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Sunday, July 03, 2022

The post-pandemic crisis in schooling and higher education portends a grim future for India’s students, especially the poor

Sukanta Chaudhuri writes: Far from addressing the situation, the NEP has been effectively sidelined.

Written by Sukanta Chaudhuri |
Updated: March 4, 2022 6:39:14 am
Students wearing face masks outside a school amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (File Photo)

Amid all-round clamour, the sound of silence goes unheard. We have heard little of late about the no-longer-new National Education Policy. Its first anniversary was a low-key affair. There has been some tinkering with statutes and regulations but no structural or ideational change, and no funds. In school education, nothing has happened at all.

Yet, the most exciting proposal in the NEP was to merge anganwadis with primary schools. By affording all children what only the affluent now enjoy, this move could transform Indian education. It would need substantial funds for infrastructure, and both funds and planning to ensure enough trained staff. The pandemic offered a unique opportunity in this respect. School and anganwadi premises could have been upgraded during the closure, and staff recruited and trained online.

The opportunity is now lost in the flurry of reopening.

The pandemic multiplied the drop-out rate and caused a huge learning deficit in those who remain. The digital divide is only one of many challenges. Compensatory measures, before and after reopening, vary hugely across states. There is no hint of an all-India strategy. The Nipun Bharat programme to tackle basic learning deficits has been deferred rather than expedited.

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Two batches of five-year-olds have not attended school for a day. Adding the deficit in earlier batches, 8 to 10 crore children face total illiteracy. Enrolment and achievement levels in secondary school have plummeted further. Out-of-school girls face early marriage or even trafficking. Boys are dropping out too — sometimes, reversing all precedent, more than girls — obviously from the need to earn money. Even luckier children may not be entirely lucky. The damage, pedagogic and psychological, caused by prolonged online learning will emerge over time. The online coaching “industry” has surged exponentially, becoming a wildcard factor whose relations with the formal schooling system remain undefined. Hence, even those buying education at a premium cannot tell what value they will receive.

Far from addressing the situation, the NEP has been effectively sidelined. It seems likely to be implemented piecemeal if at all, restricted to low-cost paper reforms or items of random political urgency. The education budget rose by 12 per cent this year. Yet, the educational incentive for (chiefly tribal and rural) girls has been discontinued, and the National Education Mission budgeted below 2020-21 figures. The mid-day meals allocation has been further slashed, despite post-pandemic aggravation of the already declining child growth and nutrition levels. Instead of more teachers and better basic infrastructure, we are offered 200 TV channels and expanded e-learning (which the Parliamentary Standing Committee found inaccessible to 77 per cent of students). Yet total funds for Digital India e-Learning are lower by a third; for teacher training, by half.

Tertiary education is in growing disarray. Expanded schooling and greater reservations have redefined the student composition of public universities. By a reaction among the privileged, private universities have grown incrementally: They account for two-thirds of all enrolment today. The NEP ignored this factor beyond a pious declaration of the government’s primary role. Instead, it mooted another division between institutions by pre-set levels of teaching and research. Here, it followed the government’s lead, reflected in an operational shift from the UGC to the ministry’s direct control. Research is regimented through schemes like IMPRESS and IMPRINT, and institutions brought to heel through codes of conduct, imposed curricular and recruitment protocols, or even legislation.

Funding is increasingly focused on a handful of institutions, through what may be called the ranking syndrome. Allocations for IITs, IIMs, IISERs grow unimpeded, while the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) for general university funding is down by a third. “Institutes of eminence” are nurtured by vagaries of funding and proprietorship —Centre versus states, public versus private. Most state governments are equally culpable. Perennially impoverished state universities are further hamstrung by political and bureaucratic overlordship.

The upshot is a centrifugal order with no clear thrust or coordinated deliverables. Public universities are in foster care while more and more space is afforded to private institutions. The equation between the two sectors now replicates the long-standing pattern of school education. Hence, poor students have markedly less access to quality higher education. The quota for the Economically Weaker Section will be infructuous if the income ceiling remains this high — genuinely poor students will lose out. Moreover, the pandemic has affected public universities vastly more than private ones, owing to the former’s greater sprawl and the average economic condition of their students.

What scenario emerges on pooling all these factors? Schooling will grow still more divisive than before, reversing whatever progress government schools had made. The likely results range from a higher dropout rate to a resurgence of illiteracy. Some understated hints in the NEP grow sinister in this light: The stress on vocational training and apprenticeships, the explicit sanction of under-resourced schools and, outrageously, of children out of school.

The public university system will continue to decline. A few central and still fewer state universities might hold out, who knows how long. Alongside a plethora of overpriced teaching shops, a sprinkling of reputable private universities might provide meaningful education to a small section. Neither the state schooling system nor people’s fee-paying capacity will allow their numbers to reach the critical mass required for a vibrant knowledge order. Research will suffer badly. All this will ensure an outflow of academic talent to institutions abroad.

The process is already underway. Besides the horrendous human toll, such squandering of human resources (with consequent social unrest) is bound to frustrate economic growth. In that milieu, no one could buy or manipulate a radiant future for their own children. There could be no future for anyone in such a land.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 3, 2022 under the title ‘Shrinking classroom’. The writer is professor emeritus, department of English, Jadavpur University.

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