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The problem with Indian education and how technology can help

Posted by Sinead in General on Thu 15 Oct, 2015


Greetings from the gorgeous fishing village of Mahabalipuram! My startup tour of India is now over and I am taking a few days in the south state of Tamil Nadu for a few days reflection (and catching some sun after two weeks in air conditioned offices). I’m writing this post from a rooftop cafe in 35 degree heat with a view of the sea. And who says the life of a tech entrepreneur is all work and no play.

My last post set the scene for what modern India is today. In this post I wanted to dive deeper into one aspect of India that is so crucial to the country’s future: education. As a still developing country, education is everything in India. The quality of education an Indian child receives will determine their future more than any other factor. Indian parents, themselves sometimes without much education, put a huge emphasis on it for their children with some parents, even the lowest paid, spending up to 80% of their income on their children’s education.

India faces a huge problem in educating the growing number of young people in the country. As we saw in the last post, India has the youngest population in the world with over 50% of the population of 1.25 billion being under the age of 25. According to the UNESCO, India has the lowest public expenditure on education per student in the world. On top of this, there is differences between India states. The highest expenditure per student is in Kerala (which also boasts 100% literacy levels) with the lowest being Uttar Pradesh in the north of the country. While more than 95% of children now attend primary school, just 40% attend secondary school, according to the World Bank.

The majority of these children and young people live in rural areas and attend their local village school. Accompanied by social enterprise and tour company Reality Tours, we visited one such school as part of our village trip. One of the tour guides, Krishna, explained the problems with some of these government run schools. Facilities are outdated and many schools are lacking access to basic teaching materials eg science labs or computers. The curriculum and ways of teaching are old-fashioned, with the emphasis being on rote-learning by copying what the teacher writes on the board, whether the student has understood the concept or not. Krishna explained that great teachers are few and far between in these rural schools as pay is bad and being a teacher is not held in high regard. Teaching in India is wholly focused towards preparing for and passing competitive exams. The score a child gets in their exams will decide what university they go to (if any at all) and will determine the trajectory of the rest of their life. There are no second chances here in India.

Many rural children go to school hungry and are malnourished so find it difficult to learn. We had the pleasure of visiting an inspiring charity called Akshaya Patra in Bangalore which feeds 1.4 million schoolchildren a nutritious lunch every day. That’s right - 1.4 million! All the meals are cooked in three hours with the clever use of gravity and technology and distributed to schools up to 50km away from one of their 24 kitchens in 10 states. Their goal is to eliminate hungry so that children can concentrate on learning and aim to feed 5 million kids every day by 2020.

Because of the lack of quality public education, private education is popular in India with twice as many people in private education than in public than in the West. Even a slum dweller will pay for private education via a slum school if they can afford it.

Indians are embracing online education like no other country. To misquote Benjamin Franklin, Indians are getting their printing press moment through access to online learning. In fact, more Indians use the popular free online learning platforms like Coursera than any other country, including the US. Edtech start-ups are booming in India with over 350 startups currently trying to solve problems across all levels of education from primary school to continuing professional development. Staggeringly 54% of these companies were established in the last two years. Indians are embracing online tutoring especially as the thing that makes the most difference to a student is the quality of the teacher. Online education is sometimes more accessible and cheaper than the offline alternatives.

At the moment around 20% of young people in India go on to university, but all higher education is not created equal in India. As I explained in my last post, the Indian Institutes of Technology and Management (IITs and IIMs) are the most 15 competitive universities to get into in India. Young people will start studying for their competitive exams at age 14 to try and get into an IIT. With only a one in 60 chance, they are most competitive than Oxford or Cambridge. These universities are a guaranteed route to success for Indian youth with graduates heading to jobs at the top IT firms in India like Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and a host of fast growing startups.

But the majority of young people don’t get to go to these universities. There are another 5,000 institutes that the remainder attend. These can be very good but many of these colleges (c.4,000) have been set up to make profit for their founders, rather than teach their learners, so young people can graduate from a four year engineering course without being able to write basic code or communicate effectively. We heard over and over again on our trip about the lack of employable skills in many graduates from Tier 2 and onwards institutions. Part of the problem again comes down to teaching methods. Many second rate universities will have textbooks in English, but students will be taught by the Hindu-speaking lecturer, while they speak with their peers in their local language. Sounds confusing? It is for these students.

The number of graduates in India is now equal to the USA and China but with the youth population growing, by 2050 India will have 90 million more graduates of working than USA and 70 million more than China. India faces huge issues in ensuring that these young people are educated on a level to their Western peers so that they can compete on a global stage for jobs and start the startups and social enterprises India needs to become a world super power. The past couple of years have seen a meteoric rise in startups that are addressing the vocational learning space such as Simplilearn who teach everything from Python to Big Data and UpGrad who are targeting wanna be entrepreneurs, some thing which until recently was considered taboo. Check out the hilarious Any Anuty: The Engineering Song on YouTube below about a chap who doesn't want to become an engineer or doctor.

So how can education technology solve some of these problems? I think mobile learning will play a huge role not just for adults but for children too. Cheap smartphones and data plans are being rapidly adopted in the villages. These devices combined with free online learning platforms such as Khan Academy should enable children to receive a good education even if a quality teacher is lacking. 

And I think India is only getting started when is comes to young people and adult learning. One female edtech founder called the market opportunity of edtech in India as "humongous". One cool startup we met have developed a English learning app (English Dost) targeted at people who want to improve their English enough to work in the service economy at Starbucks or a hotel.

Finally, one of the key areas of the vision of Digital India is “digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen”. Once even the remotest of the Indian villagers are digitally connected through broadband and high speed internet, I think delivery of high quality education at all ages online can be achieved which will change India's future for ever.


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