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Amartya Sen on what ails India's education system
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February 05, 2007

Amartya Sen is man of many parts -- Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, honorary doctorates from major universities across the world, and author of books including The Argumentative Indian (2005), and Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006) besides research in philosophy, welfare economics and the economics of peace and war.

He is the recipient of many awards including "Bharat Ratna" and Nobel Prize in economics. He will be speaking at the Nasscom Summit 2007 in Mumbai on February 7. In an email interview with Leslie D'monte, he explains why he's not satisfied with the current state of India education. Here are the excerpts:

What positives do you see in today's Indian education system?

Positives? First, our higher education system is widespread, and while the quality of it is very mixed, there are still a lot of people getting reasonable higher education.

Second, in some fields, especially in technical education, the quality of what is offered is indeed fairly high. Against these "positives" stand the huge neglect of primary education and also secondary education, and of course - as already mentioned - the highly variable
quality of university education (some of it not worthy of that name).

What are the major pitfalls?

The pitfalls of illiteracy include functional handicap, intellectual deprivation, and social disadvantage. When large groups are systematically neglected, like girls, especially from economic and social underdog families, the social penalties are gigantic.

Is technology is gradually helping in taking education to the masses?

The main causes of our uneven and highly unequal educational system are not technological underdevelopment but political and social neglect.

It is, of course, important for those who are masters of contemporary technology to take deep interest in removing the educational neglects that plague the country, but they have to look for the diverse ways and means of helping, rather than sticking only to their identities as "high technologists"!

Any sector that become as rapidly - and as convincingly - prosperous owes something to the rest of the society as well, but that is not the same thing as looking only to technology to solve all problems.

Technology can certainly help the spreading of education, for example in making the schooling of maths easier and faster, and even in monitoring the attendance and accountability of teachers and of school officials (I remember Ramadorai of Tata Consultancy Services explaining to me the possibility of using smarter technology in that work), or in making communication of elementary maths easier, but it is not the lack of a
"technological magic bullet" that is holding everything up.

We need IIMs and IITs and we simultaneously need to provide for primary and secondary education. What steps should the government take to ensure that neither one is promoted at the expense of the other?

The main "step" to take is to get on with it! The government has to speed things up. However, the government is not the only agency involved. Not only more money is needed in schooling - not just through raising salaries of teachers and officials - but also better organisation of teaching and better practices (not minimal schooling with maximal private tuition!).

For this we need cooperation between many agencies: governments (at different levels), teachers' unions, parent-teacher committees, civil society in general.

We have gone into some of these issues in a few small reports of the Pratichi Trust - a small Trust that I was privileged to set up in 1999 with the help of my Nobel money, one in India and one in Bangladesh.

The Indian Trust is particularly involved in elementary schooling and elementary health care (the Bangladesh Pratichi Trust has tended to concentrate especially on gender equity, including the training of young women journalists from rural background).

Aside from policy revisions we have suggested, the Indian Trust organises regular parent-teacher meetings at the state level (so far only in West Bengal though - we are still a small Trust), and we have also started arranging collaborative meetings with the teachers' unions to get their help in making the schools more effective and with greater accountability. The government does, of course, have a huge part to play, but other people and other organisations also have responsibility. Powered by
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