One of the requirements of articulating policy issues these days is the use of slightly forced acronyms. So here’s one: PEST (potential education sector troubles). The government is looking constructive in some areas, like infrastructure and labour. But in education, the early signs are ominous. Admittedly, education has suffered from decades of regulatory malfunction. But rather than course correction, the government seems to be regressing, setting up an already troubled sector for potential storms.
Let us just look at four areas to start with. The first is pedagogy. The UPSC row is a warning. The row is not just about language; it is rather a congealed expression of a broader education crisis. The scandal is not that English is marginally favoured. The scandal is that even those who have had years of education in the subject feel ill-equipped to take on a basic test, and rightly feel cheated. The scandal is not that the UPSC will not draw on the skills of vernacular students; it is that the way most students have been educated will deprive them of opportunities in so many professions that they think of the UPSC as a life or death issue. The scandal is not that the UPSC is trying to test certain comprehension skills; it is that schools stopped testing for those ages ago. The language crisis is equally a creation of our school curriculum, which progressively tested all languages in a way that under-emphasised analytical skills. Even apart from the UPSC, there are instances of pressure that either led to huge modifications in grading standards in universities, or changed the character of entrance exams.
Whether these are justified or not is a separate matter. Even the UPSC itself is an example of an ends and means mismatch in Indian education. It is irrational to select everyone from revenue officers to police officers to diplomats through the same selection process.
A vast majority of students, in public as well as private universities, are pedagogically cheated. That is what the UPSC crisis is really about. Our current thinking is incapable of addressing this crisis. It will require innovative thinking at many levels. But this pedagogical crisis will soon turn into a political one in various forms.
It is in this context that the second potential storm becomes more significant. The UGC has been on a slash and burn exercise since this government took office. The manner in which it handled the Delhi University four-year undergraduate programme issue has frozen innovation. Even reputed institutions like the Indian Institute of Science no longer seem to have the right kind of autonomy. New universities trying innovative degree structures have had to roll back. It is even interfering in appointments in universities. The UGC is displaying a retrospective regulatory terrorism, creating an uncertain environment. With the “deemed university” mechanism in crisis, there is, at the Central level, no effective mechanism to allow high-quality private institutions to come into existence. The UGC is broken in more ways than one can list.
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The government has set up a committee to review the functioning of the UGC. But I would urge you to read the order setting up the committee. The order makes the same old mistake: it presumes that the only way to ensure accountability is an even greater command and control structure. The idea that a single body can, through regulatory inspections, ensure standards in thousands of colleges, is patent nonsense. It is a recipe for rent seeking.
The UGC has never understood how good universities are built. The order talks about improving the “teaching environment” but the UGC has not displayed the slightest understanding of how you build good departments, because flexibility, innovation and diversity are anathema to it. The order is, typically, also confused over regulatory jurisdiction, bringing distance education within the purview of the UGC. And even if you want to cut the government some slack, see the composition of the committee. It would be inappropriate to comment on particular members. But the composition will remind you of a certain Murli Manohar Joshi, leavened with the same bureaucracy that has created the current mess in the first place. Where is the promise of the new? The regulatory storm will continue.
The third potential storm has to do with the implementation of the right to education (RTE). The goal of creating a more integrated schooling system is laudable, but the actual design and implementation of the RTE is seriously fraught. This piece of legislation is not this government’s, but at some point it will be left dealing with the consequences. This is a classic example of legislation that tries to do everything (except improve outcomes) and therefore risks being ineffective. There is inordinate emphasis on inputs and regulation at the expense of pedagogy. The design and implementation of its famous clause 12, mandating that private schools take children from economically weaker sections, is a mess. The governance structure it envisages is simply not taking hold.
There is a tricky constitutional issue here. The fact that minority schools have been exempt from the RTE, and the fact that the process of notification of minorities is a political one, risks creating massive opportunities for regulatory arbitrage. Many minority schools that are coming up have little to do with minority interests as we classically understand them. They have more to do with using an available exemption to escape the state. This has the makings of a real institutional storm.
The fourth potential storm has to do with potentially disruptive changes in higher education brought about by technology. The government seems dimly aware of this in its emphasis on MOOCs. But this strategy seems not to have been thought through at two levels. First, there is no clear diagnosis or analysis of whether MOOCs can actually solve existing problems. Second, there is the usual waste of physical resources. IGNOU is sitting on assets worth thousands of crores, yet we will create another parallel structure for distance education. Rather than fixing institutions, we will create parallel inputs that will go equally to waste.
There is still time for some fresh thinking on education. But the human resource development ministry’s early moves give little assurance that the best academics will feel more empowered. The fault does not lie exclusively with government. The academic community has also let short-term interest and ideological fervour trump regulatory good sense. We spent so much energy agitating on the wrong issues. I wish there had been one political agitation or one teachers’ union that had taken the lead in improving the quality of universities. There is more hand-wringing about the self-promoting Dina Nath Batra than about the irrational strategies likely to hobble Indian education. No wonder HRD has always managed to conquer and destroy.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’