Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What India can learn from, er.., Finland

India has an education problem. A massive one. Its education system is broken, so bad that an official in Prime Minister's Office recently said that India has an examination system, not an education system. Most children in India go to schools that don't teach, and most adults will go to colleges which are desperately out of sync with modern world. Its education infrastructure is at the breaking point. Government's solution to this was to introduce, unthinkingly as governments do, privatization. So, basically, the government will let go the control and let the invisible hand take care of the problem.

What complicates this is that in India, no one really is in charge of education. It is in the joint list, which means both the Federal (Central) government and the State governments get to dabble in it. They can pass the blame to one another, and do nothing. But also that they don't want to let go - they fear that giving up control over education is giving up control over public opinion. Also, it is too fat a cash cow to be just given away for India's various corrupt leaders. So, they have created a hodgepodge of semi-market solution, a nowhere house, where politicians park their corruption money, leading to even poorer quality of education and a degree inflation.

Only 2% of India's graduates are employable in a global company. Indians take pride in their IITs, but expanding it to a limit is making some of them 'just another engineering college' as a government minister recently stated. Amid all of this, India's huge bulge of young people, its demographic dividend, is missing out on a worthwhile future, and turning into 'demographic dynamite'. India must find a solution to its education problem fast.

I shall argue that in order to search for a solution, India should look at one of the most unlikely places, Finland. I am fully aware that Finland has a small population and limited diversity as compared to India, but a lot of similarity: An omnipresent state sector being one of them. Finland's education infrastructure was breaking down in the 70s, and it could have had its demographic nightmare just as its neighbour, USSR, suffered around the time. But, by with determined bi-partisan action and innovative thinking, Finland managed to build an education system that's become world's envy, consistently putting Finnish students ahead of their counterparts from other European and North American countries in academic ability tests. Not just this, but Finland built an economy, with some great companies, based on innovation and enterprise, something that India desperately needs.

So. what did Finland do that other countries don't? Finland focused on its teachers, making it one of the most respected professions around. Not the best paid, of course, but a profession can attract the best people when it goes up in public esteem. This is an important lesson. One can look at Britain for a contrast, where teachers are vilified on a regular basis and seen as money-grabbing lazy gits at best. The politicians make it sound like that, and the media laps up those stories, an errant teacher making it to newspaper front pages all too often. Though the indiscreet journalists and corrupt policemen have granted the teaching profession a reprieve at the time, but this will all come back again: Teachers, along with transport workers, seem to be Britain's favourite whipping boys.

In India, as in other countries, there is little discussion on expanding country's teaching capacity. The teacher training infrastructure in India remains at the stage it was twenty years back, and the teaching wages have hardly risen. Every successive government tries to grab a slice of teachers' pensions (as in Britain) and spend it in vanity projects, like Defense or subsidies to well-connected businessmen. The expansion of education on the back of politician's black money led to a systemic de-professionalization of teaching. And, this runs across the board: Philip Altbach and others chronicled the fall of the teaching profession globally in their excellent The Decline of The Guru. Finland, in contrast, put money in professionalizing teaching. So, the expansion of their education capacity, or the reform of the existing infrastructure, started with expansion of the country's teaching capacity. Indeed, this is not newspaper headline grabbing stuff (Contrast 'New Teacher Training College opens' with the possibility of 'Prime Minister announces setting up an IIT in every village'), but this is the sort of change that really creates a country's educational capacity.

Finally, Finland also shows a flagrant disregard for testing, scores and rankings (and yes, balanced scorecards) that dominate education sector in other countries. This is counter-intuitive; all other countries seem to believe that competition and ranking solves everything. In Britain, school scores are everything: The government wants to export the system to higher education lock, stock and barrel. Americans invented the university rankings, and though Malcolm Gladwell may argue it does not work in the current form, the university life in America revolves around the same. The Chinese have now started their own rankings, and so is every other Asian country which cares about Education (and India has a dozen or more rankings already). What certainly gets missed, as Finland would show, that the education experience is certainly about the teacher, whatever more we can throw into the mix, and it is personal. We tend to disregard these simple facts when we hide behind rankings, and selectivity trumps teaching quality in the college's report card. I am not sure how you can measure and then average student satisfaction, except for some make-believe scorecards filled in by a few bored students.

Finland's education is a largely unreported story (Except, perhaps, for this brilliant piece). It will remain so, because this does not fit into the hegemonic belief that market solves everything. We tend to believe in these theories more than what practical reality shows: If market solved the problem, why are English and American children doing so poorly, on average, on most educational measures? Indian policy-makers should wake up and start looking for solutions for their education problem, and they will do well to look at Finland's model.

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