The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is currently engaged in preparing a New Education Policy (NEP). The last policy on the subject was in 1986 and revised in 1992. In the latter half of 2015, the ministry appointed a committee to ‘evolve’ a draft of the new policy. The committee’s report was submitted to ministry in late May 2016, based on which the ministry has uploaded an abridged version of the report as draft policy for public comment.
The committee, inter alia, recounting the developments in the past decades, had come to the disturbing conclusion that the current state of education in India is highly distressing, that quality and inclusiveness issues require urgent attention. The committee attributed the current state to a number of significant factors, including politicisation at all levels, lack of attention to essential aspects of management, a highly ineffective and corrupt regulatory structure, lack of focus on teacher preparation. The panel had also made 90 major recommendations for complete revamp of the sector. The focus of this article is not on the committee or its recommendations – it relates to one of the recommendations, not seen as a primary issue by the panel.
One of the recommendations refers to campus activities in the institutions of higher learning and states that these stem from excessive focus on political or communal issues and are not directly related to academic work. ‘One frequently hears of agitations, disturbances, gheraos and other movements in various campuses from time to time – examinations are postponed frequently, in some cases students lose a year or more due to unsettled conditions. Many of these circumstances arise out of the activities of groups of students and other interested parties, whose priority may not be that of the mainline student.’
The committee, recognizing the importance of unfettered generation of ideas, free speech and association in campuses, draws attention to the rights of the mainline student to pursue academic work and poses the question that should there be an enforceable code of conduct, or a restriction consistent with Article 19 of the Constitution asking for a non-emotional examination of these issues on a nationwide basis.
While a number of articles and analyses have appeared in newspapers and magazines on the committee’s recommendations, it is noteworthy that the editorials have raised only the issue of ‘move to ban all political activities’, expressing ‘alarm’ at the undemocratic and unrealistic recommendations made by the committee. It is equally noteworthy that most English language TV news channels have not found it necessary to have a discussion on the state of education in the country, or on the need to reform based on the major recommendations of the committee. The one suggestion from the committee picked up for national debate relates to the reasonableness or otherwise of the ‘throttling’ of the right conferred by Article 19 (Freedom of Speech, of ideas and to association).
The exercise of every right, conferred by the Constitution, is to be balanced with appropriate delicacy and sensitivity, in so far as it impinges on the right of the other persons who may be affected. While the Constitution provides the freedom to make noises in the public space, the Supreme Court rulings have curtailed use of loudspeakers after 10 pm. The vast majority of students in campus have invested years of their life, to equip themselves with a degree and improve their market opportunities; many parents may have made huge sacrifices to get their children a decent education. It is not uncommon that exams are postponed, and frequently a year or more is lost by the serious student for no fault of his. Is it unreasonable to ask for a national debate to consider the matter, to explore a balance that can be found to allow the Article 19 freedom, concurrently ensuring that the interest of educationists are not affected? Is this such an outlandish and philistine thought that editorials and screaming television anchors need to cry foul that the nation’s politics will be irretrievably assaulted, if such regressive ideas by some old fogies are allowed to take root.
Invariably in such debate and discussion, the dominant voices heard are that of student leaders. One surmises that in every campus, for every student leader, there is at least a hundred students exclusively interested in furthering his education – he has no representation or voice in such a debate. One has even heard the argument that ‘curtailing’ politics in campuses would dry up resources that contribute to the nation’s tribe of political leaders – one even heard that Lalu Yadav may not even have entered the political arena but for campus politics – what a delicious thought!
The implicit argument is that there is shortage of national leadership, and that the universities should act as manufacturing units for mass production. One need to remember that the primary purpose of the university is to educate – the charter of most universities do not stipulate that the prime purpose of the institution is to generate politicians. If the by-product, desirable or otherwise, is to trump the main objective or purpose of the university, it is time for us to review the charter of the higher education institutions to declare that their main objective is to generate national leaders – education of the student is only a desirable by-product.
Sadly, the mainstream media does not want to engage on critical issues relating to quality of education and inclusiveness, both imperative for survival of the nation. It is also not recognized that the wishes of the majority of students (and their parents) also need to be taken into account, in reviewing the policy that there may be unfettered political activity in a campus. We need to ponder the role of our mainstream media.