Over time, the pluralistic Indian press, state-controlled radio, and in more recent times television have devoted substantial space and time to education. In the past decade, this coverage has become more extensive and, in some segments, more specialised, more focussed, and more purposeful. Journalism can feel good about this in a double sense: serious coverage of educational activity, its progress, deficits, and defining themes is unquestionably a public service; it also serves the media's interests in engaging with readers, new as well as old, and helps generate both advertising and commercial revenue.

For newspapers especially, the growing interest among parents, which extends to the lower middle classes, in educating their children is both an opportunity and a challenge. Both aspects have been getting some attention in public discourse. The need to reorient the higher education system in tune with the socio-economic and cultural changes taking place in the country and to make it more accessible to the masses was highlighted recently by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former teacher, and Union Minister of Law and Justice Veerappa Moily at two different functions. Both referred to the challenges that students, teachers, and educational establishments face in changing times.

“Students should be in the forefront in addressing the changes of the present day,” the Prime Minister declared in his convocation address at the Sri Satya Sai Institute of Higher Learning at Puttaparthi. “Accelerated changes in technology are leading to new challenges and students should focus on breaking a new path that others will do well to follow.” Calling attention to India's steady advance in information technology, biotechnology, space, and nuclear science, Dr. Manmohan Singh underlined the vital importance of universities sustaining the quality of education. Now that the country was playing a greater role on the international stage, the emphasis should be on creating systems that would generate opportunities for young people and equip them with the skills and capabilities to face challenges on a global scale. This could be realised by fine-tuning university curriculum. In keeping with his government's slogan of “inclusive growth,” Dr. Singh told the graduating group that their lives would not be complete or successful unless they shared their knowledge with “the less privileged and the less fortunate.”

A day earlier, Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, in his convocation address at the SRM University at Kattankulathur near Chennai, painted a less optimistic picture, addressing the theme of a widening gap between education and employment. Joblessness had assumed monstrous proportions and the percentage of unemployed youth getting jobs was decreasing by the year. The Minister's basic diagnosis of the problem was that the development of educational institutions with the requisite faculty and infrastructure had not kept pace with the quantitative growth of enrolment of students.

Mr. Moily did particularly well to register his anguish over the inability of a significant number of students to access well-equipped, top quality institutions of higher learning such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management. “In the ultimate admission process,” he noted, “any student scoring below 99.6 per cent [of marks] does not get an admission to IIMs and IITs.” He characterised such institutions as being “underused and caged” and as undergoing no significant expansion for more than four decades. This was the case until the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution came into effect, he noted.

The 93rd constitutional amendment has effectively said, in the words of the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, that “nothing in the Constitution shall prevent the State from making any special provision by law for the advancement of any socially or educationally backward citizens regarding admissions to aided or unaided non-minority educational institutions.”

Reservation policy and World Cup

Mr. Moily, who headed the Oversight Committee that took care of the implementation of the 93rd Amendment, noted that the expansion rate had gone up to 54 per cent in the few years since the amendment was implemented, from the pre-amendment rate of just one per cent. He claimed that his approach of “Expansion, Inclusion and Excellence” paid dividends and opened up “underused and caged” institutions of excellence, the IITs and the IIMs, and expanded social opportunity. The kind of isolationist approach practised over a long period in these “institutes of excellence,” he remarked, was unknown “in the history of human resource development.”

The Union Law Minister emphasised that only when weaker sections were given equal opportunity and access to all levels of education on par with stronger sections of society, could hidden talent come to the fore. He drew a parallel with sport organisers' strict adherence to certain principles in ensuring equal opportunities to all aspirants, notwithstanding their levels of play. Even the highest sporting federations, the Minister pointed out, were practising reservation. He gave an interesting example involving soccer. Thirty-two countries qualify for the FIFA World Cup played every four years. If FIFA had stuck to its own world ranking, the top 32 teams would have qualified for the World Cup. However, FIFA has evolved a qualifying-based reservation system in order to enable nations from all continents to play at the highest level. The Federation has segmented the soccer world into eight zones and each zone is allowed to have a specific number of qualifiers. This qualifying format has enabled African, Asian, and other nations with limited soccer infrastructure and resources to get exposure to the World Cup. This has proved a big success and it has resulted in more world-class players emerging from different continents and catching international attention.

The need for more critical analysis

The increased space being given to education by newspapers is heartening. But it must be recognised that this coverage is incomplete, somewhat lop-sided, and often lacks analytical depth. In general across the media, professional education tends to get much greater coverage than general education at the foundational as well as higher levels. Structural aspects and knowledge issues relating to the examination system, pedagogy, teacher-student relations, the content and quality of textbooks, the problems associated with the system of affiliating colleges, and so on seldom get analytical coverage in the Indian press. Although many articles complain of a fall in standards, few go deep into the phenomenon. Generally reports on basic rights such as the right to education, the right to information and the right to health are widely published to create the needed awareness among the students, by the print and digital media. But the continued practice of untouchability in several educational institutions across the country, although banned by the Constitution six decades ago, and discrimination against certain sections of students by teachers go largely unreported by the media. More socially alert and sensitive media, and sustained exposure of this shameless practice will help pave the way for a peaceful atmosphere and an inclusive society, which are indispensable for education to flourish.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in