Even as Prakash Javadekar was being elevated to a Cabinet minister, and handed over the department of Human Resource Development, a two-member bench of the High Court in Mumbai was issuing some stern obiters: that schools have become money-spinning rackets, education resembled hospitals, and in some cases, they amounted to extortion.
It was in the context of a school charging Rs 52,000 for stationery and uniform for a 11-year-old Mumbai student and failure to pay, led to a transfer certificate. But the general tone of what the judges said is something the new HRD minister should take seriously. Education in India doesn't have the student at its Centre anymore, but profits are.
It is not a contention with regard to only schools, but across the spectrum of institutions, right up to universities. It will be not incorrect to describe universities as factories, with the VC as the managing director, the heads of departments as heads of verticals, the principals as shop floor supervisors, and the students, who are the products as good as the cheap items smuggled from China.
There could be exceptions, and there could be institutions of academic excellence and eminence such as the IITs and IIMs, but only that. Rest, including in the frighteningly growing private sector in education, sponsor nightly news programmes on TV to garner an image, and some say they are research and innovation driven. But universities are supposed to be just that, and isn’t it tragic that one has to advertise it as its USP?
His predecessor is seen more as a controversy-courting, aggressive minister, who had an agenda — certainly not her own but the promotion of an ideology which the right wing swears by — and as a successor, Javadekar may well do the country a service by making education worth its description, and those who get it, useful. Towards that end, he needs to hunker down in his office, think, and diligently work.
For starters, Javadekar may as well sit with S Ramadorai, former head of TCS who had said that there were a dearth of engineers, but there certainly is a dearth of employable engineers. He belonged to a sector that has been growing — IT. He may as well spend time with Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, who pointed out five years back that even IITs were getting poor quality entrants.
If Infosys has to retrain those hires, because the "the quality of education that they have received is not what we would like them to have. Therefore, we have to train them to make them relevant to the firm." This is a social and economic burden on a sector that does not seek sops from the government to innovate and grow. And, as in Maharashtra, a third of engineering seats are going to be vacant.
It is as if the country has lost its way in this sphere, and just keeps squeezing the half-filled balloon in the name of reforms and corrections, and with regard to even the initial schooling, has allowed the private sector to bloom. This has led to an adverse situation where those who can pay are better-off in the gains they make at a price, than the ones who have to settle for the neighbouring government school where teachers get paid more, per the pay commission, but deliver less.
Javadekar’s own state, Maharashtra, where his own party is at the helm, has seen teachers employed in private but unaided schools for a pittance and make-do with second jobs — even driving auto rickshaws or taking to working on farms, not exactly a profile that adds the gravitas a teacher has to bring to his/her work, apart from, of course, skill. And despite such private, though poor investment, and the government’s own, where are we?
The government needs to start a skill programme because there are others too who had to escape education not only due to disinclination for it but also due to the inability to attend even a free school. The out-of-pocket expenses must have been daunting enough for their parents to keep them out of school long enough to have learnt something useful. But there are surveys showing that a Class 7 student cannot read or write or do sums he or she should have learnt to do in Class 3.
This does appear as an alarmist scenario but it is alarming for our reforms — such as they are, and if they are of no
significant dimension — that have not taken us anywhere. Access to university education is of no purpose if those who get there are poor — like Narayana Murthy’s lament cited earlier — in standards of basic education. It is like the neo-literates — oh yes, when did you last hear of a literacy campaign? — who, just by being a whisker away from a thumb impression think they have done some schooling.
What Javadekar should strive for, and secure rapidly, are these: One, make syllabus the same across the country breaking down the differences between the IBs, ICSC, CBSC, SSC, the last distinct to each state, regulate school fees and eliminate extortion — once it was called capitation fee — and ensure a decent level of proficiency among teachers. In his own state, not even five percent of those with degrees or diplomas in education manage to pass eligibility tests, and they remain teachers.
Once that is done, crack the whip enough to make sure that a churan (digestive) seller does not have the gumption to set up a university as in Aligarh, or a politician does not become a chancellor of a private university because he set it up. Avoiding the areas that Smrti Irani waded into, Javadekar, a former journalist who is also a good generalist, can reinvent the system and truly skill the country. This is tough because vested interests are many, with their toes visible. That would be human resource development. Otherwise, it's a pure swank.
Ask the common man, he would agree this should be the agenda.