Transforming the educational firmament
by Sandhya Jain on 04 Sep 2018 8 Comments

On the education beat, one recalls an overwhelming sense of fatigue while covering events at which India pledged, with obvious insincerity, to achieve the universal goals of education for all by year X, ad infinitum. No one wanted to address the known obstacles. First, the absence of adequate investment to build schools in every panchayat so that universal primary education, piously enshrined in the directive principles, could be achieved.


Second, the lack of political will to fix the rot that frustrated social development at grassroots level. States did not build schools in backward areas as powerful politicians and landowners did not want to lose the virtually captive labour that worked on their farms to aspirations unleashed by education. In other places, a novel system of patronage saw schools built and party workers appointed as full time teachers on government salaries. They would serve the party and political masters while a high school pass (if that) would be given a modest stipend to serve as proxy teacher.


This degradation of education produced the mass copying crises in some places, as unhappy students knew nothing in any subject. A corollary to this system was ‘fixing’ results; examiners knew that if the university revealed their names (always) and ‘guests’ landed up with ‘requests’ (always), they had to be ‘adjusted’. The system collapsed when over-fixing made toppers out of students who should have failed in the normal course. Another fraud was adult education; later literacy classes conducted by NGOs among young adults. Yet one routinely encounters women in banks who request you to fill their forms; their literacy is limited to signing their names.


Then, there are college teachers who routinely bunk classes; perhaps they will now be tackled through compulsory retirement. A prominent university observed a strange omerta code for five decades – no minimum attendance was required to sit for the examinations. Teachers taught what they liked or knew, and gave the marks; the university became famous for its revolutionary faculty and students, all of whom thrive on public funding. Naturally, the State did not wither away; it funded its own emasculation.


It has taken a non-elitist like Narendra Modi to challenge this entrenched orthodoxy. As a result, the Ministry of Human Resources Development (which should revert to Ministry of Education) has ushered in much needed changes at all levels of the system. The aim is to provide quality education to all, ensure teacher / school accountability, while ensuring that higher education, research and innovation are not neglected. It’s a tall order. Nevertheless, meaningful steps have been taken to measure learning outcomes in each subject and class every year, as a benchmark of teaching standards; over time it should take the emphasis away from marks and towards learning.


The ministry supports reversing the no-detention policy which had made teachers and students negligent; States will henceforth conduct examinations at class V and VIII levels to assess learning levels. In possibly the world’s largest National Assessment Survey, 22 lakh students (class III, V, VIII) and 15 lakh students (class X) were assessed to prepare district and state level profiles. Serious efforts are also being made to reduce the curriculum load and make space for sports (now a growing career option) and other experiential activities. This is an urgent imperative as many schools still emphasise exams and pass the burden of classroom projects to parents, making school life stressful for working mothers.


The government plans to ensure adequate budgets for a library in every school. Steps are being taken to ensure uninterrupted education up to class XII for underprivileged rural girls, especially from deprived sections of society. Students are being encouraged to play with 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence; their nutritional needs, hygiene, special needs such as ramps for access, are also being integrated into the system.


A Higher Education Commission of India (Bill sent to cabinet) aims to replace the University Grants Commission which, since its inception in 1956, has focused more on financing than on maintaining standards in higher education, including research, scientific and technical institutions. However, the UGC Act mandated that the chairman, vice chairman, member secretary and other members must be Professors of Central or State universities, and not bureaucrats or owners of educational institutions (now a lucrative industry). In the decades before and after independence, rich men who opened colleges followed State practices regarding fee, salary, curriculum, and even handed over the institutions to the State, and certainly did not expect to make money out of them. This scenario has changed drastically; hence, the bureaucrat-heavy HECI must ensure the paramountcy of genuine educationists. Corporates invested in education must not be accommodated in this body. The move to allow closure of institutions shunned by students for lack of facilities and teaching staff is welcome.


Since 2014, as many as 171 institutions have been granted autonomy (total 653) and can restructure their courses and curriculum and introduce new frontier areas with employment potential. However, Central Universities have at times offered new courses without developing adequate study material. On no account should an institution be allowed to offer courses without providing access to learning materials, including for further research.


Between 2014 and 2017, the Centrally-sponsored Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan has provided a Model Degree College to 60 educationally backward districts. The colleges will have infrastructure facilities and set standards for other colleges to emulate, viz., adequate class rooms, library, laboratory, faculty rooms, toilet blocks et al. The aim is to cover un-served and under-served districts and provide access to higher education to socially deprived groups.


Interesting new initiatives are fostering the culture of innovation in higher education via Smart India Hackathon, Grand and Mini-Challenges, Idea Competitions, and students invited to harness their creativity to tackle future challenges, viz., environment, economy, energy, water, food, security, etc. The Smart India Hackathon was organised in 2017 and 2018 to identify new and disruptive digital technology innovations. They yielded solutions for intelligent water level monitoring in bore wells; temperature control of motors; digitizing ticket checking system in Indian Railways for ticket checkers; a smart editor tool for fetching and editing information from scanned document (mainly image type); Ambulance tracking system for 108 Services; an Android App for safe driving; and many others. The goal of Education For All now transcends dreary literacy targets to meet contemporary needs.


The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal

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