The Union government has appointed a Committee, headed by K Kasturirangan, to work on a New Education Policy. The Committee is yet to submit its recommendations. Meanwhile, the government is contemplating to replace the six-decade old University Grants Commission (UGC) — a regulating authority that failed to check the rot in Higher Education. Prakash Javadekar, HRD Minister, intends to pilot the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of UGC Act) Bill in this monsoon session of Parliament, commencing from July 18.
The Bill proposes to delink funding of educational institutions from the regulating body, HRD Ministry itself taking over the responsibility, as the Higher Education Secretary R Subramanyam put it, “the UGC remains preoccupied with disbursing funds to institutes and is unable to concentrate on other key areas such as mentoring institutes, focusing on research to be undertaken and other quality measures.” To placate the apprehensions of the academics, a subsequent press release of the Ministry has assured, “if there is a successor system to the current grant-giving role of the UGC, the same will be operated in the most unbiased and impartial manner.” Some other proposals, inter alia, include (a) universities to get authorisation from the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) before awarding degrees; (b) the HECI to focus on promoting academic excellence and maintaining standards; and (c) closing down fake and sub-standard institutions. Education in general and higher education, in particular, requires fundamental reforms, not cosmetic changes.
First, it is important to raise the standard of schools, run by Panchayat Institutes and Municipal bodies, to the level of Kendriya Vidyalayas. The policy of teaching in mother tongue has altered the very thrust of education. The three language formula is not observed, neglecting the official languages — Hindi and English. It is not a question of preserving regional languages. The regional languages are promoting linguistic chauvinism, resulting in communication barrier. A student from Tamil Nadu, studying in Tamil medium, cannot communicate with a student from UP, studying in Hindi, and vice versa. The students are paying the price for this short sighted policy of States. The teaching in mother tongue has practically immobilised them, affecting their higher studies and job opportunities. Besides, most of the government schools do not have basic amenities and infrastructure. This is aggravated by mass absenteeism of teachers, due to corruption and ineffective supervision and control. How redundant is education could be gauged from a recent recruitment of police constables in Maharashtra. For some 1100 police vacancies, over 2 lakh applicants, including doctors, engineers, MBAs and lawyers, have applied. Arup Patnaik, former Mumbai Police Commissioner says, “The problem with qualified youth from rural areas is that they are unable to communicate in English and hence are unable to bag jobs in the private sector…it is a sad reflection of our times…” A crash course for English language should be made mandatory at the first year of College, exclusively for the students from vernacular medium, to improve their reading, speaking and writing skills. Unless the quality of primary and secondary education is improved, the products of our colleges and universities will not be able to gain productive employment.
Second, our education system encourages rote learning with emphasises only on marks. There is a need to de-emphasise on rote learning and encourage critical thinking. Make the teaching and learning a matter of joy and happiness. The school curriculum should be overhauled to imbibe human values like truth, righteous conduct, gender equality and democratic principles of equality, tolerance and respect for dissent and diversity. As S Radhakrishnan, one of the finest teachers the modern world has seen, said, “The values of human life must come from two sources: parents and teachers. They are the makers of an evolved society.” The School is an important agent of socialisation.
Third, privatisation has made the education unaffordable to the poor and marginalised. It has resulted in commercialisation and profiting the managements. More than 60% students in Higher Education are studying in private institutions. There is mushrooming of engineering colleges, having no infrastructure and qualified teachers, with 50% seats going vacant. The teachers in private unaided institutions do not enjoy the protection of service conditions. They are paid a pittance, seriously affecting the quality of teaching. While cutting grants to educational institutions, the government is promoting contractual appointment of teachers, making the teaching profession exploitative and unattractive. The privatisation should be confined to certain professional courses. The bulk of students in Arts, Science and Commerce streams cannot afford private education.
Fourth, revisit the policy of admission. Education is an instrument of social mobility. Therefore, quality education must be accessible to all. The Article 30 of the Constitution gives religious and linguistic minorities “the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” This makes the minority institutions to reserve 50% seats to the members of their community, changing the character of educational institutions, making them non-liberal and exclusive centres of learning. Why not open admission to all students, banning admission based on religion, caste and language, except for SC and ST? This does not amount to denying the minorities the right to establish and administer educational institutions.
Fifth, depoliticise the educational institutions. The appointments of top functionaries of institutions should be made on merit basis, not on regional and caste considerations. Today, most of the appointments in universities and academic bodies are made on the ideological basis, eroding the academic autonomy and the freedom to explore ideas and knowledge. As Prof Arun Kumar says, “those not catering to the markets would be marginalised and the generation of the socially relevant knowledge would decline.” Educational institutions need freedom from political controls, if they have to excel and perform to their full potential. Allahabad University was once known as the Oxford of the East. Banaras Hindu University and Shanti Niketan were compared to Gurukuls. Delhi University was renowned for its classicism and Jawaharlal Nehru University for its progressive values. They flourished as premier public institutions because of autonomy.
And no regulating authority will be able to ensure quality and maintain standards unless its Head and his team enjoy freedom of action and have the courage to enforce the norms and take punitive action against the erring institutions without fear or favour.
A Professor of Political Science and retired Principal. He has published his magnum opus ‘The Trial by Fire: Memoirs of a College Principal’.