At The Crossroads Education In India
On October 18, 2011 the Supreme Court of India directed the government to provide toilets in all the elementary schools in the country by the end of November 2011. What more concrete proof could be cited for lack of commitment and sincerity in universalisation of elementary education that was to be achieved in 1960? After full fifty years delay, the Right to Education Act (RTE) came into force on April 01, 2010 in the glare of huge official publicity and self-praise on the part of the MHRD. Till this date nothing in terms of visible implementation has attracted any public attention. Several major states have not yet even notified the rules in this regard. The lack of vision and initiative is amply evidenced by the publicity blitz of the MHRD on the National Education Day; November11, 2011 of having launched ‘Shiksha Ka Haq Abhiyan’. That the RTE needed nationwide public support could not be visualised before the Act was initially implemented speaks volumes about how the disconnect between policies and grassroots realities has widened over the years. As of now, there is nothing in the public domain that would generate confidence. Some 5-6 lakhs of vacant posts of teachers in government schools are reported year after year. There would be huge requirement of additional teachers if the RTE is to be effectively implemented. Over five lakhs of para teachers on honorarium; untrained and under qualified; are ‘teaching’ in government schools. The scenario extends equally strongly to higher education. Over 30 to 40 per cent, or even more, vacant faculty positions in prestigious universities and professional institutions are no more exception. The Delhi University, fully funded by the central government, has 4000 vacant academic positions in its colleges. For years together, positions of heads of prestigious national level institutions are kept vacant and no one cares. Why can they not complete the process before the current incumbent demits office? The fact is: education in India is at crossroads and it requires a Herculean effort to set it on the rails in the right direction.
The key challenges that would determine the success or failure of the educational reform measures in India in near future would be the need for its expansion to bring every child to elementary education, to provide avenues in higher education at least to 20-25 per cent of the eligible age group and most crucially, to check the alarming and persistent decline across the board in the quality of education being imparted and the levels of learner attainments. The key terms in the National Policy on Education 1986/92 may be recalled: access, participation and attainments. The requirements remain the same but the education scene has been overtaken by far more disturbing trends now than ever before. Education is now an industry that promises safe dividends to private players. It is now a free-for-all territory for those who refuse to pay heed to the blatant deterioration in quality of education being offered in a large number of schools and institution of higher learning in both the private and public sectors. On the other side, there is so much to be claimed officially on the success front after 1986 policy in terms of increase in numbers; of institutions, teachers, schemes, programmes and international collaborations. However, far more remains rather stagnant and uncared for and indicates continuous apathy of the policy formulators and implementers to the requirements of those who depend on public education system. There are always encouraging exceptions in terms of individual and organisational initiatives which could act as the beacon lights provided that the system is ready to come out of its slumbers and is ready for transformation.
The fall in the credibility of government schools continues unabated. The mushrooming growth of private schools, public schools and chains of schools including the franchisees is catering to the needs of the rich and resourceful, and also to those struggling to get into this category. The growing middle class has abandoned government schools fully and totally. The concepts of neighborhood schools and common school system have been completely relegated to oblivion. It would be like a dream come true if India could ever create conditions that offer education of comparable quality to every learner in schools. Under the RTE, public schools are required to admit 25 per cent children from the weaker sections. These schools have already found ways and means to circumvent such provisions. These schools admit about 27 per cent of the total children in schools and the per centage is increasing every year. There is a total lack of political will and bureaucratic commitment as most of them invariably approach these very schools for the admission of their wards! This is the major cause of the sharp decline in the functional levels of the government schools. If every bureaucrat is obliged to educate his children in government schools, there would be a visible change in the quality of school education in India within a couple of years. It would be a very reasonable proposition but would require a strong decision making process at the top by those who care for the future of the country, over and above their own narrow political considerations and compulsions. This issue of diversity in quality quotients in schools has huge implications: how can India afford a situation in which only 20-25 per cent of its children get education of acceptable quality and the remaining are in deficient schools getting education of far lower quality? What happens to the constitutional guarantee of equality of opportunity; of access and success? And how adversely it impacts the total cognitive capital of the country?
It is universally acknowledged that educational reforms just cannot be undertaken in isolation to socio-cultural and economic contexts. Indian diversities had little value for the alien rulers who were neither interested in universal education nor in offering equality of opportunity to all. To them learner participation and learning attainments had little meaning. The legacy retained even in independent India deprived millions of children from being included in the fold of education. Even now the non-enrolment and dropout rates are causing anxiety to all the concerned citizens. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) conducted by Pratham in collaboration with UNESCO and UNICEF on “Teaching and learning in rural India” reveals several existing conditions that are disturbing indeed. Teachers’ content knowledge was deficient in many cases compared to class four level curriculums. Their experience, gender, age, educational qualifications and other such parameters found no relationship to learner attainments. Their teaching capability assessment did establish this correlation. The Report points out: “Teachers are weakest when it comes to application of their knowledge or skill to a given situation where they have to take the initiative to generate something new, such as a meaningful summary or a problem for students to solve.” While indicating state-wise variations in the learner attainments the Report gives some very significant indicators: “Even the best performing State like Himachal Pradesh, about one-third of all children at the beginning of class III could comfortably do what was expected of them by the end of class I.” The disturbing fact is that all this is known for years together but is allowed to persist.
During the last 6-7 years, higher education has witnessed considerable growth, mostly in the private sector. Beginning with 20 universities in 1947, India now has 544 universities, which include 42 central universities, 261 state universities and 73 state private universities. Out of 31, 324 colleges there are 3432 colleges for women only. These numbers are ever rising and that is the need of the hour. Here again, the government invariably sets up wrong and professionally unsound examples. It announces the opening of more IITs, burdens the already staff-starved existing ones to admit and teach the batches of the newly—announced IITs also for years together! If the government institutions fail to stick to the norms at every stage, how could one expect private players to follow the norms prescribed by the national level regulatory bodies? The result is malpractices, corruption and all that follows it. The national Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) Act stands suspended, the reputation of the AICTE plummeted to its lowest levels; the way deemed university status was being accorded is public knowledge throughout the nation. The credibility of the national level regulatory bodies entrusted with the task of maintaining and upgrading the quality now stands at the lowest level and is certainly a cause of worry.
There are certain major reform measures that must be put in place urgently. To begin with, the policy inputs are often superficial as the mechanism has not been reviewed and revised and remain what was inherited in 1947. The 100+ member Central Advisory Board of Education CABE, apart from ex-officio members has over 30 experts to be nominated by the HRD minister. In the current climate, it is impossible to expect that these ‘nominees’ shall remain free from political biases and ideological compulsions. Consequently, the other viewpoints just remain ignored resulting in policy inadequacies. The systems of recognition, accreditation and approvals remain lengthy, time taking and submerged in institutionalised corruption. It is indeed plain hypocrisy to presume that foreign players shall come to India, provide opportunity to our young persons in higher education and shall not ‘plough back their profits to their own country’. The assurance to radically reform the regulatory processes in higher education by creating National Commission for Higher Education and Research remains on paper even after two and a half years of seemingly hurried pronouncements. Equally unacceptable is the assertion that all the public schools are and shall continue to function without ‘earning any profits’. It is for the system and the government to invite genuine private players provide them congenial working environment and simultaneously, make them adhere to all the provisions that are essential for quality improvement. It must be added that the much-promised six per cent of GDP allocation remains ignored. For equity, social justice, skill development and quality, it would be necessary to enhance public expenditure in education. Further mere increased allocations would not give the desired results; consistent efforts and support from the government and the community together would also be necessary.
It is the competence, commitment and willingness to perform on the part of the teacher that makes all the difference in the process of learning and determines the levels of learner attainments. Unfortunately, the teacher preparation institutes mushroomed in a most shocking manner during the last decade; growing from less than 2500in the year 1999-2000 to over 14000 by 2010. The neglect of teacher preparation is blatant neglect of the future of young persons’; and of the nation. Teacher training institutions are the power plants which, by preparing the right kind of teachers, ensure quality in every professional sector in future. Indian education suffers in this sector at alarming levels: degrees and diplomas being available for a fee is not uncommon. Teacher professionalism and institutional work culture reforms are essential ingredients that deserve priority both in policy and in practice. India has developed its institutions that offer open and distance learning and thus contribute to upgrading individual learning on a large scale. The general perception of education received in strategies other than formal sector being of second rate has to be dispelled consciously.
Education in the 21st century transforms itself from ‘learning’ to ‘learning to learn’. Obviously, every aspect changes: approach, attitude, strategy, technique, pedagogy, content and the expected outcomes. No change can replace the teacher. However, the new teacher must be equipped to understand the emerging demands on him and is fully equipped professionally for the same. The new education requires policy-makers who realise their limitations and inadequacies and are willing to learn from academics with field experiences and depend less on their power and authority to which they have remained attuned all these years. Education now requires transparency in policies, dynamism in its content and process and flexibility in learner choices. Only then can it prepare the generations ahead for peace and progress.
By JS Rajput
(The author is a former Director, NCERT)