The education system in India has come a long way of evolution – from the vedic days dating back to around 1700 BC to today’s computer age and e-learning. Throughout, Indian tradition has always accorded special importance to education.
The Vedic Tradition
The Vedas were the main repository of knowledge and were passed on from generation to generation by the oral tradition, the teaching mainly taking place in the gurukul system (students in residence with the teacher). In later times the scriptures and other texts including poetry were recorded on palm leaves specially treated for preservation and written with a sharp writing instrument. The gurukul system was the main stay of education and was mainly availed by the higher castes – Brahmins and the royalty. During the Buddhist period the first “universities” appeared at Taxila (now in Pakistan) and Nalanda where a multitude of disciplines were taught: philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, grammar, logic, arts and crafts. Besides India, students traveled from Tibet, China, Greece and Persia to attend these universities. Nalanda University had the largest library in the world, which was unfortunately set to fire & burnt later by moghul invaders (the fire reportedly burned for three months).
The Moghul period brought with it the Islamic influence in education, the madrassas. The colonial system that followed with the British Raj saw the next major transformation: the widespread use of English as language of learning and instruction, and the introduction of the western system of teaching science, engineering, medicine, law and other disciplines. During the British Raj, Christian missionary schools and colleges started to dot the education landscape. Also institutions were founded as well as academies to train defense and administrative personnel. These formed the core of the higher education system going into the 20th century.
The government schools reaching into city and rural areas and the missionary schools had been the backbone of primary and secondary education, but in recent decades a mushrooming of private schools, especially in the urban areas, has drastically changed the scenario. After Independence, the Indian government set up premier tertiary institutions like the IITs for engineering education, the IIMs for management education, and similar institutions for medicine and law education. These have become benchmark institutions, recognized the world over for their excellence. Graduates from many of these institutions went to top universities around the world for their graduate education, often settling down there abroad for life and career.
Private institutions have also sprung up in large numbers in the last few decades offering widely varying educational facilities. One unfortunate trend with the growth of higher education has been an increasing emphasis on exam and grades oriented learning, fueled by the proliferation of competitive entrance exams for science, engineering, medicine, law, etc. and tutorial centres who compete to prepare the students for these exams. A material percentage of today’s college graduates are perceived as not meeting the needs of industry.
The Rural-Urban and Rich-Poor Divide
A notable feature is the significant difference between educational facilities available in urban areas as compared to the rural areas. Also with the increasing costs of education and private education, the rich are able to corner superior educational facilities, the poor being left to what they can afford. Having observed that, there are again increasing opportunities for bright rural students to attend top educational institutions through the route of competitive entrance exams, merit seats, and scholarships.
There is another interesting trend in recent years as well. It has now become common for the upper class and rich students to go abroad to attend top universities like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, etc. for undergraduate education, with much enthusiasm and support from the parents.
An underlying fact with education in India is the extent to which parents are willing to spend on their children’s education. It is not uncommon to see parents finance their son or daughter’s education, not just through college, but even through all post-graduation study.
Women’s education has come a long way, from the centuries old tradition of low levels of education for women with their family bound roles to the current status in urban areas where women study on equal opportunity, including in engineering, medicine, law, etc. and excel in them. There is at present no problem of having to motivate women to study maths, science, engineering, and medicine, quite in contrast with the scenario in developed western countries. Women not only study in these areas, but also secure several top ranks at graduation. India is not afraid to mobilize the other half of their potential workforce.
Increasing use of English
Today’s education landscape in India includes an ever increasing use of English at all levels in schools and in the public sector, which opens the world for global opportunities for graduates in all sectors. With the English language as an enabler, India seems to have a strong affinity for the Information Technology (IT) and Information Technology Enables Services sectors, which are especially well developed and bring much benefit and employment to our country. The world now regards Bangalore as the IT capital and the Silicon Valley of India. Teaching soft skills, including use of the English language, receives important attention both at school, college and industry training.
A Move towards e-Learning
Information and communication technologies (ICT) are making a large impact in the move towards e-learning in recent years. India has developed a strong a Space program over 50 years, mostly by indigenous efforts (necessary, because cutting edge technology, was long denied to it by the developed countries, especially the US). India has established dedicated satellite systems for education and tele-medicine delivery, which can reach even the most remote rural population. From the 1980s, when computer-based education started to be delivered through CD-ROMs, e-learning has boomed, paving the way for several private players and government agencies which create and deliver e-learning systems today.
The govt has launched two schemes, the National Mission on Education through ICT and the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning. Online courses are available from basic school education to professional level courses from the IITs in various areas. In 2011 the Govt of India announced the release of a very low cost AKAASH tablet, specially developed for use by students, which the government has planned to make available for just $35. Tablets, iPADs, even mobiles are likely to transform the scene as the user point or classroom of the future. The large mobile penetration growth in India – about 914 million subscriptions as of July 2012 — could make a significant impact and enable many services including education for rural India in the days to come.