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Updated: April 2, 2013 00:38 IST

The silent war over education reforms

Krishna Kumar
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Despite apparent similarities, the reports of two centrally appointed committees are split on the relationship between knowledge, skills and social needs

Two major reports with overlapping concerns were submitted to the central government during the last decade. They were drafted by committees appointed by two different offices of the same government. One was chaired by Yash Pal, and the other by Sam Pitroda. The titles of the two committees indicated both the contours of their deliberation as well as areas of potential overlap. The first committee, chaired by Yash Pal, was appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2008, and was called the “committee to advise on rejuvenation and renovation of higher education.” The second, chaired by Sam Pitroda, was appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2005 and carried the more compact title, the “National Knowledge Commission (NKC).”

Both reports talk about expanding the provision of higher education without sacrificing quality, and as such, a cursory reading would suggest that there is not much difference between the views articulated by the two groups. In the specific sphere of knowledge, both panels favour imaginative interface between areas and disciplines as a means of promoting creativity. They evince equal amounts of anxiety over the problems of accreditation and licensing faced by institutions that impart professional education. And, on the matter of institutional fragmentation at the apex level, both recommend establishment of an umbrella body capable of subsuming the overlapping functions of existing structures. With so many apparent similarities, it is not surprising that the Yash Pal report and Sam Pitroda’s NKC are routinely invoked in the same breath whenever a new policy or decision comes up for discussion. A careful decoding, however, reveals that the two reports are based on contrasting perspectives on the relationship between knowledge and education, and between these and social needs. From the point of view of the political economy embedded in the two reports, the visions of reform they endorse are incompatible.

Skill deficit

Both reports recognise a crisis in higher education, but their diagnosis of the nature of that crisis is quite different. While NKC views the narrow growth of higher education in the context of skills, it is not quite clear how it relates the current parlance of “skill deficit” to higher education. The idea comes across as an obvious issue or as an assumption: “While higher education enrolment has to increase markedly, the skill requirement of the growing economy means that a large proportion of our labour force needs to be provided vocational education and be trained in skills. This skill element has to be integrated with the higher education system to ensure maximum mobility.” Confusing as these words are, they convey the shape of things to come if NKC’s vision becomes reality. The report discusses the paucity of skills in the vast unorganised sector, but shows little interest in the context in which this paucity has grown. After all, the economy must be in a position or evolve towards one which provides employment prospects attractive to skilled personnel.

Knowledge and skills

The fact that Indian manufacturing has provided slow employment growth — called “jobless growth” during the 1990s — or that the IT-enabled sector provides less than 0.5 per cent of total employment, indicates that at least two sectors commonly linked with skills and the so-called knowledge economy, respectively, are not in a position to provide massive additional employment, or at least not immediately. No doubt the economy might evolve, and these or other sectors change in ways that provide additional employment, but the push for vocational skills, whether or not at the cost of higher education, cannot ignore a detailed plan of how industry-training linkages will also be simultaneously developed. This is precisely what NKC ignores, harnessing the rhetoric of knowledge with a variety of suffixes while refraining from relating it to the actual needs of the economy or higher education.

A relevant analysis of this kind, i.e. focusing on working conditions, livelihoods, and economic opportunities, was presented by a commission chaired by the late Dr. Arjun Sengupta, which dealt with the crisis of skill deficit in the larger context of poverty and working conditions. Ignoring Sengupta’s recommendations for comprehensive measures, the NKC opts for merely rebranding vocational education and training “to increase its value and ability to command higher incomes.” This unusual phraseology denotes rather transparently what must happen to the higher education system. NKC is worried about its size and enrolment capacity because it wants to use it for skilling. Vocational education will get rebranded by the transformation of the bulk of higher education into a skill-imparting apparatus, all unfortunately in the name of the knowledge economy.

In fact, the dichotomisation of knowledge and skills is perhaps one of the most problematic aspects in the current parlance of education. The focus on skill development has emerged concomitantly with the discourse of a “knowledge society” and “knowledge economy.” The relationship between the two is not difficult to draw. Both are responding to the large-scale deskilling that has taken place in the wake of technological changes geared towards automation and efficiency. A new class of corporate interests has emerged with the advent of new information technology and footloose financial capital. New kinds of alliances have emerged between the state and industry, even as education itself has emerged as a key market. These alliances enable the state to freeze or greatly reduce the employment it provides while allowing the so-called knowledge industries to transform the nature and quality of employment in the wider economy. Many different kinds of work have vanished from the market, while others have got downgraded, reducing employment and perpetuating deskilling, a scenario where educational planning is doubtless deeply implicated. Governing the youth and managing their prospects has always been important for the state, and now the latter consists of transient opportunities for work, interspersed by modular opportunities to learn new skills. This is where education is positioned in the knowledge economy: it is supposed to control the social damage caused by underemployment, casual work, deskilling and the associated loss of self-identity.

The Yash Pal committee had a difficult task of suggesting ways to rejuvenate an old, jaded higher education system in the middle of a crisis of academic governance. The committee faced the challenge by reiterating why the classical idea of a university is important — a place where people think freely, and create new knowledge by engaging with their milieu, thereby inducting the young into a culture of thinking.

Undergraduate education

The largest such space available in the Indian system are the undergraduate colleges affiliated to universities. Given India’s demographic geography, these institutions served historically to harness talent in dispersed locations under conditions of colonial underdevelopment of the school system. The Yash Pal committee took a bold stance in appreciating this role, examining the factors that have undermined undergraduate education — including the gross inequality between Central and State universities — and reaffirming its faith in their academic potential while suggesting how to improve them. Instead, NKC follows the popular trend of bemoaning these colleges for their ills that actually stem from long-term, systemic neglect. Perceiving them as a burden, NKC recommends the creation of an affiliating board and converting undergraduate colleges into “community” colleges. The meaning of this term derives from its history in the American system. Without bothering to examine this history, NKC simply hijacks the word “community” as part of the effort to rebrand vocational education, as it then infiltrates undergraduate colleges. If this move becomes widely implemented — a process that has indeed already begun — the sons and daughters of India’s masses may anticipate a wilful snatching away of their hard-won opportunity to access actual higher education.

In marked contrast, the Yash Pal committee differentiates between, and explains how institutions providing vocational education can be linked with universities. Similarly, for the training of school teachers at all levels, the Yash Pal report suggests deeper academic engagement, not the magical touch of information technology. In other areas of professional training too, the Yash Pal perspective was to loosen the grip of regulatory institutions whose monopolistic functioning is widely acknowledged to have resulted in corruption.

The silent polemic underlying the two reports is thus sharp and suggestive. If NKC guides the future course of higher education, its crisis will deepen and what good is left in it will rapidly erode, with painful consequences. That process has, in fact, begun. In the meanwhile, Yash Pal has been chosen for the award of Padma Vibhushan, apparently for his services to science and the cause of humanist learning at school.

(Krishna Kumar is a former director of NCERT. He has been awarded an honorary DLitt by the Institute of Education, University of London.)

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A nice dissection of two group of distinguished personalities present report on the Edu scenario. What can happen depends on HRD ministry mandarins!. Whatever way one may go, we NEED /What should be done/ to enhance skills is RIGIDLY FOLLOW CREDIT NORMS across all spectrum of education. Simply put it, ONE CREDIT Theory should be ONE LECTURE per week for 16 weeks. ONE CREDIT PRACTICALS should refer to ONE Three-Hours LAB per week for 16 weeks. Also it should be 16 credits per semester and the Graduate program should be of FOUR years. For current Diploma holders a BRIDGE course to get into Graduation level be introduced.Second grade qualifications like DIPLOMAS,Certificated must be abolished. When comes to Quality and Quantity the above strategy is THE solution. . Sooner we act the better is the benefit for the students. As public we can only PRAY!

from:  Dr B S Sudhindra
Posted on: Apr 4, 2013 at 16:25 IST

Dr Krishna Kumar, as always incisive and outspoken, has raised some
fundamental questions regarding the future directions in higher
education. The worry is that the course advocated by the Yashpal
Committee is the more difficult one to follow because it is embedded in
all the complex realities of India today. The NKC argument is obviously
much easier to go along with - precisely because it caters to the quick
fix answers which do not really touch the tough underlying issues.
Clearly there is an urgency for those serious about education, to
engage with policy makers to put in place measures which will truly
provide opportunities for our amazing Human resource potential to be
developed in the long term. Thanks for this timely warning.

from:  Laliita Ramdas
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 11:56 IST

a balance need to be made for education for job and education for its own sake for human development. the narrow vision of linking higher education for job only will defeat the purpose of higher education. on the other hand education which does not create job or help one to earn a living will in turn become useless without having life support capability. knowledge, skill and employment are linked. but we need to reform a system which was meant for providing low skill jobs. more emphasis should be to provide opportunity in every field in higher education. the opportunities will follow. No knowledge go waste. In present complex world full of myriad of problems, we need all kinds of knowledge to be pursued vigorously.

from:  pradeep
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 02:08 IST

A timely and well analyzed article. When I read this and when I look back at several roles Sam Pitroda has undertaken - I would say his vision is for translation of knowledge and with my understanding from this article I sense Dr. Yash pal is trying to revamp the education system in the basic knowledge front. I believe both are important esp. if we as a nation have to use the Mighty Youth power in this century. We are under knowledge explosion and as I always say - the 10+2 or B.S or M.s system has not changed but we expect every one coming to PhD after that to find something new. We need to award PhD even if people can find new use of old knowledge. That is what, I believe Pitroda model is aiming at. But knowing what already exists and to have that imparted through our university system effectively so that students are capable of finding real life application for those is primary aim for Dr. Yash pal model. We definitely need a Blend of both and I hope its a perfect blend.

from:  sriram
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 01:06 IST

Lets pay all jawans 50,000 per month.Lets get all military age indians
into the armed forces, educate and train them. Lets have a 500 million
army.Lets give all of them a free 5 year education.Lets equip them and
skill them to be the Best, ever. Lets also give 10,000 to every indian
per month directly. Lets also open up all sectors and let our citizens
be the best they can be.

from:  mahesh kuthuru
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 23:42 IST

This article makes a interesting reading about the perceptions of the crisis that higher education is going through and the committees having different philosophies about the problems and solutions. Fact of the matter is our education system is in rot and the government need to take urgent steps to slow down this spiraling and rejuvenate the education system, make it merit and quality based and make it affordable for one and all, especially the economically backward and those who don't have access to even the basic education.

About the NKC's relating higher education and skill deficit makes for ambiguous point and these issues have to be dealt in appropriate manner. What is appalling about NKC's push for vocation education is that how it would turn higher education into a skill-imparting machinery, rather than a abode where people can think freely, create ideas, create knowledge.

from:  Mahesh
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 21:09 IST

Look at the profiles of the two committee chairpersons. Sam Pitroda is
an innovator, entrepreneur and policy maker whereas Yash Pal is a
scientist and educator. An entrepreneur and innovator will always give
more priority to research which is evident from Sam's report to
strengthen universities whereas neglecting vocational training. An
educator thinks from broad perspective with an intent to transform
entire education system which includes vocational training. Two
different reports suggested two different perspectives of the same
problem.

from:  ranjithp
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 20:49 IST

Reforming higher education is the urgent need of the hour.Skill
development is based on a well knit vocational education.Vocational
education has a wide connotation.It includes training in simple skills
without advanced education as well as advanced technical education.The
latter helps in innovative developments,an essential requisite for
personal as well as national economic development.Unfortunately this
is within the reach of only the rich and higher middle class
populace.They have climbed the ladders of economic status;thanks to
the privatization of education.The lower income strata depend on
government education which is in a poor shape.The different schemes
operated by the govt.has only led to increase in enrollment but not in
education.The higher education in general line mainly suffering from
debasement of quality due to poor grass root education.lack in
interest in taking up teaching profession by good students owing to
several constraints suffered by it

from:  Dr.C.Lakshmi
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 16:59 IST

Anyone who has been seriously engaged with the crisis in Indian education, whether as student or teacher or parent, must necessarily agree with Professor Krishna Kumar and take his warning seriously that a further down-slide would be disastrous on the path to make people skilled fodder for capitalism. However, information technology does offer a secure practical pathway for re-training the vast majority of rural teachers in the most appropriate pedagogical methods of imparting the fundamentals of mathematical and scientific knowledge to children. Poorly trained, and badly motivated teachers can join a living virtual community of scholarship by using technology. This aspect should not be ignored.

from:  vithal rajan
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 09:35 IST

One would think that Higher Education is verily connected with Academic Engagement and pursuit of Knowledge. And there is no other way of describing this model or aspect. Any thing else which opposes or suggests some other explanation or scheme is suspect of rigorous examination of higher education. It looks like Yash Pal committee has lead the country in the right direction, thanks. Add to this, the entire world is going through crises in quality education and some countries are working hard at looking at providing good higher education to the population and at the same time creating avenues for skill development as well. Even an educated worker needs different life skills in jobs. Then this could and will be in addition to his or her broad based apprecation provided by knowledge acquired through higher education. This may look like unattainable. But the world is going through this phenomenom and India is not alone. I believe this is a continual process. Never easily completed.

from:  Sundaram
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 06:46 IST

Both these reports are important. Knowledge is exploding. It has become the fourth factor of production. Because of our demographic, economic and other pressures we have to raise productivity in the country. For this purpose various factions of the competing elites should not have to fetch legitimacy for themselves from the streets by mobilizing crowds now and then, and then surround themselves with a few hatchet-men for bringing their own chestnuts out of the fire. There is no substitute for systematic organization for a higher level of existence. Provide education and practical training in job skills and work values. Appoint optimum-sized staff on the basis of achievement, not affiliation. Encourage them to excel. Provide incentives after periodic evaluation of their competitive performance. Our institutes of higher education have to shift emphasis from examinations to teaching and from teaching to research. Production of new knowledge is more important than distribution of old

from:  Jaspal Singh
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 04:58 IST

Very clear summary of the different philosophies of the two reports.
All Societies need to nurture vocational skills, engineering on the
border between technology and science, pure science, social
disciplines as well as Arts and literature. While liaison between
vocational training and to an advanced engineering education and
research is beneficial in many ways, that between pure science and
mathematics and arts with slogans of education and research applied to
national needs can be a path to permanent mediocrity. The mind sets
governing professional schools and of the liberal arts and sciences
are different and the differences should be guarded. Yash Pal approach
would do so and will be good for the long run.

from:  Govind Mudholkar
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 03:48 IST

Many thanks to The Hindu! Finally it makes me feel happy that
something is going on behind the screens about the education system in
India. The important aspect of this article is when it emphasizes
creativity, something which is terribly lacking in our entire system.
It has to be noted that once upon a time (approx 5000-2000 years ago)
we indians were creative enough to come up with arthashastra, yoga and
even "kamasutra". All our creativity went down the drain with
successive misrule and selfish leaders. Its time we claim back our
place in the international stage. Its also important to note that
deficiency of creativity has led us to lack of industries and our
people are forced to work and live at the mercy of foreign nations
(recent saudi law is one such example). With the number of young
people in our country, we can bring up many industries of our own
instead of "copying" the western nations in everything.

from:  JOHN
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 01:25 IST
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