India's knowledge superpower dream is dying; bureaucrats are dismantling our higher education system

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on the demanding and unreasonably high cutoff levels imposed on students seeking entry into the country's preeminent colleges.

India’s higher education system is undergoing a slow, yet steady dismantling process. Seasoned bureaucrats are removing a host of key subjects from their core bodies to ensure greater acceptability among students.

Let’s count the ways.

File image of Prakash Javadekar. PTI

File image of Prakash Javadekar. PTI

In April, Pradip Kumar Sinha, Cabinet Secretary of India pushed the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to transfer four schemes related to polytechnics to the new Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE). He also asked the HRD ministry to transfer architecture institutions to the Ministry of Urban Development (MUD).

And now, the chances are high that in four months, pharmacy and management could also be taken away from the clutches of the HRD ministry and handed over to ministries work with people and policies revolving around these subjects.

For the first time in more than two decades, the government is conducting a comprehensive review of its education policy, which critics claim has gone dangerously off track since implementation of the Right to Education Act (RTE).

The 2009 law, designed to guarantee a good education to all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14, was hailed as a landmark piece of legislation, but eight years on, school enrollment has hardly improved,  learning has sharply deteriorated and the public schools — where 70 percent of all children study — are a disaster.

“The idea is to give subjects to ministries that will eventually work with people dealing with those very subjects,” says former Cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, who headed a 2016 committee that recommended changes in the country’s education policy when the HRD ministry was under Smriti Irani.

Now, within a year of that report being submitted, another committee will be formed by current HRD minister, Prakash Javadekar and its report submitted to the government. Javadekar’s move has surprised many because the one submitted in 2016 remains, largely unimplemented. Worse, the whole report was not made public, only its 95 recommendations.

Subramanian says when he submitted his report to the government last year, he made it clear that both the University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council For Technical Education (AICTE) require a serious overhaul. “It is absolutely essential to convert my 95 recommendations into policies followed by effective monitoring. Else, India will not be a serious player in the knowledge economy,” says the former chairman of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy.

Subramanian’s list is huge. He calls each recommendation vital for the estimated 300 million students in the country. Highly placed sources said the HRD ministry was not too happy with the recommendations. However, critics found it brilliant because it highlighted glaring holes in the existing system from primary to tertiary level.

Subramanian wanted more cash for education, outlay raised to 6 percent of the GDP, an Indian Education Service (IES) to spruce up the sector, special tests before teachers got jobs and more scholarships and grants from the UGC. And there was a pending demand to create a National Skills University. But what was important was the committee’s recommendations to allow top 200 global universities to set up campuses in India and give the same degree acceptable in the home country of the said university.

As of now nothing has been implemented.

Top schools and colleges worldwide attach tremendous importance to research and interdisciplinary studies but in India, the system, deliberately, create walls around disciplines. “It’s a pity only a handful of schools in a billion plus nation offer mix and match courses, like biotechnology with history. As a result, everyone follow the age-old system,” says Bhavna Vij Aurora, a mother of two.

The UGC, created in 1956, reigns supreme, handling 700 universities and 38,000 colleges. But over a period of time, several professional regulators — 13 in higher education — have sprung up through government legislation, encroaching upon the apex regulator’s space. And then, single subject universities — management, engineering and even dental — have mushroomed through the deemed university or state government route.

“There is a lot of confusion in the education sector but no one is ready to bell the cat,” says Suparna Khastagir, a senior English teacher in Kolkata.

Khastagir is critical of the practice of automatically promoting children until they reach the eighth grade even if their test scores are poor. The policy, a key component of an ambitious 2009 law that made education a fundamental right, was aimed at curbing dropouts in rural areas. Many private schools have dropped the rule following directions from HRD ministry but a large number of state-owned schools still continue with the system.

“It has severely impacted the standards of education and its results are still being felt,” says Khastagir.

Add to the confusion over choice of subjects is the marking patterns in schools. Consider this one. An examination paper of 12 total marks is split into four segments of 3 marks each for content, format, grammar and fluency. Key words are picked up in each segments and compiled for the marks. As a result, almost all students — good or weak in studies — end up with “good” marks.

That's not all.

School exams can be broken up into two types: Summative and formative.

In the formative tests, students get marks for writing, comprehension, and group discussions. Strangely, the CBSE has "hidden" guidelines to only offer the best marks forward. "Now, there are many students — thousands of them — who would end up getting poor marks in all but one format but we, as teachers, have to submit that best paper forward. That’s not exactly a correct assessment,” says Khastagir.

In short, this is an accumulation of years of shoddy learning. Last year, education ministers of 21 of 27 Indian states asked the then HRD minister Smriti Irani to revoke the no-fail policy at a meeting in New Delhi.

Critics of the system point out at the recent case of abysmal pass percentage in the Class XII examination in Bihar, where a whopping 65 percent students failed, the worst results since 1997 when 86 percent failed.

Protests, some encouraged by the Opposition BJP in Bihar, rattled Patna but state education minister Ashok Chaudhary said he was not worried because only deserving candidates made the mark. “Don’t forget, our examinations have often been badly impacted by mass copying. But this year we were very strict,” Chaudhary said.

JD(U) leader and former Bihar minister Ranjit Sinha said the corruption within the state's examination system was, this time, held in check to a large extent.“Now, mass copying will slowly be removed from the system. The government is putting some very tough standards in place.”

Sinha says its important to put the checks and balances because learning levels among children are not very high in rural India. “It is a pathetic scenario of shoddy learning," he adds. With a 74 percent literacy rate, India has the most number of illiterate people in the world. In Bihar, a little of half the students in Class V in rural state-run schools could not read second-grade textbooks in 2015, Sinha claimed, quoting the Annual Survey of Education Report.

If poor choice of subjects in schools and colleges is one issue, the lack of teachers is the other. “In the countryside, teachers routinely remain absent from classes. So who will you blame for poor results?” asks Subramanian.

He feels one of the biggest problems in many rural schools, other than the lack of teachers, is that those who do turn up are often inattentive. Data from the HRD ministry says teacher attendance in rural India hovers between 45 - 55 percent. In large and medium-sized cities, that figure is 90 percent.

There's more.

For decades, schools and colleges in India have come under fire for promoting rote learning with little (read virtually no) focus on classroom discussions or extracurricular activities, rendering standardised tests for Class X and XII extremely competitive and leading to depression and suicides among students.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data says that every hour, one student commits suicide in India. In 2015, that figure stood at 8,934. In the five years leading up to 2015, 39,775 students killed themselves. The unofficial figure is five times higher. Enfold India, an NGO which works with children and adolescents, says schools with minimal pressure are very rare in India, and only in the big cities.

Some schools are trying hard to battle this crisis.

Manit Jain, director, Heritage School, says he encourages students to have an authentic relationship with learning and develop strategies for doing well. Jain says his teachers collaborate with students and allow them to express their opinions. “Ours is a very, very progressive model,” says Jain. He set up his first school in 2003. He has three schools in Delhi and Gurgaon, where students work on projects and themes and not on syllabus. Thanks to some students, Gurgaon banned cars on many roads on Sundays. The students found their purpose through their project.

“We need to get on the balcony," says Jain, laughing as he talks about a phrase learned from Harvard Kennedy School senior lecturer Ron Heifetz, after taking his class some years ago. Jain says he routinely steps back to see the whole picture, and the practice helps him make things easy for students.

But India has very few such schools.

The government has the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, which has a huge annual budget for setting up new schools and offering free textbooks, uniforms and a midday meal. But some of the figures offered by the HRD ministry are horrifying. Till 2015, four percent of Indian children missed school, 57 percent were not in primary school and almost 90 percent — around 172 million — did not complete secondary school.

The latest Annual Status of Education Report, released by NGO Pratham, showed reading proficiency has declined since 2008, especially in public schools. This is not encouraging, especially if India is aiming to be a knowledge superpower.

Expectedly, all eyes are on the HRD ministry which is setting up another round of reorientation of its education policy to focus on improving the students’ learning levels. Once the report is out, work must happen fast. Else, queues next year will grow longer than before: Both outside schools and colleges.

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 16:15 PM

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