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Manipur’s Quality Education Problem Stands on Two Props – Flawed Understanding of Education, and Flawed Education Delivery System

Any society which fails to give cutting edge education to its younger generation is doomed to a future of stagnation and dependence. No sane person would deny this and indeed, this is a prediction enlightened scholars, activists and politicians have been unanimous on, not just in the case of Manipur but also the entire India. By the next decade, the country is predicted to have the largest youth population, overtaking even China where thanks to its one-child policy, the population is aging. This can be an asset, but if not imparted the right education that can live up to the challenges of the current and future world, it can well become a bane too. This is a fear so many have expressed, including by economic Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, during a visit to India a year ago. The urgency of this warning can be felt most painfully amongst those of us in Manipur, where higher education has been virtually cretinized.

As far as school education is concerned, the situation is no longer so critical, although government schools, run on public tax money, therefore universally affordable, are still depressingly in the doldrums. In this sector fortunately private initiatives, which by their very definition depend on enterprise and hard work for their survival, have lifted the overall standards, but because they have to live by their earnings, their fees are higher and beyond the reach of the poorer sections of the society. This problem is also made more acute by the tendency to profiteer by some players in the field, and this needs to be checked and moderated by the government. If this is the problem in school education, education beyond schools is where the horizon is darker still. Except for a very few colleges, there is practically no serious education being imparted in so many more.

Once upon a time, parents who could afford the cost pulled in whatever resources in their command to send away their children to other states for even school education. But thanks to a silent revolution sparked by the entry of Catholic Mission schools, in a matter of a generation or two, there has been an explosion of quality private institutions providing school level education at a par with the best in any other state anywhere in the country, and today’s parents are saved of this painful dilemma. Not so at the college and university levels where private initiatives are still virtually absent and weak to be able to fill in where the government institutions have left a void. Hence those who can afford the cost, still send their children away, and this would include those parents who run or are employed by these same government institutes of higher education. Such is the abysmally low faith everybody, including those who are supposed to be the drivers’ seats of the system, repose in the system.

Every now and then, the governments of the day indulged in rhetoric of taking up drastic steps, including mandatory enrolment of children of government employees in government run schools and institutes of higher education so that they will ensure these institutions are run as they should be, but so far all of these pledges have proven to be mere hot air with no substance. Consequently, government educational institutions, schools and colleges alike, continue to lack vim and creativity, churning out degrees with worth only in the government job market, but not in the open competitive world. There has been, and there always will be, geniuses amongst the crops of students each year who will rise despite the lack of quality formal tutoring, but the universal truth is, an overwhelming number of students would not qualify to be in the genius category, and they will be the one who end up with no knowledge or skill fit for gainful employment outside of the government. This is also why unemployment rate in Manipur is so high, given that a great majority of our educated youths churned out each year by our institutes of higher learnings do not meet the demands of the open competitive market.

On the larger canvas, even the whole of India needs to pull up its socks, although the Manipur case is more desparate. The impending doom could not have been spelled out more clearly than by Apple co-founder, Steve Woznaik, when he remarked not so long ago that Indian sense of achievement is limited to getting a job and making a living, and that by and large they have no ambition of creating brands, be it in consumer products, scholarships, politics, engineering feats, or whatever other field of life. Indeed, in Manipur today, given this social attitude and the state of our education system, nobody is considered employed until he or she has managed to bag a government job. Equally, the mark of material success today, even amongst government employees, is measured in terms of money made outside salary regardless of whether the means are dubious, and the most coveted of these is through government contract jobs.

How can Manipur ever lift itself out of this sorry status? This is, to use a familiar cliché, the million-dollar question Manipur will need to answer, and indeed on the ability to find this answer will hinge the future of the place. On it will depend whether the coming generations of young men and women will be able to stand upright with any sense of the fierce pride and independence the place was once fabled for, or else be condemned to a future of subservient, cowering dole-seekers as their parents of today are slowly but surely transforming into.

On a preliminary analysis, Manipur’s problem of substandard education is two-fold. The first is shared with the rest of the country. It has to do with the understanding of quality education itself. Education, is generally understood in terms of paper degrees and not the teaching of problem-solving skills and knowledge. The forgotten understanding is also that these skills and knowledge would have to be upgraded constantly to be the fit answers to the ever changing challenges of the world and humanity. None less than those who wrote the draft of the New Education Policy, NEP, 2020, for India, have acknowledged this. This is fortunate in many ways, for as and when the new policy is finalised and approved for implementation, the contents and approaches to education in Manipur too would change inevitably.

On the face of it, the NEP 2020 which has been approved for implementation from the 2022-2023 session does seem encouraging for it exudes science and scientific pedagogy. In the preparatory and primary school stage for instance, in which it clubs together under the section Early Child Care and Education, ECCE, NEP 2020 clearly adopts the cognitive science approach that Italian physician and educationist, Maria Montessori, made famous. The innovation in this approach is the effort to align teaching with stages of the brain’s development. A child is not born with a fully developed brain, but by 6 years of age, 95 percent of this growth is completed. Teaching is categorised accordingly. In preparatory (nursery) and primary school, teaching will be more play based. There is much to be learnt from games indeed: team work, motor movements an coordination, socialisation and much more. NEP 2020, also envisages to incorporate the ongoing Anganwadi project into this stage of official education imparting.

There are of course two caveats. One, it has to be made sure that the Anganwadi project as well as government primary schools are made to function as per their mandate. Since most who will avail of these government facilities will be from the poorer sections of the society, the midday meal programme, with has proven to be a success in places like Brazil will have to also be implemented as per specification so that children who come to these government facilities are not only well-nutritioned, but they also have an added attraction of a tasty meal awaiting in these centres.

The NEP 2020 also clearly specifies at what age lessons in abstract thinking, beginning with simple arithmetic and mathematic are to be introduced, and then to even more complex fields of studies of fundamental sciences, social sciences and humanities. Higher learnings too will no longer be compartmentalised, and there will be interdisciplinary bridges, and sensibly too. How can for instance, the study of history be complete without any knowledge of political science, economics, law, psychology, literature and even the fundamental sciences, and vice versa. The policy is only at the draft stage, and depending on the inputs, there will probably be modifications before it is made final. The strongest criticisms against the NEP 2020 is intent shown to privatise education beyond the primary stage, as this would go against the interest of poorer sections of the society.

There is yet another big hitch. Political interferences in what essentially is a specialised scientific project, can be a big spoiler. The recent statement of intent by the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, that Hindi would be made a compulsory school subject till class 10 in the Northeast for instance is an indication of this. The NEP 2020 says nothing of this, and in fact it advocates a three-language policy, and also advocates have teaching done in local languages to the extent possible, or else done bilingually, for it is again a cognitive truth that children learn abstract notions much faster and easier when taught in their mother tongues and in linguistic metaphors that come naturally to them.

Manipur’s second quality education problem is more unique to itself – its education delivery system. The idea and content of education to be imparted may cutting edge, but if the delivery system is broken, everything can be reduced to zero. This problem has first and foremost to do with a singular lack of commitment of government after government to this onerous mission, and together with it, the premium they have always placed on corruption and nepotism rather education per se. Appointment of substandard teachers and staff against bribes is the first malady. Then those thus employed also begin to show an equal lack of commitment to the jobs they have purchased. How otherwise would a majority of our government schools and colleges be barren of students, though crowded with teachers – the latter only on paper and payrolls but seldom in classrooms.

There can be no doubt that a government which manages to discipline this and gets things back on track, as has been famously accomplished in AAP-ruled Delhi, would have achieved half the goal of ushering back quality education in the state.

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