Education needs extra attention now

Swati Saini/Devasmita Jena | Updated on August 27, 2020

Covid might have impacted the quality of human capital of a whole generation, adding to India’s woes in the education sector

India, like other countries worldwide, is grappling with unforeseen challenges thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic. Naturally, the stimulation of economic growth now assumes heightened importance in policy discussion. Among the many ingredients to revive economic growth, education is prime. However, the education system itself has been disrupted severely as result of the pandemic. The United Nations’ recent policy brief on Covid-19 and education says that nearly 1.6 billion students across the world have been affected, creating widespread disruption in education systems. It also estimates that an additional 23.8 million children and youth could drop out or not have access to schools next year due to the economic fallout of ongoing pandemic.

In India, according to UNESCO, around 321 million children have been affected due to closure of schools and colleges since the ed of March. A rapid needs assessment survey recently carried out by NGO Save The Children has some more grave insights. The survey, in which 7,235 families participated from June 7-30, 2020 across 15 States, reported that in about 62 per cent of the households, the children have discontinued their education due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The efforts to salvage dissemination of education via online channels have only partially succeeded. The survey findings reported that 14 per cent of the households did not have a smartphone or required bandwidth connection to enable children to attend online classes.

India already faces a learning crisis in terms of poor learning outcomes in schools. According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2019, at least 25 per cent of Indian school children in the four-eight age group do not have age-appropriate cognitive and numeracy skills, making for a massive learning deficit at an early age. This prolonged break in the learning process, triggered by the Covid-19 outbreak, can exacerbate the learning crisis. Not only this, even an inadvertent neglect in addressing this issue immediately can undermine the hard-earned progress that India has made in terms of school enrolment and school completion in the past few decades.

Human capital

Economic growth theories put forward by David Romer and Nelson and Phelps postulate that human capital is a potential driver of technological change and innovation. Human capital complements physical capital in the production process, and therefore is an important determinant of the economic growth of a country. In their recent work, Saini and Mehra corroborate this and, further, show that higher quality of schooling encourages parents to invest more in the education of their children, and even have fewer children. Higher investment in the education of a child stimulates the accumulation of human capital which fosters technical progress and therefore, economic growth. On the contrary, if the quality of schooling is low, then parents tend to have more children and also invest less in their education.

Consequently, the economy is stuck in a low-growth trap in the absence of investment in human capital. We are witnessing a technological revolution and the adoption of technology has only sped up in the wake of the pandemic. This will, undoubtedly,entail greater demand for high-skilled workers. As per World Development Report (2019), since 2001, the share of employment in cognitive skills-intensive jobs has increased from 19 per cent to 23 per cent in developing countries and from 33 per cent to 41 per cent in developed countries. On the other hand, the employment share in jobs requiring routine skills has declined from 50 per cent to 44 per cent in developing countries and from 42 per cent to 32 per cent in developed countries.

India’s huge working-age population can only be gainfully employed in the face of a rapidly evolving technology landscape by imparting quality education to the young generation. Quality education is directly linked to human productivity, which is already low for India, as measured by the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI).

Education quality

The HCI, 2018, measures the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to achieve by the age of 18, after accounting for the risks associated with poor health and poor education which currently prevail in his home- country. The index has three sub-components — child survival, education (expected years of learning-adjusted school) and health. The index value ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 assigned to the country where a child born today can expect to achieve both full health (no stunting and 100 per cent adult survival) and full education potential (14 years of high-quality school by the age of 18).

India’s HCI score is 0.44, which is quite low compared to its Asian peers such as China (0.67), Vietnam (0.67) and even Bangladesh (0.48). A score of 0.44 on the index implies that on an average, an Indian child born in 2018 will be only 44 per cent productive as a worker in future compared to the benchmark case of a worker who receives complete education and full health. Thus, there are huge untapped productivity gains that can be converted into higher per capita income growth rates.

This will require India to make sufficient investments in its human capital. The closure of schools and colleges due to the Covid-19 outbreak has already hampered the human capital accumulation process of its future generation. As pointed out by UN policy brief, this could become a “generational catastrophe” that could waste human potential and exacerbate pre-existing inequalities if adequate steps are not taken to manage this learning crisis. In light of these observations, any learning loss that is generated today can have ramifications on the growth potential of India in future.

Phased solutions

The learning crisis, intensified by this pandemic needs to be addressed prudently. In the short term, taking cognisance of safety of students and educators, online education should be streamlined. This also means ensuring access to Internet connection in every corner of the country. Such measures will create preparedness of education sector in the event of a second wave of infections and will prevent students from dropping out of institutions. Meanwhile, preparation to open education institutes, with safety protocols in place, needs to start.

In the medium term, India should be prepared to impart curriculum aligned with the needs of the changing times. National Education Policy (NEP) is welcome in this direction, especially owing to its emphasis on learning foundational skills.

Finally, favourable change in any sector can only be brought about if it is supported with enough funding. For India to be on a self-sustained growth trajectory in future, it is pertinent that it invests in education today.

Saini is Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Delhi, and Jena is Lecturer, Madras School of Economics. Views are personal

Published on August 27, 2020

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