Continuation, improvisation and expansion of early progressive policies to take education to the masses have catapulted Tamil Nadu to an envious position in the knowledge economy. Coincidentally, in post-independent India, policies to enhance access to school and higher education were helmed by some Chief Ministers who were unable to complete schooling.
The Congress’s K. Kamaraj had not only taken schools to the villages but launched the far-sighted noon-meal scheme to ensure retention of students. The scheme, improvised and expanded by the successive regimes, has become an acclaimed universal model to attract students to schools and prevent dropouts.
Two language policy
Consistency on the State’s two language policy drafted to oppose the Centre’s attempted Hindi imposition, brought with it a by-product, English proficiency, a key driver of global employment opportunities. If this prepared graduates for the corporate world, privatisation of engineering education by the M.G. Ramachandran regime, despite its critical drawbacks, ensured Tamil Nadu was ready with qualified manpower to supply to the information technology sector in its early years.
Today, if many middle class and rural households boast of a family member making a career in the U.S. or elsewhere, it was made possible by the access to technical education. Three other factors facilitated this upward mobility for families that did not belong to the socially privileged classes. First, the affirmative communal reservation policy driven by the core understanding of the political class that not family vocation but education is empowerment. Second, the vision to create necessary infrastructure for the IT and manufacturing sectors when the time was ripe by the M. Karunanidhi (DMK) dispensation during 1996-2001. Third, the Tamil Nadu Placement Programme launched during Jayalalithaa’s regime (2001-06) that brought competent job aspirants under one platform and reversed the lopsided recruitment policy of corporates of heading to city colleges for talent hunting.
Competitive politics between the DMK and AIADMK may have consumed certain development schemes following regime changes. However, when it came to education, there were only exceptional reversals. If Karunanidhi, in his last tenure as Chief Minister, pumped in resources to launch more government engineering colleges, the AIADMK regime, under Edappadi K. Palaniswami, took a leap forward in commissioning government medical colleges with the Centre’s support. The State prides itself on specialised universities to govern the fields of technical education, medical education, legal education, arts, science and humanities colleges, teachers’ education, sports education, fisheries research, music, and open and distance learning among others. Horizontal reservation for students of government schools to pursue undergraduate medical and engineering education is another welcome model.
Some of the deemed to be universities have become preferred destinations for global students and teachers, who bring in the much-needed diversity on the campus.
In school education, Tamil Nadu was a model for activity-based learning, and the Uniform System of School education (USS or Samacheer Kalvi ) has to an extent bridged the disparity in the quality of education.
However, far from resting on its laurels, a course correction may be warranted for Tamil Nadu to retain its advantageous position in the technology-driven world. The desire for private school education is veering towards the CBSE, ICSE, IB and Cambridge Boards of education. In the long run, this may defeat the purpose of USS and widen the knowledge gap between the haves and have-nots as the non-USS institutions are largely driven by capitation and high tuition fees. The USS and government schools need to be strengthened and teachers empowered to innovate and freed from burdensome non-teaching work. The school assessment system, which is loaded in favour of scoring marks, requires an overhauling to assess the potential of a child instead of its rote learning ability. Along with the intelligence quotient, teachers must help students develop an emotional quotient to face challenges.
Quality of output
While access to higher education must continue to be non-restrictive and funding must be provided for the under-privileged, policies are needed to regulate the quality of output from colleges. In recent decades, unfortunately there is a competitive tendency by successive governments to force universities to increase the pass percentage of graduates, particularly in engineering colleges, by diluting evaluation standards. College students must be assessed at a higher level by the university system, failing which the worrisome trend of churning out unemployable graduates would pose challenges of a different kind. Universities need committed and strong intellectual academic leaders to guide the future generation and must be truly autonomous to devise their policies. The lesser the government’s interference, the better for the education system.
These issues, if addressed by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin in his government’s proposed State Education Policy, will help the State stay focussed in its mission education.