What ails India’s higher education establishment
The only education policy we have is the 1986 document approved during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership. Three decades have passed, but the reluctance to discuss the implications of economic liberalisation in education continues. At the same time, the educational space has fully opened up for private investors of all shapes and sizes. Under the circumstances, we can reasonably ask: ‘Who needs a policy in education?’ People surely do, but it is not clear whether the government does.
A draft education policy has been in the offing for almost three years now. The former human resource development minister, Smriti Irani, had announced early in her short stint that a new national policy will come soon. A bottom-up approach, involving the participation of village and district councils from across the country, was promised. The project aroused a lot of curiosity and expectations, but nothing much happened.
The latest round of expectations pointed towards the end of December 2017 as the deadline for the new policy draft. This is when the committee chaired by eminent scientist K. Kasturirangan was supposed to give its report. An earlier committee, chaired by TSR Subramanian, did produce a draft, but its mode of submission apparently irked the government. The story goes further back – to the days of UPA-2 when Kapil Sibal, the minister at that time, wanted to set up a commission with professor Andre Beteille as its chairperson. That might have been a good idea, but it died before it could proceed.
So, the only policy we still have is the 1986 document approved during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership. Soon after it was approved, the shiny clouds of liberalisation began to gather. It was not clear how these clouds would affect education. A policy review was ordered and in 1992, a ‘programme of action’ (POA) was announced on the basis of a review. In retrospect, the POA looks like a hesitant acknowledgement that the economic reforms – formally inaugurated in 1991– will have deep implications for education, especially higher education. Economic liberalisation proceeded on a trajectory which ran parallel to the State’s efforts to expand school education with the backing of international organisations. In higher education, privatisation became the de facto policy, with a tacit acceptance of commercial intent.
Three decades have passed, but the reluctance to discuss the implications of economic liberalisation in education continues. At the same time, the educational space has fully opened up for private investors of all shapes and sizes. Under the circumstances, we can reasonably ask: ‘Who needs a policy in education?’ People surely do, but it is not clear whether the government does.
Any policy document for a field as complex as education, and for a country as diverse as India, will have to be accommodative and enabling rather than moralistic or prescriptive. More than anything else, it will have to provide an answer to the chronic problem of inadequate financial resources the system has faced since independence. A popular financial route that officials love to offer these days is that of public-private partnership (PPP). The term began to do the rounds under UPA-2. It has caught on despite lack of clarity about the distribution of responsibilities among partners. I recall raising this question a few years ago in a high-level meeting. In response, an official handed me a report on PPP in road construction!
Half a century ago, the Kothari Commission had recommended that India must spend 6% of its GDP on education. The country is far from reaching that goal. In operational terms, state spending has been gradually shrinking rather than growing. Especially after the promulgation of the Right to Education Act, the Centre’s role in enabling states to sustain quality despite expansion has become crucial. The enthusiasm generated by the RTE is waning, and many of the gains made during the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are being frittered away. Given the fact that RTE is central, any new policy will have to underline the Centre’s financial responsibility in implementing it. Specification of the role to be played by the states will also need to be underlined.
The new policy draft will have to give an institutional recovery plan. This is because educational institutions of all kinds have been badly damaged in recent years. The reasons vary, from thoughtless leadership to financial starvation and planned undermining. The autonomy of several leading institutions stands desecrated. Even national-level institutions involved in governance have lost their dignity. There is no better example than the University Grants Commission. For want of a policy perspective, it has been in a kind of limbo.
Other regulatory institutions are in no better shape. Indeed, the whole question of the regulation of professional higher education needs to be approached afresh, taking into account the debris of corruption and inefficiency strewn across the country. The darkest evidence of this is the Vyapam scam of Madhya Pradesh. Any turnaround will require candid recognition of the decay India’s higher education establishment has suffered. A roadmap of sustainable effort for institutional recovery is what the new policy must provide.
Krishna Kumar is former director, NCERT
The views expressed by the author are personal