At the HT Leadership Summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated that “India needs a new revolution in modern education”. The government’s emphasis on “reforms in higher education” was a key point in his address. Last Wednesday, Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh admitted that higher education was “a sick child” and called for an overhaul of the university system. Yet, on the same day, the Centre told the Supreme Court that judicial examination of ‘educational backwardness’ for purposes of reservation in institutes of higher learning was not required. The logic was that ‘educational backwardness’ does not ‘stop’ at Class 12. The gap between what the PM and the HRD Minister have expressed and the jaded mindset that makes the availability of education a political tool is baffling.
The notion that educational backwardness is a permanent handicap defeats the very purpose of the Education for All policy. The mission of making primary education free, mandatory and universally accessible is driven by the aim of bringing all children to a minimum level of literacy. At the secondary level is where opportunities need to be created to suit children’s aptitude. Hence the need to provide vocational training on the one hand, and avenues to pursue graduate and post-graduate studies on the other. The term ‘educational backwardness’ becomes, in this context, a bit of an oxymoron. The purpose of school education is to free children from the shackles of educational backwardness, not further ‘brand’ them as unfit. It’s difficult to imagine the road ahead when the HRD Minister talks of paradigm-shifting blueprints, which might ultimately be modified to fit political ends. Now review this. In keeping with the PM’s suggestion of a scheme of scholarships and loans to ensure that no student is denied education because of financial constraints, the HRD Ministry has proposed to stand guarantor for education loans to ‘poor’ and ‘meritorious’ students. No backwardness claims here!
Chasing a new definition of ‘educational backwardness’ has all the makings of a hydra-headed monster. Steps are being taken to implement reforms in higher education. Holding them hostage to quota politics will frustrate the efforts towards achieving the goal of education for all.