Indian Education System Revamp: Six Issues The New Shiksha Mantri Can Immediately Address
New Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has a historic opportunity to change things for good, and there are particularly six key issues which need to be addressed urgently.
Many political pundits are interpreting shifting of Dharmendra Pradhan from Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to Ministry of Education as some sort of demotion.
In my opinion, Pradhan has got the best ministry anyone can dream of if they are aspiring to leave their mark for decades to come and get their name registered in the history books as one of most impactful ministers of all time.
Education Ministry has always been one of the most important government departments but minister after minister has failed to live up to the job and the claim the greatness thrust upon them. Even though former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had many able ministers in his cabinet, his education minister Murali Manohar Joshi is still remembered for his work (one of which, history textbooks, was undone with ideological vengeance by his successor Arjun Singh).
But his another great contribution — sparking off the deemed university phenomenon really did wonders for higher education in the country. It allowed many private universities greater autonomy and funding from the government which helped them become institutes of excellence even though there were many failures.
While many point to the failures to discredit the whole initiative, that’s exactly the point of freedom — there will be successes as well as failures just as in business. It’s the successes which propel the country forward.
In 2014, there were high hopes from the Narendra Modi government that education will be a top priority given the mess created by the ministers during United Progressive Alliance's (UPA’s) decade-old tenure. But fourth minister in seven years doesn’t instil much confidence.
Now, Pradhan has a historic opportunity to change things for good. Good thing is that broad contours of his work have already been decided for him thanks to the National Education Policy (NEP) that received the Union cabinet nod last year. He only has to deliver on the implementation which is no mean task.
There are particularly six key issues which need to be addressed. If executed successfully, Pradhan can boast to be one of the most successful education ministers in independent India’s history.
The Right To Education (RTE) Act, 2009
RTE has been one of the most disastrous pieces of legislation implemented in the country. It has created sectarian divide at the school level where institutions run by minorities are not governed by it. It robs schools run by non-minorities of financial and admission autonomy.
It imposes unbearable financial burden on private schools by forcing them to reserve 25 per cent of their seats for students of certain castes and economic background for which they don’t get just and timely compensation.
Moreover, it squeezes budget schools by mandating irrational input requirements related to hard and soft infrastructure — playground, library, classrooms, student-teacher ratio, etc.
NEP doesn’t explicitly mention RTE but the reforms it proposes cannot materialise without substantial changes in the RTE Act.
First, NEP advocates making it easier to establish new private schools. “To make it easier for both governments as well as non-governmental philanthropic organisations to build schools, to encourage local variations on account of culture, geography, and demographics, and to allow alternative models of education, the requirements for schools will be made less restrictive."
Second, NEP talks about watering down focus on inputs for schools and having greater emphasis on outputs (say, learning outcomes).
It states that, “the standard-setting/regulatory framework and the facilitating systems for school regulation, accreditation, and governance shall be reviewed to enable improvements on the basis of the learnings and experiences gained in the last decade. This review will aim to ensure that all students, particularly students from underprivileged and disadvantaged sections, shall have universal, free and compulsory access to high-quality and equitable schooling from early childhood care and education (age 3 onwards) through higher secondary education (i.e. until Grade 12)”.
Further it says that input requirements for schools regarding land areas and room sizes, practicalities of playgrounds in urban areas, etc will not be overemphasised. “These mandates will be adjusted and loosened, leaving suitable flexibility for each school to make its own decisions based on local needs and constraints.”
Moreover, it promises that "educational outcomes and the transparent disclosure of financial, academic, and operational matters will be given due importance and will be incorporated in the assessment of schools.”
Third, NEP states that both private and public schools will be regulated within the same framework. This is significant because, as we have seen with the RTE Act, the government had put such stringent criteria regulating private schools that even most public schools do not meet, sending a wrong signal that private schools are being targeted unfairly.
Fourth, the draft NEP (final policy didn’t mention this) had admitted that RTE’s most contentious and important clause 12(1)(c) (which forces private schools to have 25 per cent quota for poor at paltry reimbursement rate from the government) is not in tune with the principle of autonomy of institutions which NEP champions and it had advocated a review of the same.
The draft document had highlighted how this clause has been misused by some private schools by inflating fake RTE student numbers, lobbying to get minority institution certificate to avoid implementing the law. Additionally, it says that the money/effort spent in implementing this clause may be better utilised in the public school system.
If NEP’s recommendations are to be implemented in letter and spirit, RTE has to be completely revamped. Pradhan must ensure that a new law addresses two major concerns that NEP is silent on — that of exemption to minority schools and admission and financial autonomy of the schools.
New Curriculum Framework (NCF) And New Textbooks
NEP has called for a new NCF based on which new textbooks will replace the old ones that were based on the 2005 framework. This has been a long pending demand of the people to see a comprehensive change in school syllabus including overhauling the history textbooks which are riddled with biases and errors.
The NCF for school education was supposed to come in 2020-21 but that hasn’t happened. This needs immediate attention so that the work on new syllabus and textbooks can start.
NCF is crucial because it will shift India from 10+2 pedagogical system to 5+3+3+4 one, reduce syllabus to core contents of subjects, introduce flexibility in course choices, promote mother tongue as medium of instruction, incorporate Indian knowledge systems, local flavour and content in national textbooks and reform student assessment including that of boards — all the goals envisioned by the NEP. (One can read a thorough analysis of all the NEP recommendations related to school education here)
Executing these changes in a time bound manner will be an uphill task.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically transformed the education landscape in the world and accelerated the shift from brick and mortar schools to ones in the cloud.
Surely, the online mode of education has been found wanting in many aspects but some of the changes are here to stay. The future will certainly be hybrid where schools and e-schools continue to serve in parallel.
This offers immense possibilities: we can have teaching via virtual schools, education costs of even private schools will come down, good teachers will go ‘viral‘ quickly and can branch out on their own and start their own tuition classes, whole education payment system can be cashless which would eliminate the possibility of money laundering and tax theft that some big schools are often accused of.
With increasing smartphone penetration, ‘Make in India’ in electronics and mobile manufacturing taking off in a big way, costs will come down. Rather than spending thousands of crores on textbooks, buildings, other hard infrastructure, governments can distribute smartphones to the poorest and pay subscription money to attend virtual schools or send money directly to students via direct benefit transfer. This can be a twenty-first century version of school vouchers.
Many entrepreneurs are trying different types of schools which foster innovation rather than rote learning. Some have been able to develop small working models in a few locations. But scaling up is really tough for them given the huge costs involved in establishing school chains. But with virtual schools, scaling innovation in teaching would be a piece of cake.
Keeping this in light, we will need innovative new ways of regulations that allow cloud-only schools (online coaching will surely go on) to operate in parallel with the brick and mortar institutes.
The Education Minister has a huge role to play in ensuring that we move with the times and don’t stifle innovation on this front.
Revamping Student Assessment
One of the most praiseworthy visions outlined in NEP is regarding the assessment at school level. It recommended that the National Testing Agency (set up in 2017) conducts “specialized common subject exams in the sciences, humanities, languages, arts, and vocational subjects" so that "students will be able to choose the subjects for taking the test, and each university will be able to see each student’s individual subject portfolio and admit students into their programmes based on individual interests and talents.”
This can be revolutionary but it can only be successful if the quality of these tests is very high and if they are not made 'easier'.
Another great proposal by NEP is to conduct “Olympiads and competitions in various subjects across the country“ and more importantly, allowing “public and private universities, including premier institutions like the IITs and NITs“ to use their results as part of the criteria for admissions into their undergraduate programmes.
Such national tests will help stream bright children in different fields and they can be picked by good institutions/colleges/even firms for specialised training or job. These national tests will help make the board exams redundant to a great extent.
Of course, implementing this will require great efforts. More important is to ensure that there are no leaks and corruption like in tests conducted by various agencies for government recruitment. Credibility of NTA tests has to be of the level of IIT/IIM/UPSC entrance exams not SSC/Railways, etc.
Vocational Training, Skill Development And Lifelong Learning
Now that Skill Development Ministry has been merged back in the Education Ministry, NEP’s holistic approach to focus on imparting skills right from school days can be better realised.
NEP envisions mainstreaming of vocational training right from an early age. It also recommends providing vocational courses through higher education institutions which is a smart move that will not only improve the quality of skilling courses but also encourage more people to take them up.
Also, these institutions are in much better position to forge partnerships with industry and design relevant courses based on skills which are in demand in the market.
The plan to break up 3/4 year duration degrees into 1/2 year certificate/diploma courses is recognition of the changing times. Students will be able to exit from 3-4 year duration bachelor’s degree courses after one or two years, with a diploma or certificate in a domain, with an option to continue and finish their degree later.
Students couldn’t have asked for a better arrangement in this age of lifelong learning. Since academic credits will be digitally scored under academic bank of credits, students will be able to collect these from different HEIs as well.
This combined with vocational courses can be a boon for vast majority of students who don’t or can’t study well into their late 20s for various reasons, financial or otherwise.
This is again a big implementation challenge and will require focused attention from the minister personally to succeed.
Do No Harm
So far we have talked about suggestions from the NEP that Pradhan needs to implement with some changes. But equally important are two recommendations in the NEP which are harmful in the long run and need to be resisted.
First, transforming all higher education institutions into large multidisciplinary universities — is the ’highest recommendation’ of the NEP “Even engineering institutions, such as IITs, will move towards more holistic and multidisciplinary education with more arts and humanities,” the NEP states.
Since Independence, we have taken a unique approach where we set up institutes for specific purposes (IITs for engineering, IIMs for management, IISc for science, etc) rather than universities which mean everything for everyone.
In hindsight, this has proved to be a boon for the country, especially in 2020 when we are witnessing some of the finest education institutions in the West fall victim to alt-left politics, activism and values thanks to the 'liberal arts education' chicken finally coming home to roost.
We are seeing the same in India — in places like JNU, Jadavpur university, Jamia Milia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, etc. But the reason why we are facing only scores of alt-left mutinies and not thousands is precisely because of our unique higher education setup which has kept STEM institutions (the places of excellence) segregated from ’liberal arts’ ones thereby providing the much-needed inoculation against bad ideas.
If NEP’s suggestion is implemented, will end up with little JNUs in these top-quality institutes known for their academic excellence.
Second, the NEP talks about opening schools in areas with high populations of SCs/STs/minorities. Ditto for higher education. For schools, it recommends that there should be focus on hiring faculties from certain communities. Such ghettoisation will lead to creation of caste/religion based institutions and will be detrimental to national unity and integrity.
Both these ideas need to be fought tooth and nail by the new minister.
Given these once in a lifetime opportunities and challenges, who wouldn’t rate the job of the Education Minister as the toughest in the country at the moment. One can only hope that Pradhan is able to deliver — in spades.
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