Rajiv Gandhi aimed to propel the country into the 21st century. His vision for India is evident in his policies pertaining to the country’s modernisation, democratic decentralisation and economic liberalisation.
Post-independence India has had only two national education policies: The National Policy on Education, 1968 and National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986. The latter reflected Rajiv Gandhi’s vision for 21st century India. It was a comprehensive analysis of the Indian education system and provided a roadmap to transform each of its levels through a steady infusion of technology.
Rajiv Gandhi recognised the importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE) as a support for primary education and women working in disadvantaged sectors. Hence, an initiative to link ECCE with the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) was envisaged. The NPE pushed for the universal retention of students in educational institutions. It also stressed on improving the quality of education by setting up basic learning outcomes. Operation Blackboard was started to develop infrastructure in primary schools. This vision was incorporated into the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and RTE Act (2009). For out-of-school children, the policy proposed the Non-Formal Education Programme. The belief that children with special talent must be provided opportunities to grow at a faster pace irrespective of their economic situation guided the establishment of Navodaya Vidyalayas. Rajiv Gandhi also pioneered the National Literacy Mission Programme for all non-literates in the 15 to 35 age group.
He suggested funding provisions for universities and colleges, envisaged close ties among national laboratories within universities and stressed the use of technology-equipped teaching aids. Unlike the UGC’s current Guidelines for Autonomous Colleges, the NPE proposed central funding for autonomous colleges for a period of five years. It suggested inter-disciplinary programmes and interfaces with employment. The NET, UGC-NET for Junior Research Fellowship and the IGNOU were Rajiv Gandhi-era initiatives.
However, in recent times, higher education has become a neglected area. India ranks 103 in the Global Human Capital Index out of 130 countries, the worst among the BRICS countries. Only one Indian institution, IISc Bangalore, was ranked among the Top 300 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 2018.
More than 500 faculty posts are vacant in IIT-Delhi and IIT-Bombay, that have recently got the tag of Institute of Eminence. Six new IITs have been functioning in rented premises. The current regime’s interference in educational institutes like JNU, BHU and the University of Hyderabad has distressed the higher education system.
By implementing the recommendations of the Oversight Committee for the Implementation of 93rd Amendment to the Constitution, which I headed, the UPA government promoted expansion, inclusion and excellence in higher education. However, the current government has achieved nothing on that front.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development has drafted the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill. It aims to replace the 62-year-old University Grants Commission. Not only was the bill drafted in haste, the period for consultation with several stakeholders was a mere 10 days. The bill aims to “promote quality of academic instruction and maintenance of academic standards” and to promote autonomy of higher educational institution. The Commission must ensure the maintenance of academic standards in the higher education system, in pursuance of which it must lay down learning outcomes and evaluate academic performance every year. However, defining uniform learning outcomes for over 700 universities with different objectives and varied visions is an unrealistic proposal. Moreover, several provisions of the Bill, including those pertaining to granting affiliation to universities, will lead to micromanagement and overregulation by the Commission. In the guise of promoting autonomy, the Bill strengthens the Centre’s hold on the education system: A majority of the HECI members are bureaucrats. The HECI’s Advisory Council will be headed by the Union Minister of Human Resource Development. In case of a disagreement, the central government’s decision would prevail.
India’s neighbour, and competitor in the race for Asian supremacy, China, spends more than 2 per cent of its GDP on research and development. India, in contrast, spends a mere 0.6 per cent. While the allocation to higher education has seen a decline over the past few years, the HEFA (Higher Education Funding Agency) model of funding and the Centre’s slow withdrawal from funding autonomous colleges will impose much financial burden on students. For India to stand among the comity of developed nations, much larger public investment is required in both the primary and higher education sectors. The country needs a second wave of nation building with special focus on higher education.
NPE 1986 had proposed the constitution of an apex body that would deal with higher education, medical, technical and professional courses. This would have facilitated better coordination and inter-disciplinary research. The bill does not adopt this recommendation. NPE 1986, however, remains relevant. This is testimony to Rajiv Gandhi’s futuristic vision for the education system. Every scheme that exists currently has its roots in his education policy. While the current government struggles to formulate a national education policy for 21st century students, Rajiv Gandhi achieved it in 1986.