India's education sector is badly in need of reform, but the needed reform is tough to deliver and calls for political will.In the absence of the needed political will, the minister has been reduced to tokenism to demonstrate action.The victim has been Delhi University, one of the few places that still function, where superfluous change is being forced.
India's education system is in a pretty bad shape, and that is widely recognised.
However, efforts to solve the problem are in no great shape either, in spite of having an earnest and energetic minister at the helm of the ministry for human resources development.
The problem is an administrative, rather than a political, approach to the problem.
The biggest challenge in education, as in much else in this country, is governance.
Teachers are appointed, but they don’t teach, don’t even reach school on many days, in very many parts of the country.
And they cannot be held to account. Just as absconding primary health centre staff are not.
Does identification, in the popular imagination, of education with getting a degree or a certificate qualify as a problem of governance?
Only because it results in mass copying at qualifying examinations. High marks matter, never mind how you get them.
There is a severe resource crunch in education.
But the government is chary of charging for tuition, even at the college level.
So kids who have spent a few lakh rupees on school fees end up paying a few hundred rupees as college fees.
This is justified in the name of students who cannot afford to pay realistic tuition fees at the college level.
Inability to levy realistic fees on those who can afford them, within a framework that liberally offers scholarships, freeships and loans to those who lack the resources to pay the fees on their own, reflects paucity of political will to tackle the problem.
Many things trouble Indian higher education. Their orientation is training rather than creation of new knowledge.
Serious research is confined to specialised laboratories and research institutions.
This cleavage between teaching and research is part colonial legacy, part cultural baggage.
In India, the intellectual tradition held all knowledge to be finite, already discovered and written up, so that what a young scholar needed to do was to study the established texts to become a new master.
Indian tradition had the conceit to anoint someone sarvagnya, someone who knows everything (the first Sankaracharya was one, for example).
So, it is not surprising that research to create new knowledge does not come naturally to the Indian establishment. Precious little has been done so far to undo this damaging tradition of teaching sans research.
Indian academics have, by and large, bought into the resultant value system.
They value foreign scholars over Indian ones, value degrees from foreign universities over Indian degrees, vie for stints at some foreign institute, for foreign fellowships, value an article published in a foreign journal over one published in an Indian one.
Indian academics are poorly paid, in comparison with their counterparts abroad, or in comparison with what people of similar skills earn when employed in industry or even the government, once all the perks are monetised, in the latter case.
So, honourable exceptions apart, only those who cannot make it to better paying jobs find their way to academics, and this contributes to low standards.
Those honourable exceptions tend to congregate in some elite institutions.
The result is that the standards of teaching are acceptable only in some elite colleges in some elite universities, and abysmal elsewhere.
The Indian elites have responded by seceding from Indian higher education, for the most part.
A tiny set makes it to the elite institutions in India with good faculty while the rest go abroad.
Now, Indian industrialists have started donating to foreign universities on a substantial scale.
This helps them wangle admissions and scholarships for favoured wards, not just of family and friends, but also of influential civil servants and politicians.
The net result of this elitism in Indian higher education and the secession of the elite to universities abroad is to lower the quality of the manpower available to Indian industry in general.
One consequence is to drive up the cost of whatever genuine talent is available. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.
It is far from clear that the minister for human resources even recognises the magnitude of the problem, leave alone summons the political will to tackle it.
The problems in education are huge, and difficult to tackle. But it is important to show activism and performance.
The result has been the assault on Delhi University’s academic schedule.
It is one of India’s functional universities, to which students flock from all over the country and which produces world-class graduates.
The ministry has sought to force-change the university’s academic schedule to a semester system, violating procedure and university statute, and with minimal attempt to take into account the legitimate points raised by the teachers of the university.
This is absurd tokenism, not reform of the education system.
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