The Central government is implementing reforms unilaterally, as though education is in the Union List. This infringes the federal spirit of the Constitution and the objective of promoting harmony in variety.

A spate of reforms in the field of education, some of them already implemented and some awaiting implementation, have brought the subject of education into the focus of public debate. These include the abolition of examinations at the Class X level, the unification of syllabi of higher secondary courses and the introduction of a national common entrance examination. Moves towards public-private-partnership in education, the legislation on the Right to Education, the proposal to create a National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), and steps towards compulsory accreditation, foreign direct investment and prevention of unfair practices also come in the same genre.

To be fair, education is getting the attention that is due for it from the Central government for the first time since the great initiatives in institution-building in the post-Independence period. There is some recognition of the role that education plays in national development. There is a significant national consensus on the three broad objectives of enhancing access, equity and excellence. An increased awareness of the pivotal role of education in national development finds reflection in the Eleventh Five Year Plan. The overall financial allocation for education is five times that of the Tenth Plan. The Prime Minister is justified in calling the Eleventh Plan an education plan.

While there are no two views on the need for changes in the system of education with a view to increasing access, equity and quality, the nation is divided on the direction of the changes and the modalities for their implementation. Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal was on record as having said that he would do for the educational sector in 2009 what Manmohan Singh did for the financial sector in 1991. The Minister does not conceal his neo-liberal agenda. While Manmohan Singh had introduced the policies of liberalisation in the 1990s almost stealthily and apologetically, Mr. Sibal is brimming with confidence, giving the impression of an honest and well-meaning reformer.

But honesty is not enough in the determination of educational policies. Education concerns all the people. Different individuals and groups have different concerns in education, which have to be reconciled in policy planning and implementation. It is the primary responsibility of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to provide a common platform to contest ideas and aspirations, on the basis of which a consensual agenda of action could be evolved and implemented. It appears that Mr. Sibal continues to act more as an attorney than a judge in these matters.

The confusion between the neo-liberal commitments of the Minister and the inclusive aspirations of the people was nowhere more apparent than in the conflicting statements made by Mr. Sibal on the question of the fee structure of students and the salaries of private school teachers. At a meeting of school Principals in Delhi, he declared that private schools in Delhi would be free to charge fees and pay teachers as they liked, once the Right to Education Act came into force. The Delhi State Act that regulates the fee structure and salaries would be rendered inoperative by the Central legislation. But following a volley of protests from the people, he had to clarify the next day that the Delhi State Act would continue to be in force. What the incident brought out was the Minister's divided loyalties. He had a fleeting realisation that his personal and party loyalties to the ideology of liberalisation are at odds with the aspirations of the large majority of the people, to whom he is ultimately answerable.

The sad part is that such instances where the voice of the people is recognised are few and far between. In this instance, the response to public opinion was instantaneous, as protests emanated in Delhi itself. But India is a vast country and all the people cannot come to Delhi to impress upon the MHRD about their reservations on decisions that adversely affect them. Hence, a healthy solution to the problem lies in decentralising the process of policy making and implementation. Unfortunately, the MHRD is moving in the opposite direction, at a very fast pace.

Take, for instance, the decision to enforce a common syllabus, textbooks and examination for Plus-Two courses. The National Curriculum Framework 2005, drafted under the chairmanship of Professor Yash Pal, observed that the “pluralistic and diverse nature of Indian society” demanded the preparation of “a variety of textbooks and other materials” to “cater to the diverse needs of different groups of students” so as to “promote children's creativity, participation and interest and thereby enhancing their learning.” In pursuance of the objective, the States were encouraged to develop their own curriculum framework in a participative manner. The lead that Kerala took in framing the Kerala Curriculum Framework (KCF) through large-scale people's participation extending to the panchayat level received acclaim. Now Mr. Sibal wants to do a volte face, that too without the sanction of a new curriculum framework. This will amount to undermining the structural and curricular reforms initiated during the term of the first United Progressive Alliance government. The administrative convenience that a centralised common entrance examination will provide is touted as the excuse. The objective of education is reduced to coaching students for competitive examinations, conducted in a rigid framework. The idea of education as an inclusive process of unleashing the creative potential of diverse groups and individuals, leading to the creation of harmony in variety, which Professor Yash Pal dreamt of, is lost in the process.

The story of the legislation to set up the NCHER is no different. While the broad administrative objective of bringing all educational activities within a single central regulatory framework as suggested by the National Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal Committee have only been partially met (as medical and agricultural education are kept out of the Commission's purview), the academic objective of giving greater autonomy to universities, colleges, teachers and students have been ignored. The heart of the problem lies in the failure to define autonomy and accountability as the academics' freedom to do what society expects them to do. Such an understanding would necessitate appropriate Central and State regulations, leaving room for academic initiatives and administrative flexibility at the institutional and individual level. The proposed NCHER Bill unfortunately tends to centralise powers in the hands of a few experts, who would be invisibly but effectively controlled by the Central government, leaving little role for States in higher education.

The framers of the Constitution, exposed to the trauma of Partition and divisive domestic demands posing challenges to the unity and integrity of the nation, conceived a constitutional framework with a unitary slant. Still, they left education in the State List, obviously in appreciation of India's cultural, geographical and religious plurality. Education was moved to the Concurrent List during the Emergency through strong-arm tactics. Nevertheless, it was done constitutionally, at least in form, through an amendment to the Constitution.

Now decisions are being taken by the Central government unilaterally, as though education is in the Union List. In the process it is usurping some of the powers for policy making and regulation that the States enjoyed. The federal spirit of the Constitution is infringed upon in the process. The objective of promoting harmony in variety through a pluralistic educational system is also defeated.

(M.A. Baby is Minister for Education and Culture, Kerala.)

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