Still stuck in the old school

The New Education Policy won’t work unless a completely new system of education is devised. Only then can India benefit from the demographic dividend of the 21st century

October 20, 2015 12:53 am | Updated 04:07 am IST

The Secretary General of the Association of Indian Universities, Furqan Qamar, compared the shibboleths in education to the belief in some sects that cats should be present at meditation sessions. It turned out that the practice of keeping cats came into being when a certain guru allowed a cat he was fond of to stay by his side while he meditated, and his followers came to believe that the presence of the feline was mandatory. The practice continued until a guru, allergic to cats, wanted to shoo it away. But the traditionalists insisted that the cat must stay and no one could get rid of it. Mr. Qamar, at a session on “Ranking of Institutions and Accreditation” at the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) consultations on the New Education Policy (NEP), expressed the hope that the consultations would lead to the elimination of the many cats which had crept into education.

Successive speakers repeated the cat image but at the end of the day, we found not only that the cats stayed on, but that another litter was on its way. The conservative educationists are extremely reluctant to move away from fixed ideas and practices. As in other established enterprises, innovation is hard in education, since it will affect a whole new generation, and may be expensive and risky. But unless we eschew shibboleths and move with the times, the NEP will be old wine in an old bottle.

Themes and questions The NEP is meant to replace the Education Policy, which was formulated in 1986 and amended in 1992. Twenty themes have been identified for discussion in higher education: ten of them at the grassroots level and ten at the State level. In addition, major regulatory organisations and voluntary bodies have been asked to hold consultations on some of these themes. But the themes and questions framed do not go beyond the surface in many cases. From Swami Vivekananda to Amritanandamayi, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to Sam Pitroda… they all have pronounced on education and nothing more can be said. What we need is a new action plan to devise a new system of education, without which our graduates will not be able to benefit from the demographic dividend of the 21st century.

The Bengaluru meeting dealt with only one theme, Rankings and Accreditation. Things went back to square one after a day of deliberations. A methodology for a ranking framework had already been announced for engineering and management institutions, and the meeting meekly asked for such a framework for other institutions too. The methodology of ranking by foreign agencies, which had reluctantly put a couple of Indian higher education institutions in the list of 200 world-class institutions this year, was criticised, but no formula was found that would help Indian universities become world class. Nobody seemed bothered about the state of affairs, though the lament until recently was that Indian institutions were below 200 in the rankings. Our ranking framework is expected to create an impact internationally.

Status quo in accreditation Accreditation was another issue on which the meeting decided to stick to the status quo. Everyone agreed that the backlog of unaccredited institutions could not be cleared by the NAAC, and that multiple agencies are needed. But again, there was no inclination to even experiment with State or private agencies. The fear was that such agencies would become partial and corrupt, a charge from which the NAAC itself has not escaped. The recent expansion of NAAC was noted with satisfaction, and it was decided that statistics about unaccredited institutions will be collected.

In Kerala, even reforms that have been accepted in the rest of India are facing adamant opposition. Even after the new autonomous colleges have shown potential, fears and suspicions cloud the horizon. While everyone concedes that private universities will bring in much-needed investment and a new range of universities, scepticism prevails about their misuse even after the draft legislation is riddled with conditionalities.

Most States seem to have completed their grass roots consultations on NEP, and now regional and national consultations are scheduled. But the indications are that much will remain unchanged, unless the government takes bold decisions outside the given themes. Many are stressing secularism, justice and the spirit of enquiry for fear that the purpose of the current exercise may be the saffronisation of education.

The government would do well to pull out some of the bills pending in Parliament such as the final shape of regulatory bodies and the policy on operation of foreign universities in India. Talk of internationalisation sounds hollow without a positive policy on foreign universities. Many universities are said to be waiting in the wings to enter India. Unless a policy is laid down immediately on foreign universities, internationalisation will pass us by.

The Rashtriya Uchchatar Siksha Abhiyan (RUSA), a mission which was announced with fanfare by the previous government to provide massive financing to State universities, appears to be in ruins today. One of the primary purposes of RUSA was to increase the Gross Enrollment Ratio. Innovative proposals, invited on a competitive basis, were discarded in favour of routine infrastructure improvement. The allocation is a case of too little too late. The whole process is still in the grip of the bureaucracy.

The expectations raised by the current national consultations on the NEP will be belied if the shibboleths in the educational system are not discarded. What we need is a revolution, not tinkering with the existing system.

(T.P.Sreenivasan, a former ambassador, is the Executive Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council.)

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