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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

A Kerala model for universal education

Heavy public investment for decades made sure that the state could achieve universal enrolment and prevent drop-outs.

Written by Navneet Sharma |
March 9, 2021 10:33:04 am
Schools reopen in Lucknow amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (Express Photo: Vishal Srivastav)

“The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the speed of enlightenment among them, that by diffusing education, they might become better subjects and public servants…”

The above statement is neither from any UN declaration nor from the budget speech of any finance minister of a “welfare” state. This is from Kerala’s royal rescript by the regent queen of Travancore, Rani Gouri Parvati Bai in 1817, whose bi-centenary we commemorated in 2017. Even after 200 years, the discourse in the economics of education continues to oscillate between defraying education and education cess. The historic royal rescript of 1817 proclaimed education as the “responsibility” of the state. Simultaneously, it emphasised that “political will” is more important than the political economy to decide the expenditure on education.

A democratic welfare state ensconced in “liberal” economics cannot defend the steady and continuous fall in public spending on education and levying of education cess on its people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Article 26(1) and (2) by the General Assembly of the UN emphasises in clear terms that every individual has the right to education and that it should aim for holistic development which in turn would evolve respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Seven decades after the UDHR, 58 million children are out of school globally and more than 100 million children get eliminated from the schooling system before completing primary education. India tops the list of countries with out-of-school children. The 2011 Census affirmed that 84 million children in the country do not go to school at all and 47 million children get eliminated even before Class 10.

Education with all its idealist moorings, when it comes to its institutionalisation, is shaped by the political economy of the state. But, why is it that an ideological dispensation that fought and won the election on a plank of nation-first and nationalism and is considerate of “right” education in nation-building, is unable to negotiate with the compulsions of a liberal economy. Nation and nationalism with an ethnic and religious core is the philosophical and political perspective that has guided the formulation of New Education Policy, 2020. It is strange that while Travancore, a princely state in colonial India, could appreciate the genuineness of public funding of mass education, the government of a democratic welfare state cannot realise the very NEP it has produced.

Kerala is known for its highest literacy rate in the country and one hundred per cent enrolment of children in primary and secondary education. With around 46 lakh students, 16,000 schools and 1.69 lakh teachers, the student-teacher ratio and student-school ratio reveal a desirable scenario. With more than 20,000 non-teaching staff, the teachers are not burdened with non-teaching or administrative work and are free to concentrate on their pedagogical roles. Along with another flagship programme for adult education, Athulyam helped Kerala to achieve universalisation of primary education. This is no mean feat in a country with structural obstructions to education.

This universalisation could be achieved with the prioritisation of education by successive governments. It is the fruition of the total literacy campaign started by the then Left Front government in 1989. The successful implementation of PRISM (Promoting Regional Schools to International Standards through Multiple Interventions) and whooping allocations to develop one school in each assembly segment to international standards is what can be seen as the reason behind the tectonic shift of 2.35 lakh students from private to public schools. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written extensively on the “Kerala Model” of education and attributes Kerala’s economic and social success to the consistency with which school education expanded, based on sustained public policies and action.

This model of education needs to be emulated at a national level. Besides the budgetary allocation, the political will of a few individual leaders and the collective will of the people worked as a ghost in the machine of electoral politics to seek appropriate funding for education of children not only from multi-sectoral partnerships but the government of the day too.

Successive governments in Kerala have increased the capital outlay to education and simultaneously decentralised financing of education through local bodies. The per capita expenditure on education is also on a steady rise. The Kerala model shows that comprehensive interventions pertaining to nutrition, health, sanitation, and early simulation can help to achieve sustainable growth in human development. Even the Incheon Declaration expects member states to spend 4-6 per cent of their GDP on education to achieve SDG4. India is a signatory to this declaration.

However, the Union Budget reflects otherwise. The 2021 budget allocates only 2.75 per cent of the GDP to education. It is understandable that education being on Concurrent List needs to be prioritised more in the state budget. But the crunch in allocation is not only about the management of revenues and finances. Many reports and available data shows a rise in the privatisation of education with a large number of children being eliminated from the system at early stages, cost of education going up due to systemic inefficiencies and students committing suicide for want of data and laptops. The kind of commitment or collective will shown for the provisions of electricity, water and roads needs to be developed for education as well. Unless education becomes an election and emotional issue akin to nationalism, we will have only a few pocket boroughs of royal rescripts like Kerala.

The writer is faculty in the Department of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamsala

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