The problem

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JUST over a century back, liberal social reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale pleaded before the colonial government for making elementary education compulsory. Possibly the idea was seen as much too radical and failed to muster the necessary support. Yet, even today, in 2006, despite constitutional promises and even an amendment making education a fundamental right of all children, neither our state nor our elites can muster up the necessary will and resources to convert promise into reality. Worse, despite preparing a Right to Education bill after months of discussion in the Central Advisory Board of Education, the Union government has decided against presenting the bill in Parliament, preferring instead to circulate it as a model legislation for state governments to consider and adopt, a unique way to define a right.

Few areas of public concern have been as studied and commented upon as education, what with dozens of commission reports and innumerable studies. There is also no shortage of ‘innovative’ schemes and projects, involving a multiplicity of actors – public and private, Indian and foreign – all seeking a breakthrough. Yet, sixty years after independence, our literacy rates remain unforgivably low and the percentage of children in school and actually learning shameful. True, one needs to read this against the undeniable progress on many fronts – number of educational institutions, teachers, students. But, in a country aspiring to be a knowledge superpower of the 21st century, to still be struggling with basic concerns like getting children into school, ensuring that they remain there long enough and, above all, learn and acquire the basic skills needed to negotiate the modern world, cannot be a matter of satisfaction.

What is true of basic education becomes even more troubling as we go up the education ladder – from primary to secondary on to graduate, technical studies and research. At the time India became independent, on this count at least, it seemed better placed than most other post-colonial developing states. Even in the sixties, Indian universities and technical institutions represented a site of optimism – inadequate in terms of needs but steadily on a growth path. Today, despite a manifold growth in numbers – public and private – the prognosis for the future remains decidedly ambiguous if not bleak, with few Indian institutions making the international grade.

More than resources, in particular public funding, what seems to ail our educational enterprise is a lack of clarity, and therefore consensus about both our goals and whose responsibility education is – Union, state and local government, private educational providers or civil society. The government which invariably advances the argument of fiscal inadequacy in extending quality provision remains simultaneously suspicious of private initiative, tying up all those who want to enter the sector in a complex web of rules and regulations such that honest effort becomes well-nigh impossible. A bit like a dog in the manger attitude – we can’t do it but will not let you do it either.

One may have thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that the government and our education policy-makers would welcome non-official initiatives by framing clear and enabling ground rules, evolving regulatory and certification mechanisms. What we have instead is turf protection, with those entrenched in the system unwilling to share decision-making powers. Little do we realize that a stultifying regime, reminiscent of the license-quota raj of yesteryears, only provides space for those with the skills to work the system. So it is not that we do not have a private sector in education – from schools to universities and technical institutions. We do. Just that a vast majority of what passes off as education resembles a cut-throat profit-making enterprise – capitation fees for students, poorly paid and over-worked teachers and, in the main, indifferent quality.

When the government set up a Knowledge Commission it was hoped that we might get a new vision and a new path to both revitalise our existing institutions as also create new ones. With a faster growing economy, new technologies and the upsurge in demand for learning and skills at all levels, it appeared the right time to make a breakthrough. And though it might be premature to admit defeat, the lack of coherence within government, with the Knowledge Commission and the Union human resource ministry at loggerheads, hardly inspires confidence.

It is not the case that the debates in education policy are only about control and power. Given the multiplicity of objectives and values associated with education – from skill development, inculcating a critical orientation and creativity in students, to fostering civic values and a common citizenry – debates and differences are not only expected but to be valued. The role of mother tongue vs English at the primary level; the use of para-teachers in situations where regular schools and teachers are in short supply; job-oriented and skill based learning as against general education; the role of local and traditional knowledges; allowing autonomy to educational institutions to evolve their own curricula and examination methods – all these and others have engendered a heated debate in the country.

Yet, the manner in which we approach policy dilemmas can drive one to despair. Take programmes like Shiksha Karmi or the Education Guarantee Scheme which rely on para teachers. At one level, they represent a response to both a shortage of trained teachers as also their unwillingness to serve in ‘backward’ areas for groups of underprivileged children. Para-teachers or gurujis at least ensure some education to those currently receiving nothing. True that these schemes are decried by educationists as condemning poor children to substandard education, possibly impairing them for life, and all because of a penchant to save money. Yet, in only decrying these initiatives and insisting that the government somehow find the resources and muster up the political will to massively expand the coverage of properly equipped schools, a process that may take decades, are we making the best the enemy of the good? Or is it, as critics aver, this is only letting the government off the hook.

The current debate over OBC quotas in higher education suffers from a similar infirmity. For a start we mistakenly equate a policy initiative with an issue of principle, as if quotas are the best, if not only, way to enhance social inclusiveness in institutions of higher learning. Worse, any attempt to highlight inadequacies at the school level, without correcting which a regime of quotas will remain inefficacious, is perceived as diverting the demand for social justice. Even more damaging is the proposal to simultaneously increase the overall intake of students and introduce the full complement of quotas, little appreciating the possible impact on quality. Instead of debating concrete ways of enhancing availability and inclusion while retaining quality through a package of schemes, we seem to have trapped ourselves into a politically divisive and fractious discourse such that the social identity is seen as determining one’s position on this question.

Granted that it is not easy to resolve such contentious issues, nevertheless delays in decisions accompanied by mixed and often contradictory signals are disconcerting. Meanwhile, given the pressures of demand, those in need continue to create their own solutions, including thousands seeking instruction abroad. And now, with education becoming a global enterprise with students, teachers and knowledge crossing national frontiers, our inability to set our house in order only implies a gain for someone else. It should be a matter of concern for our policy-makers if aspiring medical students seek out institutions in China in the absence of national availability of appropriate price and quality. Or that the market for educational aids from textbooks, audio cassettes, CDs or computer software is primarily controlled by global providers.

Fortunately, recent years have also witnessed a renewed thrust in education by both the government and the private sector. Industrial houses are today willing to invest in education, not just the better paying management and technical institutes, but also partner government in improving schools through scholarship programmes, infusion of technology or by suggesting improved management practices – clearly preferable to building temples. This needs to be leveraged through appropriate policies as does the desire of non-national players to enter the education market. More than the who, we need to engage with the what on offer.

The need for a massive expansion in quality education at all levels has never been greater. Is it not time we move beyond the old ideological debates marked by suspicion and intolerance of all players other than ourselves? There is no shortage of innovative efforts and experiments. The challenge is to give an impetus to the churning and help make a scale transformation – increasing access, social inclusion and quality. This issue of Seminar advances a few ideas. Can we build on them?


* This issue draws upon a recent discussion ‘Reimagining Education’ organised by the Seminar Education Foundation with support from the Ford Foundation.