Six months back, Ishant Gupta was still in school, appearing for his class XII board examinations. On Friday, the commerce student sat down with academic experts as a policymaker to review the accountancy curriculum for 12,300 schools across the country and abroad that are affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education.
The shift may still be sinking in for the recent school graduate, who insisted that he needed to “take permission” from a senior on the CBSE panel he is a member of, before speaking to a journalist.
But Gupta could become a mascot for a deeper shift in India’s education policymaking that experts argue is long overdue and is finally taking firm roots. The CBSE decision to appoint board toppers on panels that will review – and revise – subject curricula for classes XI and XII is the first time any school board in the country has directly involved students in deciding what they study. But the change isn’t restricted to the latest CBSE move.
From individual schools to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), institutions and the government are turning to students for their advice and perspective in framing policies that directly affect them, after decades of policymaking that viewed students only as recipients of decisions taken by older experts.
“There’s a big change in approach that's happening – one we’ve needed for a while,” said Avnita Bir, principal of Mumbai’s RN Podar School, widely recognized in the education community for reforms and innovations aimed at better meeting needs of students. “After all, students are key stakeholders in education policies.”
IIT Kanpur graduate Mukul Tuli now works with consultancy major McKinsey and Company. But T Ramasami, secretary of the department of science and technology, wanted to pick the 2006 graduate's brains on reforming the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE).
Appointed by human resource development minister Kapil Sibal as the head of a panel to reform the IIT-JEE, Ramasami decided that apart from visiting campuses to speak with students and faculty, he needed recent IIT graduates on his team. He convinced the HRD ministry to expand his original team to include alumni like Tuli.
“I needed to hear their voice, and make sure that the reforms met their expectations,” Ramasami had told this reporter soon after he submitted his panel’s report.
The Ramasami panel’s recommendations – to create a two-tier engineering admission system that would replace the current IIT-JEE and give weightage to board exam scores – met with resistance from many within the IIT system.
But the fact that Ramasami had spoken to several students and had drafted his reform blueprint in consultation with recent IIT graduates like Tuli gave his roadmap greater credibility than a standard “expert committee report” would have enjoyed.
“Reforms go down more easily with students if they know that some among them have been involved in framing these changes,” Bir said. “Today, students are far more aware than they were a few years back, and can make good judgment calls about policies.”
That recognition – that students can and should have a greater say in policies that directly affect them – isn’t limited to government policymakers. Individual institutions are making changes to the way they view students.
At RN Podar School, class XI students mentor class X students in helping them carefully navigate the choices in academic streams on offer next year. Class X students find it easier to connect with mentors just a year senior to them, than with teachers. The class XI students can also share their recent experiences in transitioning to class XI, a shift many students find difficult.
“We were possibly among the first few schools to recognize the gap between what the system was offering students and what they wanted from it,” Bir said. “That recognition helped us make changes that have benefited us.”