Delhi Class X student Anjali Rajput is glad she will not need to sit for a board examination next March, a traumatic experience that she saw her elder sister go through four years back.
Rajput is one among millions of Indians in school, college or research who have or will be impacted by a series of education reforms initiated by UPA 2 under outgoing human resource development (HRD) minister Kapil Sibal.
It’s those reforms – and how they go from here – that will define the term of new HRD minister M Pallam Raju, sworn in today, argue seasoned education bureaucrats, educationists and experts.
“We can’t have the reforms stalling,” said Avnita Bir, principal of Mumbai’s RN Podar school, which has worked closely with the HRD ministry on several key school reforms.
Sibal made the class X boards optional, helping thousands of students like Rajput. Though the Right to Education (RTE) Act was drafted during the tenure of Sibal’s predecessor Arjun Singh, Sibal brought it to Parliament, got it passed, and then enacted on April 1, 2010.
Raju’s first big test in school education will come almost immediately, with the government almost certain to miss the March 31, 2013 deadline laid down in the RTE Act for meeting requirements on teacher-pupil ratio, teacher strength and infrastructure.
The Act – which guarantees schooling to all children between 6 and 14 – is one of the UPA’s flagship achievements. “Failing there is not an option,” a retired education secretary said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“How the new minister manages to buy more time to implement the RTE Act provisions and then delivers on the promise, could define his tenure.”
Sibal had also promised to extend the RTE Act to cover students till 18.
In higher education, Sibal brought in a series of reform legislations. These include bills to set up a National Council for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) as an overarching higher education regulator, to make accreditation mandatory for colleges and varsities, to punish institutions that mislead or cheat students, to set up an online repository of all academic degrees to curb fraud degrees, and setting up tribunals exclusively dedicated to education disputes.
But all these legislations stand trapped in Parliamentary panels, with Opposition parties critical of the bills over fears that they may infringe on the rights of state governments to concerns, and the private education sector concerned that these reforms may target them unfairly.
“Passing the NCHER Bill will be the most crucial element of this set of reforms that the UPA has tried to bring in higher education,” philosopher and educationist Mrinal Miri said.
Miri was a part of a panel set up by Sibal to review India’s deemed universities. Based on the panel’s recommendations, Sibal declared the ministry’s intention to withdraw the deemed varsity tag from 44 of the country’s 130 institutions holding the tag – which allows them to award degrees without being full-fledged universities.
But the blacklisted varsities – including one from Raju’s state of Andhra Pradesh – have challenged this decision in the Supreme Court.
“Finding the balance between allowing the genuine private sector to flourish and curbing those cheating students isn’t easy,” the retired education secretary said. “How the minister finds that balance will be his test.”