Castles in the air

Education reforms

Now the prime minister has competition. Trying to be remembered in history is an infectious disease. Human resources development minister Kapil Sibal appears to be a confirmed victim. He has claimed — and, quite volubly at that — he has embarked on doing to education what his prime minister had done to economy in the 90s.

The impact of the new economic policy direction which was initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh is a subject on which history will pass its own judgment taking its own time — the time for reckoning has not yet arrived. But, surely, the analogy between education and economy is interesting. But, more importantly, Sibal’s claim should be subjected to some rigorous scrutiny.

Sibal’s claim is prompted by new initiatives to reform the education sector. The plethora of education related legislations that he is aggressively pushing sets out the direction and content of the reforms he is aiming at.

To start with, it is necessary to assert that if there is any sector in India which demands a serious attention — the obvious priority should be education.  Apart from the fact that this sector and investments herein — both financial and intellectual — has the greatest multiplier effect for the overall advance of the economy and society, India’s current status of educational achievements is, to say the least, sordid.

According to the latest World Human Development Report brought out by the UNDP, India ranks 132nd among 177 nations.  An avid reading of this report and a little more focused attempt to delineate the factors for such a poor showing which, any way, also on a continuous downward curve, conflicts with the claim that India is the fastest emerging economy.

The inescapable conclusion that emerges from the analyses of the data thrown up by the report is investment — or lack of it — as the single biggest reason for this bleak situation. And, it must also be pointed out that as a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals mooted by the UN, India has a major responsibility towards achievement of the global targets, given its humongous deficit.

Sibal’s claim for transforming India’s education is premised in enactment of a national legislation to ensure right to education. First the supreme court and then the parliament had earlier amended the Constitution to convert the right to education from the directive principles of the state to a fundamental right.

But, the bill had to suffer an unsavoury wait because of the lack of political will to make sufficient financial allocation for the realisation of this fundamental right. That the enactment did not have a clear financial memorandum and apportioning of responsibilities between the states and the Union was a clear pointer to the lack of political will.

States’ reluctance

The 13th Finance Commission deciding a 55:45 share between the Union and the states underlined a total lack of sensitivity given the mismatch between the extent of state responsibilities and resources to fulfil them. Already discordant voices from states are being heard. The Union budget has also failed to allocate resources commensurate with even the minimal share that has to be borne by the Centre as ordained by the Finance Commission.

An obnoxious provision of the Act has imposed all responsibilities on the states to make good for any financial deficit in making RTE Act successful. The catch is it will further open up vulnerability of the school education system and accentuate dependence on the private sector.

Sibal’s agenda for reforms acquires a more sinister note as and how the aims and objectives of other proposed legislations are coming to light. The first for which the primary draft of the bill is available aims to create a National Commission of Higher Education and Research which will be invested with a great degree of centralised powers making parliament, the state legislatures, the state governments, the governing structures of universities and other autonomous institutions irrelevant.

Another ‘great’ idea is the proposed legislation for allowing foreign educational institutions to take care of our higher education. Little is Sibal and his team aware that in countries like Singapore or Israel or the Gulf, this model has failed thoroughly. No worthwhile foreign institution will be interested in coming to India.

A bill to create a national accreditation authority is also on the anvil. The enactment, if it comes to, will lead to the closing down of all institutions, including local schools, if the stipulations for securing an accreditation are not met. Legislative fiat is no recourse to overcoming financial and infrastructure deficits. But, Sibal is so enamoured by his longing to go down in history, that he is nonchalant.

Education, no doubt, is a sector which is crying for reforms.  But, India is unique for its diversity. Education in its thousands of years of history has provided lifeline for integration and unity. By recognising and empowering the role of the diverse entities can a true democratic and modern reform transform Indian education. And, it is obvious that we have to find adequate levels of non-profit resources for carrying out such a reform process. That is the key question.

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