An education in acronyms

Amid a plethora of cleverly named new schemes and tech-fixes, the HRD Ministry is busy tinkering with bureaucratic processes.

Updated - May 23, 2015 01:58 am IST

Published - May 23, 2015 01:55 am IST

PHOTO: G. KRISHNASWAMY

PHOTO: G. KRISHNASWAMY

Every year multiple agencies, private and public, tell us that an unacceptable number of school-going children at age 14 are functionally illiterate and that their numbers are not declining. Teachers and teaching, almost everyone is agreed, are at the heart of this problem. Every year a tiny fraction of hopefuls clears the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) or TET exams necessary to a get a teaching job in a government school. There are massive teacher vacancies across the country and the question that those responsible for CTET are grappling with is whether the tests to qualify as a primary schoolteacher should be at the class 10 level or the class 8 level. Lowering already low standards for qualifying teachers in order to fill the massive teaching vacancies is clearly not the solution to the problem of low learning outcomes in schools. Changes in pedagogy and improvements in teacher education, however, top the list of necessary changes if we expect the trend to reverse any time in the future.

A promising start The Union government appeared to get off to a good start with the announcement of a teacher education mission. The Prime Minister inaugurated the mission with great fanfare, speaking of a “five-year training course” and exporting teachers across the world “in lakhs”. His government, however, allocated only Rs. 180 crore a year for five years towards this goal. This works out to less than Rs. 400 per existing teacher per year — a derisory sum that suggests the Prime Minister is prone to flights of fancy and that his government has absolutely no understanding of the enormity of the problem. Combined with cuts across the board in the Centre’s education spending, the message that the government appears to be sending is that mass public education is not its priority; it just hopes the State governments will do something about it.

School education is, in the main, the concern of State governments. But it was to address the failure of State governments and the huge regional disparities that the Centre intervened in the first place. From a universal mid-day meal scheme to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, central allocations have been responsible for vastly increasing student enrolment, attendance and completion. However, their focus on numbers — the quantifiable goals beloved of both politicians and bureaucrats — has ignored the larger issue of learning or the quality of education. The next logical stage, for any government serious about mass education in the country, would be to devise a sustainable policy for improving teaching and learning standards across the country. The Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister, however, reinforced the impression that this government does not grasp what is at issue when she told Parliament: “Insofar as budgetary cuts with regard to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid-Day Meals Scheme and RMSA [Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan] are concerned, as you know, in higher education there has been an increase in allocation.” Comparing apples and oranges is a clumsy bureaucratic defence.

Sadly, bigger budgetary allocations for higher education, even if true, do not signal a greater understanding of what higher education in India needs. Over the years the MHRD and its clerically minded agent, the University Grants Commission, have fuelled a race to the bottom, reifying credentials over an education, setting up new institutions rather than strengthening existing ones, and denying universities autonomy through the capricious use of their powers.

In the last year, the MHRD and the UGC have done practically nothing to change course, implementing policy proposals of the previous government. So the opening of new IITs and IIMs in all States continues apace, even as existing ones have problems filling faculty vacancies and grapple with issues of quality in research and teaching. The Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS) and the uniform curriculum that goes with it have been in the MHRD pipeline for years. This government takes credit for pushing it through. Its grammatically challenged announcement describes the CBCS as “providing for more choices for students to opt for employable courses through a system of flexible credits….” And, the UGC justifies its need thus: “Because of the diversity in the evaluation system followed by different universities in India, students have suffered acceptance of their credentials, at times across the university system, as well as the employment agencies.” And so, the most significant ‘new idea’ in higher education in the country’s premier universities is reduced to “employable credits” and credentials that “employment agencies” can read.

Bureaucratic control The one major policy decision in higher education mooted by this government has been the rollback of the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP), which, Delhi University, backed by the United Progressive Alliance-run MHRD, had put in place. The manner of the rollback was, however, entirely in keeping with the style of the government’s past. Less than a month after the new government was sworn in, the UGC, in consonance with the BJP’s manifesto promise, issued a directive overturning its own endorsement of the FYUP. The Ministry also persists with the sort of political interference and bureaucratic control over institutions that in the first place set their downward course — meddling with appointments, filling up positions with ideological allies, and undermining independent institutions.

There is no surer sign of a lack of ideas at the top than cleverly named new schemes and tech-fixes. The government is, according to the Minister, putting its weight behind Massive Open Online Courses, with a programme called Swayam (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds). The expectation is that the IITs and IIMs will post lectures online, which students who have not made it into these institutions can access, learn from and, if they choose, obtain a certificate on the cheap (“just Rs. 500”, according to the Minister). MOOCs are a useful tool where learning levels are high and Internet penetration is not restricted to less than a fifth of the population (mostly men), the majority of who access the Internet on a phone.

But, tech fixes — unmindful of the access to and cost of phones, computers and data — are a thing with this government. Schools can now post their students’ progress reports online, and parents can keep tabs on their children’s homework and attendance via mobile phone messages. And the Ministry also hopes to give “free of cost” access to NCERT school textbooks via a mobile phone app.

The government has also begun what it claims is an “inclusive, participatory and holistic” consultation for its promised New Education Policy, through a website called mygov.in. The website has received suggestions and comments from between 300 and 1,000 people (mostly men) on twenty-two, sometimes overlapping, themes listed for discussion. In parallel, the Ministry has set up a seven-tier consultation starting with village education councils and ending with a national task force. The scale of the consultation (2.75 lakh village meetings to be held on one day, 6,600 block level meetings, etc.) is designed to impress. But like the mygov.in exercise, just the appearance of a wide consultation seems to be the goal. VECs, Block Education Officers, and the like are responsible for administrative supervision of programmes like the SSA and are not concerned with pedagogy or teacher training or student learning. This entire exercise reeks of bureaucratic inventiveness — to create a sense of purposefulness in the absence of real purpose or to obscure processes whose outcomes will be delivered as a fait accompli. Either way, we will not know until the end.

A year is perhaps not long enough to make an assessment of a government’s achievements. But it is long enough to judge whether the government has set a forward course or if it is meandering without purpose. The HRD Minister is a consummate public performer, presenting her Ministry in the media and in Parliament as purposeful, and herself as a facilitator of the Prime Minister’s ideas. The trouble is the Ministry is purposefully involved in bureaucratic processes and the Prime Minister appears to have no good ideas. It looks like this government’s education policy is stuck in byways, with no clue of how to get out.

(Anjali Mody is a freelance journalist and researcher and was formerly with The Hindu . )

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