagine it. There is no other option other than taking up a "non-core" job.

3. One might still say that one should pursue engineering for the sake of interest, ignoring the money aspect.  It might work for financially secure families but not for someone who is born and brought up in an environment of financial insecurity.

India is still a developing country. Money and security are thus the primary motivating factors behind pursuing education in India. Demand for IITs is an outcome of this need. They are essentially seen as ladders towards economic mobility. We haven't yet reached a stage where there's a critical mass of people who are financially secure enough to pursue engineering despite all odds.

Misplaced obsession with RTE in policy discourse

These days, every discussion on education policy in India, invariably revolves only around RTE. It appears as if "Education Policy is RTE and RTE is Education Policy". It has also been demonised to the extent that it is now being made responsible for everything wrong with our public education and its policy.

This obsession with RTE is incorrect. One, RTE is only a small part of education policy. It is NOT the education policy. Two, in case of public schools, RTE is NOT the reason for poor quality. Quality was poor and was declining much before RTE.  Nothing in RTE prevents governments from taking steps required to improve public education.

Just think about it. What in RTE is stopping governments from addressing several constraints in public education? What in RTE is stopping governments from improving teacher training programmes? What in RTE is stopping governments from strengthening SMCs? What in RTE is stopping governments from improving academic mentorship to teachers? What in RTE is stopping governments from filling up teacher posts? What in RTE is stopping governments from streamlining teacher recruitment? What in RTE is stopping governments from providing career counselling to students? What in RTE is stopping governments from streamlining fund flows? What in RTE is stopping governments from pursuing "outcome" oriented approach?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing in RTE prevents governments from taking steps to address these constraints in public education. Instead of focusing on getting these done, we are unnecessarily being diverted by single point agenda of RTE.

The real negative effect of RTE on public schools may thus not be due to the specifics of the RTE. The negative effect of RTE may be due to the fact that it has given rise to a huge new section of activists with a restricted outlook on education policy. By equating education policy to RTE, they are successfully diverting attention from the actual things that are to be done.

In summary, RTE is not the education policy. RTE is neither the cause for existing problems in public education nor does it stop governments from doing what's to be done to improve public education. RTE is also NOT the remedy. It only aims to ensure certain basic framework. The real solutions lie outside. Let's focus on getting these done and not be diverted by single point agenda of RTE.

PS1: RTE isn't the source for Right to Education. Article 21A, added to the Constitution through 86th Constitutional Amendment, 2002 is the source for education as a fundamental right. RTE merely provides a framework to enable Article 21A. So, the roots of RTE are in 2002, not in 2010.

PS2: RTE doesn't exclude only Christian Missionary Schools and Madarasas, leaving out Hindu religious schools. It also excludes Vedic Patashalas.

[Stories from ground] Difference between a budget private school and a high-end private school

For long, I have thinking about the differences between budget private schools and high-end private schools. By high-end private schools, I don't mean the exceptions, run by enthusiastic individuals and their schools, known for innovation. The question that I have in mind is - is it a matter of teachers or is it a matter of culture? Obviously, there is heterogeneity in both categories. Any comparison is likely to conceal these differences. But it doesn't mean that no such comparison should be made. People are making such comparisons everyday for various purposes. The purpose of comparison should be to infer some most probable differences that are likely to hold for a significant section of schools.

The first level of analysis is from my personal experience. Personal experiences and anecdotes are useful to generate hypothesis, which are to be fine tuned later. These needn't be conclusive proofs. The purpose of this post is to just generate a possible hypothesis and draw some inferences regarding comparison between budget and high-end private schools.

My hypothesis is that "culture" is the major contributing factor to the difference between budget private school and high-end private school. Teachers are more or less the same, except that those in high-end private schools speak fluent English. This is based on my personal experience.

I studied till my 5th grade in a budget private school charging Rs.30/- per month. Teachers used to make us learn answers, reproduce them in exam. My class mates were from disadvantaged background. Some of them also used to accompany their parents for work, for some days in an year. My experience in the school is marked by my interactions with my friends. We were in our own world of fishing, playing cricket and other activities. We were never aware of the big world outside. No one ever told us about the opportunities in life, the steps that have to be taken to achieve those and so on. In short, it was a mixture of unawareness and a resulting environment of low hopes and expectations.

The transformation came in my 6th grade, when I changed school to a high-end private school. In retrospect, I would say that the teachers are exactly the same, except for an exceptional Math teacher, who is more of an exception rather than the norm. Learning process didn't change even a bit. It was the same process of learning answers to pre-given questions and writing them in exam without missing a word. It is a miracle that I survived the school, without permanently damaging my cognitive functions. The only difference was that teachers taught in Telugu in the English medium budget private school but teachers in high-end private school taught in English. There was also a big ground but of no use. We were allowed to play only 45 minutes per week! We could play after school most kids couldn't as they had to attend tuitions. 

The difference as I said was the 'culture' and 'environment' of the school. The crowd was different. There were no more talks of fishing, playing cricket etc. We got new exposure. I got to participate in inter-school competitions which I was completely unaware of. I came to know about IIT, the steps needed to get into that and so on. This orientation gave me exposure and set a short term purpose to life.

In retrospect, if I think of a counter factual situation of me continuing in budget private school, I think I wouldn't have been any better academically as compared to studying in high-end private school. There was one good Maths teacher in the high-end private school but it was just a stroke of luck. However, I would have lost on the career trajectory because of lack of exposure and unawareness. Many of my friends from primary school, who are equally competent are driving cars, autos and running small businesses. Girls are married off and I have no track of them. They all could have done much better. The only difference was the lack of exposure and a supportive environment.

People think that lack of awareness is no longer an issue in an internet world but it isn't true.  Internet can bridge gaps but not much. Existence of information in web isn't equal to dissemination. More importantly, information isn't mentorship.

To sum up, a significant difference between budget private school and high-end private school may be just because of the crowd, the culture of expectations, hopes, awareness and mentorship. The stories can be different, depending on schools but I can't think of a strong reason why this shouldn't be a key factor across contexts.

Prof. Anirudh Krishna of Duke University found a similar insight in his research on career trajectory of first generation IT employees. He found that 2-3 things were common to all those 1st generation IT employees from villages - a teacher who gave them crucial information about a career opportunity and scholarship at some point of time, an inspiration of success from their local community and some stroke of luck. People find these in different forms. The likelihood of getting these increases if one is in a high-end private school.

This is the story of differences between two types of private schools. Now, to the inferences part.

1. Whenever I see some one arguing that playground is important and they should be criteria for granting recognition to schools, my instinct says - Boss, we had a big playground but we could only play 45 minutes per week. We got nothing significant out of it. It is likely to happen with other schools too. Now, one can't go around ordering schools to stipulate certain time for play. It's impractical.

2. Except for teaching English which is a big deal, I don't think many private schools even in the so called high-end category are doing any thing significantly different.

3. Often people talk about the efforts they have made to reach a goal and thus attribute the reward completely to the effort. There can't be a bigger misconception than this. The surrounding environment plays a crucial role in setting such expectations. The effects of environment created by the kind of crowd that attends the school matters a lot. Raj Chetty finds a similar phenomenon in patent holders. He finds that children of patent holders are more likely to receive a patent in same field as their parents', suggesting clear evidence for role of expectations set by surrounding environment.

Issues with rationalising governments' inaction in education citing lack of electoral incentives

Often, people use standard incentive frameworks to explain governments’ inaction in education. The argument goes that governments don’t put efforts on education because providing education is not a vote winning instrument. In other words, education doesn’t figure in electoral agenda. The inference is that people don’t vote based on education, hence governments also don’t work.
This seems like a intuitively reasonable argument but this is absurd way of thinking.
I had earlier blogged on the trap of judging political parties using standard incentive frameworks. My three arguments were:
1. Standard incentive frameworks optimise for contexts of mediocrity. Anything worth achieving is NOT achievable ONLY with external incentives OR with a low threshold for deterrence. What incentive did Gandhi have to lead freedom movement? What incentive did Elon Musk have to start SpaceX? Remarkable things can’t be achieved with external incentives alone. Internal motivation is crucial here.
2. Standard incentives may be applicable to individuals working for someone, but not to entities that are responsible to do something. Incentives are to address principal-agent situations, where agent is working for someone. This isn’t applicable to cases where there is a moral responsibility on someone to do the task. If parents don’t feed a child, do you justify it saying that there is demand-supply incentives problem?
3. Incentive frameworks are useful to contexts where progress can be tracked regularly and there is a check-list of tasks for which the adherence can be checked. This isn’t the case with education. It involves constantly adapting to context; results are concretely visible only in long term; there are too many variables in action, making it difficult to attribute responsibility. In such cases, even if forced, governments can get away by appearing to do something when pressure builds, without actually doing anything. The stick approach isn't effective in this case.
I want to add two more arguments to this list.
4. Saying that governments don’t focus on education because there are no electoral incentives is a form of victim blaming. Instead of saying that governments are wrong and have to mend their ways, it places the blame on victim — you didn’t vote, hence you didn’t get education. This is a convenient justification and is music to governments’ ears because it helps them evade responsibility. In contexts with numerous other pressing problems, it is illogical to expect that all get attention and that government should work only on those that get attention.
Marx had recognised this long ago when he said that religion is the opium of masses. Religion teaches masses that the cause of their suffering is something else, their karma etc. It stops people from realising the real-word causes for their suffering and prevents them from taking steps to address them. We are also doing something similar here.
Governments are responsible to provide education. It is one of their basic functions. They must do it. Period.
5.  Saying that lack of electoral incentives is the reason for governments’ lack of efforts presumes that election agenda is always set by people’s demands. This isn’t entirely true. Many times, political parties frame the agenda, bring new narratives, make people realise that these are important issues for their life and convince them to vote. These agendas range from doing identity politics or promising to eradicate poverty. If parties can make a ‘new aspect’ that isn’t initially explicitly demanded by people, as an agenda, why shouldn’t they do the same with education too? Why are they allowed to shift responsibility to voters, as if voters alone frame agenda all the time?
One can note that all the above arguments are equally applicable for health care.
It’s time we stop finding metaphysical reasons for governments’ inaction and call spade a spade. Governments’ are not putting enough efforts on education and health care. They alone are responsible for it. Not people.

Of course, it is another matter if governments put enormous efforts to improve education and health care and enhance their quality but still if people vote on caste, religion etc. But governments should first reach that stage and then say this. This is definitely not acceptable when they haven’t put any efforts.

On instruction in mother tongue

There is a general consensus these days that children should be taught in mother tongue at least in their initial years of education. The rationale is that children can comprehend better if they are taught in a language that they already speak at home. It seems intuitively reasonable argument but not without contradictions:
  1. Most people who advocate mother tongue instruction send their kids only to English medium schools.
  2. It may argued that mother tongue instruction rationale is only for 1st generation kids. But, there are examples where 1st generation learners learnt to cope up, even when taught in English.
  3. There’s an emerging trend in US to teach 2 languages to children.
  4. There’s also research suggesting that bilingualism is advantageous, though people differ on the extent of advantage.
  5. Most of all, the mother tongue instruction doesn’t align with the aspirational parents, who see English as a symbol of emancipation. Surely, one shouldn’t be denying some the benefits of English, while sending one’s own kids to English medium schools.

It is important to understand the ‘mother tongue’ issue a bit in detail to address these contradictions.

In simple words, child’s learning in classroom depends on three things
  1. Ease of learning the language
  2. Child’s perseverance
  3. Teacher’s capacity

In high end private schools, children also use English at home, making it easy for them to pick it up. Also, such students have better support systems to help them when they fall back.

This isn’t the case with government schools. Students often don’t have support systems, increasing their probability of falling back and losing interest in studies. Teachers don’t have enough capacity to address this situation. In such context, teaching in non-mother tongue language only increases the difficulty in instruction.

Theoretically, one can address this situation by enhancing any of the three factors listed above. However, the second, child perseverance isn’t in our hands. The lack of support systems at home should only be compensated by teacher. So, ease of language taught and teacher capacity are the only remaining instruments.

The current approach is to deal the situation by changing the language of instruction. There are two issues with this approach.

One, such advocacy has now resulted in perceptions that one should never be taught in foreign language, which is not true, as seen above. One can teach in English (foreign language), if the challenges are compensated by the teachers’ efforts.

The other response of completely changing the language of instruction to English and thinking that the problem is solved, is also an issue. The situation may be worse in such case because it adds another layer of challenge to teachers without adequate capacity.

Two, such approach completely ignores the teacher aspect. One can escape this problem temporarily by changing language of instruction without addressing teacher capacity issues. But, one can’t do this longer because teacher capacity is needed for teaching higher order concepts even in mother tongue, not just for simple concepts in foreign language. There’s no escaping from that.

From a policy perspective, it may make sense to currently teach only in mother tongue, as enhancing teacher capacity takes time. But along side efforts should also be made to enhance teacher capacity and one should aim to teach English alongside mother tongue, few years down the line. We can’t keep denying the privilege English for long hiding behind mandating mother tongue instruction or changing language of instruction to English on paper. Such changes are meaningless without efforts to improve capacity. 

English is too important to be left out of education. Words of a Telangana bureaucrat leading 268 social medium schools illustrate this
English is a language of emancipation. The poor are scared of those who speak English. They feel like slaves. We wanted to bust that stereotype. The parents feel like they have been excluded from the language for 2,000 years, and want their children to occupy that space, which has only been the domain of the ‘elite’.