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One nation, one school board?

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It is admission season, and, once again, cries for quotas and reservations fill the air as students — at every level from playschool upwards all the way to PhD programmes — scramble to get a place in the more sought-after courses and institutions in India’s ferociously competitive education system.

The demand-supply gap is staggering, despite the fact that in absolute numbers, India continues to have the largest number of children out of school in any country in the world. The twin issues of accessibility and affordability combine into a deadly double whammy for parents struggling to educate their children. For the poor, access to affordable (free or subsidised) government education is limited due to the absence of anything like the requisite physical and soft infrastructure.

For those who can afford to pay, the challenge of finding a seat for their wards in one of the sought-after schools leads to ridiculous scenes of hysterical parents protesting in the streets and plethora of court cases every year.

The 30% target

At the higher education level, the situation gets even worse. The Centre has targeted to achieve a 30% enrolment level in higher education by 2020. If one in every three eligible students who have completed high school actually wants to join college in three years from now, we need to create 40 million university seats.

Despite the spectacular growth in private sector education — the education sector had gross revenues of ₹7,80,000 crore as of last fiscal and is growing at a clip of 20% per year according to research by India Ratings — we are still millions of seats short of the target.

So, quotas. Everybody wants one, and with everybody now figuring out which political button to push to get what they want, the pie is getting awfully hard to slice and dice further. Apart from the constitutionally mandated affirmative action reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, we have all kinds of other quotas at the State level, from straightforward caste-based quotas to shares for the economically backward, the socially disadvantaged, the physically challenged, the religiously persecuted and so on and so forth.

State-based quota

Last week, we saw an interesting new wrinkle added to the whole quota debate. In Tamil Nadu, the State government decreed that as much as 85% of engineering and medical college seats in the State will be reserved for students who had completed the qualifying exam — the XII standard or equivalent certificate — under the State’s own board of secondary education. The move followed a dismal showing by State-board students in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for admission to engineering/medical degree programmes.

Simultaneously, in Delhi — where Delhi University college seats, particularly the top-rated ones, are arguably the world’s most difficult to get into, with cut-offs in some colleges approaching a ridiculous 100% — the Aam Aadmi Party government passed a resolution in the State Assembly demanding that Delhi University reserve 80% of its seats for students from Delhi.

Of course, DU, being a Central university, can thumb its nose at the AAP government, but the genie has been unleashed from the bottle. Sooner rather than later, the demand for this latest take on a quota will get political and somebody will cave in somewhere, setting off a chain reaction of court cases and stays.

The simple solution, of course, is to create adequate seats so that everybody who wants a degree can get one. Like all simple solutions, this is not as simple as it appears.

The higher education sector is currently facing a simultaneous but different crisis — hundreds of engineering seats are going a-begging, as word gets around that the graduates of these colleges are proving to be unemployable in the job market. Hence, employers apply stricter filters to decide on who gets a job offer and who doesn’t. So, we need both quantity and quality, something that even the private sector seems unable to deliver at the moment.

Looking for Filters

So, some filters will have to be applied in sieving out candidates, which is why these quota and reservation demands pop up in the first place. The trouble is that our education system, whether at the school or college level, has never been able to convince stakeholders that it performs its human resource development function of equipping a candidate with the appropriate skills and knowledge uniformly enough, so that potential employers/admissions officers do not need to apply additional filters.

They simply do not buy the argument that anyone with a high school degree is good enough to become a doctor or engineer or manager or lawyer, which is why we have an alphabet soup of other filtration exams like NEET, JEE, CAT, CLAT and so on.

Using the eminent domain powers of the state to ramrod quotas is simply not going to work in such a situation. The only workable solution is to ensure uniformity in the quality of education, at least at the school level to start with.

This means, for instance, going for a nationwide CBSE system, instead of State boards of varying quality. The UPA government had even proposed this. Perhaps, like many of its other good ideas like Aadhaar, DBT and MGNREGA, the Modi government can pick it up and execute it.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:39:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/one-nation-one-school-board/article19194948.ece

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