It’s Teachers’ Day once more. India knows what to expect — customary cultural programmes and ritualised demonstrations of affection, punctuated by platitudinous interventions by politicians (with the significant exception of the president, who takes a real class in civics and political history). Tomorrow, it will be back to business as usual. Although yesterday, one of the oldest centres of learning in modern India threatened to close down on January 1 in the face of a funding crisis. Panjab University has been addressing its deficit with central bridge funds released ad hoc, but the ministry for human resource development has failed to clear its revised non-plan budget. A succession of band-aids patch together a system kept perennially on the brink of collapse, and the preference for temporary fixes over robust and continuing policies signals callousness. While the transfer of the human resource development portfolio from Smriti Irani to Pakash Javadekar has defused political tensions, administration remains to be improved.
Generally speaking, higher education is battling ad hoc creep. Apart from financial patches, there is the preference for ad hoc teachers, which is again driven by financial pressures. It is cheaper to maintain stables of ad hoc teachers appointed quarterly instead of nurturing permanent teachers. Temporary staff can be legally denied all but essential facilities and there is no danger of them organising to protest or strike. However, ad hoc staff have a hidden cost. While institutions invest less in them, they, too, invest less in the institutions where they teach. While the system is making teaching an unattractive career option (how many students return to their alma mater as faculty?), lack of security of tenure is robbing students and campuses of the support of a committed faculty.
The effects of state indifference are even more starkly visible in schools. Not those brought into the spotlight for a few minutes every year by the visits of political leaders on Teachers’ Day, but those, which are generally beneath political notice. Teacher absenteeism and tuition mafias have become serious problems in part because staff feel impelled to augment incomes. If the midday meal scheme stutters, it is because teachers denied resources to run it well see it as a burden. There are, indeed, huge numbers of committed schoolteachers, but that signals the triumph of the human spirit. Quality teaching exists in spite of the system, not because of it. The government has given prestige to pedagogy with programmes on Teachers’ Day. But it is time to move on from a token nod to the community and actually commit funds and resources towards making teaching a rewarding vocation once again, and not only an inspiring calling.