• UCL Diplomacy Society

Has education become a compromise in India? by Anouska Jha

Where do the Indian and British government lie in India’s fragile education system?

It is not unknown that the Indian education system tends to encourage rigour and intense academic thinking within its student body. But unfortunately, as an institution of the world’s largest democracy, there is an inevitable imbalance that Indian students face in education. The plenary force of covid on politics and economics has certainly acted as a lever in amplifying the system's concerns- but at what point must the government, both that of the Indian and British, step in, to support the notion of education as a priority in India?

Under British colonial rule, education was actually encouraged, but not as one may initially expect-​ education was affiliated with national servitude, making only those who could afford it have the access. Not surprisingly, these people would be made to become government elites of a modern state economy, emphasising the hierarchical class system already inherent within India. However, the overturning of British rule marked a turning point, where afterwards, the school was seen as a symbol of​ ‘national unity’; a mark of independence from foreign rule.

But this ‘unity’ is one we must unpick; it doesn’t explain why​ female literacy rates in areas such as Bihar has dropped to 34%, and why 50% of 5th-grade rural students cannot read a junior text.​ Despite education being seen by India’s first Prime Minister Nehru as a ‘crucial tool’ in a secular democracy, it is clear that it is a ‘united’ country paradoxically divided by caste and wealth. The post-COVID-19 era has brought with it a multifarious injection of challenges. ​As the CEO of Pratham (a non-profit educational organisation), Rukmini Banerji states, we must ‘rethink the stages of the education system’​. In anticipation of schools reopening, the Indian government must campaign to reconnect with the system's roots to avoid, as Banerji fears, a ‘scrambling’ of returning students. The growing rural-urban gap and poor rural infrastructure are perhaps one of the biggest concerns in the post-COVID education climate, where the pandemic's economic impact will only have exacerbated these inequalities. As a developing capitalist democracy, India benefits from new high-skilled workers, who want access to an economy which is growing to be framed by new legal and technological innovation, as​ Professor David Saskice ​of the London School of Economics projects. However, this is where the government’s weakness lies; whilst they assume the economy can expand its facilities, they do not take into account the class and geographical inequality that diminishes educational access. ​As a result, social mobility within the student body becomes more difficult.​ What steps must be taken to resolve these ever-present challenges?

The answer is transnational cultural diplomacy, particularly between the UK and India. We must not dismiss the progress already made in these diplomatic relations; In 2010, UK PM David Cameron and Indian PM Manmohan Singh attended a joint Summit,​ wherein the 5-year phase of the UKIERI (the UK and Indian Education Research Initiative) was begun. The UK government had funded over £13 million for the UKIERI over the first 5 years. The programme had already been in place several months, with a vast number of achievements at hand- ​The Indian elementary education system grew from 750,000 in 2003 to over 1.25 million in 2009 and has built a new generation of leaders and innovative partnerships.​ In a document published by the British High Commission, the British government describes itself as a ‘catalyst for links between educational institutions in our countries.’

However, recent political events have undermined Britain's idea as a ‘catalyst’ to a growing education sector and social mobility in India. Inevitably, the development of Brexit, whilst not explicitly refuting these diplomatic relations, implies a more self-deterministic trajectory of British politics. This new global dimension to Indian education that accelerated collaboration and professional development seems to have come to a slow halt in the previous decade. Much of British policy is focused on national issues of trade and economic prosperity. In a post-COVID world, international cooperation is needed now more than ever. With ​the mortar of equality within the Indian education being scathed away by a rising dropout rate and lack of a common system,​ a strong political undertaking is needed. India will be one of the ‘great emergers’ from the pandemic in terms of economic growth, which will be essential in rebuilding India as Britain’s main strategic partners. It is perhaps safe to argue that as a result, ​the Indian High Commission in the UK will finally assert it’s interesting at the negotiating table, offering a vision for improved educational and economic resources in India.

The international environment is changing, Brexit is pending, and the pandemic has opened a pool of questions about how the world will recover. Yet the Indian education system is still a vulnerable topic of debate, both within the Indian courts and British diplomatic policies. The solution must leverage the global crises to integrate the community within education, blurring the borders of inequality and social stagnation in India. This is the only way to prove the power of international diplomacy, which has its foundations rooted in the idea of confederation and foreign guidance. Programmes such as the​ Development in Partnerships for Higher Education (DEPHE) and UKIERI,​ which began between India and the UK in 2010 to facilitate women’s development, science, microfinance and the UN’s Millennium Development goals in Education, has received little attention in recent years, symbolising the divergence to a more narrow diplomatic relationship. To avoid what D. Saskice (LSE) calls the ‘glomoration effect’​ (wherein only those receiving education in urban areas, push up standards for career prospects and house prices in the cities, thus further constraining social and educational mobility in rural areas), the Indian government must pertain to a more solid, distributive education policy, for India to achieve its goal as a land of technological, economic and legal novelty. ​A country where some children must choose between saving money for a meal, or spending that same wage on a textbook or school transport, is not enough.

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