Department of Information and Public Relations of Karnataka Government organised a conclave of experts at Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru on February 4, 2019. This conclave, called ‘Karnataka Munnade’, (the way forward for Karnataka) was also attended by Chief Minister H. D Kumaraswamy. The CM presented various ideas and plans that his coalition government has for the state, and one of such plans has generated much noise in the state. Discussing a longstanding debate in the state about the medium of instruction in the government and private schools, he said in the conclave that about thousand government schools in the state would have both English and Kannada as medium of instruction, reported the Kannada daily Prajavani.
This decision by the government has irked many ‘Kannada activists’. While some believe and have argued in the past that the children in primary schools should be taught only in their mother tongue to avoid the burden of learning a foreign language at this age; some believe and argue that teaching in English (many also talk of Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil medium schools) is an attack on the Kannada culture and a threat to Kannada language.
It is important to note here that, there has been no reliable evidence to prove either of these arguments. The former argument can be traced back to an old belief that children should be taught only in their mother tongue, as that would make the process of learning easier. However, various linguists have shown that the younger children are more equipped with linguistic skills. Most importantly, even though Kannada is the basis of the formation of the state of Karnataka, not every child’s mother tongue in the state is Kannada. The latter argument stems from the existing hysteria around “destruction” of the language and the culture by a foreign language.
The answer to this question about the medium of instruction in schools, is extremely politicised in the state. The quest for an answer to this question is rather a complex one, which needs rigorous research. But we need to ask here: Is this an issue limited to the linguistic and/or cultural politics? The answer is ‘no’. It is also an issue regarding the increase in the number of private schools and the decrease in the expenditure of the government on education. It is a widespread presumption that most private schools are English medium, well equipped, and have better performance; while the government schools lack basic infrastructure and facilities. English is also considered to be a tool for upward mobility.
A Glance at the Government Schools in the State of Karnataka
The important question of the expenditure of the state government on education is often overshadowed because of the emotional outbursts and highly politically charged debates on the medium of instruction. In the year 2012-2013, the Education Development Index (EDI) of the state was 0.661 and stood fifth, which was a slip from a much higher EDI the state had shown the previous years. But the data shows that the expenditure in the education sector by the state of Karnataka is gradually decreasing. It was 17.7 per cent for the year 2000-2001, and ever since has been decreasing. The allocations made for the year 2000-2001 were almost the same as the average allocation for education in all states – which was 17.4 percent. In the fiscal year of 2016-2017, the all-state average allocation was 15.6 per cent, and the state had allocated 12.7 per cent. In the current fiscal year, the state has allocated merely 11.3 percent of its budget which is less than what it had allocated the previous year, 11.7 per cent.
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The dropout rate of the students in the government schools is increasing, and most of the schools in the state are not being cared for. Bad infrastructure and other facilities plague the government schools in the state. With the ever-growing problems of schools in the state, the trend of allocations made in the budget over the years points to negligence. This negative trend of expenditure on education by the government has resulted in the increase in the number and importance of the private players.
Following is the data of the number of government and private schools, trend of enrolment of students in government and private schools, and trend of number of teachers in government and private schools. The date is put together by Unified-District Information System for Education (U-DISE).
As can be seen in table 1, the number of private schools in the state has been rapidly growing while the number of government schools has gradually begun to decline. Even though the number of government schools has remained comparatively higher, as can be seen in table 2, the enrolment of students in the government schools has drastically declined. It is reduced by more than a lakh from what it was in 2008-2009, in 2016-2017. As shown in table 3, the number of teachers in private schools has drastically increased.
Writing about this trend in the state of Karnataka in The Financial Express, Soumya Kanti Ghosh observes, “Government schools as of year 2017 have 53,154 classrooms (with only 66 per cent in good conditions), while private schools have 20,405 classrooms (with almost all of them in good condition). In the last decade, 3,446 government schools have closed while 1,036 new private schools have opened. The quality of teachers at government schools is also a matter of grave concern. In the last decade, around 8,500 teachers left/retired from government schools and hence the school teacher ratio remains stagnated at 2.0.”
As M Shuheb Khan rightly writes in The Wire, “Parents, even in rural areas, know about the huge importance of English in the present day globalised world. The failure of government schools to respond effectively to the aspirations of parents and students has given opportunities to private schools to thrive.” It is important to note that the political parties or the activists that talk about the vernacular medium of instruction, are focusing only on the schools, and the higher education is completely forgotten. It is as though they believe that the students in government schools wouldn’t pursue higher education. The bitter truth is that higher one goes up the ladder of education, English becomes a primary language, a requisite. However, those who cannot afford private /English medium schools, are forced to send their kids to the government schools, where these self-proclaimed guardians of the language and culture want only Kannada to be the medium of instruction. Thus, making their journey to higher education more difficult.
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As Khan observes, “In the present day semester system prevalent at the university level, students have to write their examinations in English within two months of obtaining admission in college. This poses impossible challenges for ill-prepared students, adversely affecting their job prospects – particularly in the social sciences, which heavily rely on proficiency in the language used for expression of thoughts.” It is true that the students from the vernacular medium schools “find it very difficult to grasp the intricacies of the subject in such a short period of time and write their answers meaningfully in the English language.” Thus, the answer to the question of medium of instruction is not as simple as children’s ability to learn in mother tongue or protection of a language or a culture. It further raised the questions surrounding accessibility of higher education and alienation of the students of certain socio-economic backgrounds.
Thus, as shown here, the need of the hour in Karnataka is development of government schools, and a desire to eradicate the disparity between the quality of education in government schools and private schools. The question of medium of instruction, as explained before – even though important, it is a more complex issue, not just limited to “saving culture”. And more importantly, it is not the one of the crucial issues in front of the state.
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