Kerala lost its enviable position as the country’s most literate state due to its failure to prevent more than a million neo-literates from relapsing into illiteracy. Overtaken by Tripura and Mizoram, Kerala may slide down further if a study by the State Council for Educational Research and Training is any indication.

The study conducted at the instance of the Accountant General showed that 5% of the students in class VII cannot identify alphabets, 35% of them can’t read or write their mother tongue, while 85% students are poor in basic science and 73% in mathematics.

Class IV students did not fare any better – 47% students can’t write in Malayalam and 25% in English. The case with maths and science was even worse: while 63% students are poor in mathematics, 73% do not have even basic knowledge in science.

The study was conducted among 4,800 students of class IV and VII in Kasargod, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram districts. The students were tested in language, maths and basic science. As many as 19% students in Thiruvananthapuram scored zero in geometry.

The illiterates, or those who never went to any school, fared far better. They were able to read and write after attending literacy classes for a few months.

Glut of teachers

The slide in academic standards in schools is despite the government according high priority to education. Public spending on education in the state is the highest in the country. About 37% of the state’s annual budget now goes to education. More than 80% of it is spent on school education.

Kerala now has one lower primary school for every square kilometre and one high school for every 4 sq km area.  Almost all government schools, except a handful, have pucca buildings, access to drinking water, and toilet facilities for boys and girls.

The state also has a glut of teachers. A recent study by the education department showed that more than 3,500 schools in the state had less than 30 students each in 2014. There were 46,240 teachers in these schools, which translates to 13 teachers for every 30 students – or one teacher for every two students.

Experts have been calling for closure of such "uneconomic" schools and using the money saved for improving the quality of education.

The pass percentage in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate exam this year was a record 97.5%, which is in keeping with the trend of the last few years where the failure rate has been consistently less than 5% at the secondary level.  While seeming to be very impressive, this could well be a symptom of the falling standard of education, as becomes apparent when the students move to higher studies or professional courses.

Let's consider the engineering and medical courses.

Engineering colleges

More than 50% students have been failing in BTech examinations conducted by universities in the state.

An analysis of the results of BTech examination conducted by the Kerala University in March 2014 showed that the pass percentage in two colleges was less than 10%, in seven colleges it was less than 20%, and in another 13 colleges, it was less than 30%.

Experts blame the skewed policies of the state government in sanctioning engineering colleges, especially in the self-financing sector, without ensuring adequate infrastructure and academic standards for this state of affairs.

GPC. Nayar, president of National Federation of Associations of Private Unaided Professional Colleges, blamed this low pass percentage on the steady fall in the standards of education in the state, linking it directly to to the no failures policy which results in the almost 100% pass percentage till the secondary school level.

The state high court, however, feels it is better to close down such colleges. After verifying the results of engineering colleges under four universities in the state, the court had given a direction to the government to consider closing down self-financing colleges with less than 40% pass percentage in the last three years.

An expert committee appointed by the court to study the quality of education in self-financing engineering colleges had identified 26 such colleges. The government has not acted on the suggestion but has set up a Technological University to improve the state of affairs.

P Isaac, the vice chancellor of the university said that the task was not easy as a complete overhauling of the technical education in the state is the need of the hour. The university, which covers 154 colleges, has launched a project-based teaching process.

Medical colleges

The experience in the medical sector has not been very encouraging either, as the performance of students in medical colleges has been showing a slide despite bringing them under a separate university for health sciences.

Even four years after the establishment of the Kerala University of Health Sciences, many of the colleges were showing dismal results. Last year’s results of the MBBS examination showed more than 30% failure in government and self-financing medical colleges in the state. The failure rate in some colleges was more than 90%.

It was no better for students pursuing nursing and paramedical courses. The pass percentage of the BSc Nursing examination conducted by the the university in 90 colleges during the academic year 2010-11 was 28.2%, B Pharm 5% and Physiotherapy 6%.

The university's former vice chancellor, Dr B Ekbal, sees the poor show as the result of total distortion in the medical education sector in the state. The high court wonders how the system could be allowed to dump sub-standard specimens on the unsuspecting public.

“It has come to a stage wherein before going to a doctor or a dentist, we should first ascertain as to from which college he has obtained the degree,” Justice S Siri Jagan observed recently, adding that the court hoped that wisdom will dawn at least now.

Unemployed and unemployable

A cynical response would be to say that people need not be worried as majority of those passing out of medical and engineering colleges are found to be unemployable.

Thousands of MBBS graduates and hundreds of post-graduates are languishing without jobs in the state at present, according to Kerala Medical Post Graduates Association.

As regards engineers, a survey conducted as part of National Employability Report for 2011 showed that Kerala figured at number 10 in terms of employability in the IT services sector among 16 states. This is despite one in every two students either dropping out of the course or failing in the exams.

The professional graduates add to the swelling army of unemployed in the state. The unemployment in the state is over three times the all India average. The number of unemployed in the live registers of employment exchange in 2013 stood at 39.78 lakhs.