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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Seminal Revolution

A New Dawn for Education

You get to hear bits and scraps about the government’s education policy in the newspapers . But the media are largely clueless about the fundamental reforms underway in the sector. One senior official of the HRD ministry called them "as significant as the economic reforms of 1991. They could change the face of India in the next decade. As follows:

In 1992, I was appointed adviser to the UNICEF chief in India. Eimi Watanabe told me that the primary education system was a problem. She said the issue was enrolment as well as dropouts. Our advocacy campaign for universal primary education reached far and wide. We looked at ways of influencing politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and businessmen with a plan to push free and compulsory primary education. Our argument was simple: India boasts that its technical and scientific prowess is recognized the world over and yet it harbors among the world’s largest number of illiterates.

We highlighted this paradox to promote universal primary education. We showed the contrast between the lack of enrolment and the high dropout rates at the primary level and the huge demand for higher education. A powerful argument in our campaign was that the paradox of Indian education has created and seeks to perpetuate a class divide with educated elite on one side and a vast illiterate underclass on the other. Primary education is a powerful equalizer, we said. In addition, the UNICEF advocacy campaign sought to demolish several arguments offered by policy experts, including the pernicious one about children of the rural poor being needed to help out in the farm.

Nearly three years of dogged advocacy paid off when on November 14, 1994 (Children’s Day), Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his senior cabinet colleagues made a public commitment to provide “education for all” by the year 2000 at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. Nothing happened as India got roiled in political controversy, which saw an uncertain period of a shaky BJP alliance that was eventually defeated ten years later.

Fifteen years later, in August 2009, Parliament passed the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008. My good friend Kapil Sibal, who, as HRD minister, piloted the bill, described it as the “harbinger of a new era.” For me, it was a vindication. In 1992, we faced severe opposition. But Eimi Watanabe, who is now a member of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel that seeks to ensure the Bank’s activities don’t harm people, is the unsung heroine. Without her commitment to free and compulsory primary education in India, this bill would never have come to pass.

It’s been just two months since the bill was ratified; its impact will be felt over the next decade. Free primary education provides access for the poorest; compulsory will generate a demand that will eventually overcome the bugbears of enrolment, dropouts, absentee teachers and irrelevant curriculums. Kapil Sibal is indebted to Eimi, who placed the issue on the national agenda.

On secondary education, Kapil has proposed a regime to reduce the stress on children in schools by opting for ongoing grades rather than a final exam. In doing this, he has won the support of the middle class parents, who live in dread of exam results. The notion of grading students on a term basis gives parents greater say in the advancement of their children. Teachers will be held accountable for the progress of their wards.

Above all, students will be relieved of the stress of make-or-break exams. Graduating from high school will no longer be a random exercise determined by nameless examiners. Pretty soon, parents will question teachers about their children’s prowess. As such, teachers will have to give up authoritarian ways and will have to work with parents to ensure that their children get the best from their educational experience.

In the event, creativity will triumph over conformism. Students will learn that asking questions is more important than rote learning. Already, the advent of Cambridge International Examination and International Baccalaureate curriculums proved to be a challenge to the moribund Indian school system. There’s been a steady migration of upper middle class students to these foreign certification schools.

Finally, in the higher education sector, the Foreign Educators Providers Bill is about to be passed in Parliament. The bill focuses on providing access by a nine-fold increase in the budget for the establishment of new institutions. It talks about equity without a dilution of standards. Plus it seeks to enhance quality by exposing India’s fossilized universities to foreign competition.

The bill faces a lot of opposition because higher education is totally politicized. Already, as a high level source in the HRD ministry said, there are complaints from vested interests , who seek a “level playing field;” much like the Bombay Club did when the government scrapped the license-permit raj in 1991. The proposed bill also seeks to attract foreign students in the hope it will generate a demand for more relevant curriculums and more funds.

In addition, the bill hopes to encourage private funding. “The key to autonomy is funding,” a senior official in the HRD ministry said. Already in Gujarat, this is happening. Many affiliated colleges have opted to join the newly formed Ahmedabad University. “They have done so in the hope that of a more conducive environment,” a respected Gujarati industrialist told me. His family funds many colleges affiliated to Gujarat University and they have shifted to the new university formed by his family.

Between the changes at the primary, secondary and higher education, a revolution is well and truly underway. It will change the face of India’s education system. It will be transformed from an elite selection process into a knowledge system. We should all cheer. Kapil Sibal champions this radical change. India will owe him a debt of gratitude for facilitating the transformation.

Some decades from now, we will have a Nobel Prize winner and this will continue through the century. We won’t have to put up with a curmudgeon like Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the newest Nobel laureate of Indian origin, who used the occasion to denigrate his roots. Sadly, Venky studied at the same universities in India and the US that I attended.

An edited version of this column appeared in Education World, November 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009