Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
I was glad I did not know the boy standing on the high diving board, hesitating to take the leap. As I walked past, I realised it was the perfect analogy for India and her education issues. We still have to take that leap. It is known that the waters will be chill for a while, there will be shock; it will take some courage to take the leap, but it must be done. Standing up on the diving board only exposes oneself to fear and vulnerability; it won’t get us to a place where we can at least join the race, forget about winning it.
The numbers do not need to be reiterated, nor do the problems. The scale is known to all: 12 million people entering the workforce each year, which drives out all other goals and leaves income generation as the primary goal. Get this right and at the very least, taxes from the 12 million will raise India’s standard of living via better public investments. Get this wrong and India could spiral out of control: Young, unemployed and directionless populations are the stuff of civic nightmares. This is not a ‘feel good, let us do better’ kind of exercise anymore. If the youth are not constructive, we would be engulfed with a series of problems.
What needs to be done for these youth? Better schools? Trained teachers? Smarter textbooks? Online lessons? Low-stakes assessments? Skilling? All of that surely, but more needs to be done. The solution to India’s ‘opportunities’ lies in shifting from a constrained resource mindset to feeding unconstrained ambitions. The big leap in education needs different thinking. Though not necessarily radical yet. For example, we are not completely ready to shift all learning out of the classrooms. The new thinking needs to be a step ahead in goal setting for education itself. We need a mindshift to design the new education policy and here are five suggestions for the same.
1) Education as investment sounds obvious, but it is not really as straightforward as the most important things that education provides cannot be measured easily. How does one measure the confidence a good school gives or the friends one makes for life? But most things can-the enhanced earnings for each additional year of education, the value of networks, the returns to investors for professional courses directed towards employability, etc. Even the return on investment to a simple government school can be calculated via proxies-and must- so that we start focusing on the gains to students and society. The shift from expenditure as an input into a dark hole to an investment changes the attitudes and expectations from education completely. This is essential if we want to see results and accountability.
2) Education as an essential infrastructure is the next mindshift required. It is not of much use if one gets bullet trains and information superhighways when there aren’t enough good people to create value out of these. Education is soft infrastructure and must receive priority investments and concessions like the rest of the infrastructure sector. Just as one identifies and supports priorities in infrastructure, one needs to identify priorities in education and implement them through a medium-term national education strategy. If the nation needs more, say, civil engineers, or more accountants, then plan ahead, create the education highways for these to ensure that progress is achieved-the education policy must create institutions and mechanisms for delivery along national priorities.
3) Education as influence: Not just as part of the national narrative for national pride but also as a means to increase the nation’s circle of influence across the globe. Education has been used by many countries as soft power-the fact that you are reading this in English is evidence of such power. Countries extend this soft power by encouraging foreign students to study in their countries and go back with respect and deep friendships in addition to a valuable degree. Others do that by funding departments of study across universities, some of it is done via cultural centres (India does too) with varied impact. Much of this influence is fostered via systematic people-to-people contact and diaspora. This is a subtle, but powerful tool for India’s national goals and must be provisioned for in the national education policy.
4) Education as an industry may not be as controversial a perspective as it is made out to be. While education may be a not-for-profit sector by regulation, it has all the other characteristics of a standard industry. The only, and significant, difference here is that it deals with people and their change process. It is easy to mistakenly say that in education, people are the product, but this is not so-the value addition to people is the task of this industry. Like every other industry, it has supply chain issues, challenges in logistics and constraints in resources. It has similar problems in vendor management, in funding, regulatory compliance and more. While educators have resisted solutions that come from the industrial or corporate world, there is a case for acknowledging that the business of education can learn much from successful toolkits in industry. Even pedagogies are being transformed by the results from evidence and big data analytics-governance tools that have not been used in schools before. The education ecosystem must allow itself the benefits of maturing as an industry. This means allowing consolidation, diversity in the provision of education, a range of positioning and price points, product innovation, operational efficiencies among other things. The sector cannot continue to operate as an agglomeration of local mom-and-pop stores, nor should it be completely a public sector monopolistic behemoth. For education policy design, this means allowing more establishments to start and grow by fostering entrepreneurial energy and then challenging them to continuously improve their service delivery and standards.
5) Education as inspiration. The purpose of education is to raise us to be better human beings who build sustainable societies and civilisations that are respected over a period of time. Education must elevate us in ways we would not even have been able to see before. We need it to create aspirations for us at the very least, and grow us as individuals and people. The word inspiration literally means an intake of breath, the life force. Education is just that, an intake of that life force, prana, that will drive us to be better and create more value. To merely seek employment as a goal of education is not enough; it is only the first step. If education policy is designed to only meet this basic requirement in schools and colleges, then it must add components of lifelong learning for meeting greater aspirations and ensuring progress for its people throughout their lives. To change institutes of higher learning only with grassroots innovation is not enough-education policy must support and demand inspirational research so that generations of learners want to move up the value chain. School learning must allow students to be inspired to explore and learn; teachers must be inspired to lead classes, not just lecture them. Education policy has to be designed to move the sector from banal liturgy to the engine of growth.
These five mindshifts are essential to building an education policy befitting the largest democracy in the world. To do any less would be to disrespect the hopes and ambitions of the demographic dividend- the next generation. And this is the challenge set for the new education policy.