Elusive education policy

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Teachers of Delhi University outside the University Grants Commission office, New Delhi on March 12, protesting against a “policy assault” on higher education in the country. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Differences between the government and the Sangh Parivar over privatisation and corporatisation may be holding up the new education policy four years into the Narendra Modi government.

There can be little doubt that in campuses across the country today, among the issues that attract attention, a major issue is the privatisation of education. Recently, in their deliberations, the People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space (PCSDS) prioritised “Privatisation of Education” as the leading issue. “We have observed through depositions made by students, teachers and experts that there is a systematic onslaught on the very idea of higher education in India. The recent decision by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to grant autonomy to public institutions is an example of how the state is seeking to ensure that students from poor and backward communities are driven to the periphery and denied access to equal, quality and affordable education”. (Ironically, in current bureaucratic lingo, the term “autonomy” is used to indicate freedom from the regulation of fee structure and other revenue-earning items.) The jury of the PCSDS went on to observe that “when the state had a lower growth rate it was spending more on education.” (I would like to thank Professor Romila Thapar and Pamela Philipose for promptly responding to my request for a copy of the original report generated by the PCSDS.) Unfortunately, the media failed to give the PCSDS the attention it deserved. In India, the media prefer to focus on events and not on the process that precedes the event. For instance, they report events such as a student’s suicide brought about by unaffordable fees, but not the formation of the policy in respect of the fees. For journalists in India, professional specialisation in a particular area is not possible due to the low budget that constrains newspapers, therefore reporting is limited to a few incidents that attract public attention. Hence there is an unaddressed need for an analysis of long-run trends in policymaking. To begin with, let us address the issue of privatisation of education under the present regime.

Subramanian Committee

The drive for privatisation that the PCSDS refers to was a reality even when the new political regime took over power, but journalists, by and large, were not alert. The signals were loud and clear as early as 2016. One of the first committees that the Narendra Modi government appointed (October 2015) was the “Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy”, also known as the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee. A process was set in motion that led to policy-level thinking, now identified as the privatisation policy and the corporatisation of education. The Subramanian Committee took a strong “theoretical” position on privatisation. “The prevailing theory has been that education cannot be commercialised; this indeed is true, education is too sacred a field for it to become totally an uncontrolled business. However, the harsh reality in the ground is that capitation fees, akin to rent-seeking, is rampant.” (Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy, Government of India, April 30, 2016, para 7.3.6). The Committee placed on record reports that it received regarding the price, i.e. illegal gratification, for the appointment of a Vice-Chancellor. Further, it stated, “investments in professional institutions frequently have the blessings or sponsorship or patronage, indeed ownership of politicians of various hues—imagine their potential collective power and vested interests in ensuring that no reforms can be pushed through. In short, the ground reality is diametrically opposed to any notion of the ‘purity’ of education.”

The UGC had developed, over decades, a certain protocol that imparted some transparency to the distribution of grants to educational institutions. The Subramanian Committee conceded that the situation was “disturbing”. And yet it held the opinion that a regulatory system for higher education should be highly nuanced and should have the capacity to deal with different categories and qualities of the institution with appropriate discrimination. (Subramanian Committee report, para 7.3.7). The point being made is that it will not do to have “one regime being applied to all”, relaxation may be made in the case of potentially good institutions. The committee summed up: “The new management paradigm should encourage quality by offering total autonomy”. On the other hand, the system should “discourage poor managements with appropriate checks and controls” or abolish below-standard institutions. Thus the committee tended to leave to the regulatory agency the task of exercising discretion in being “flexible or nuanced”.

We have drawn from the Subramanian Committee report passages which show that the report provided the building blocks for constructing a privatisation policy. The report has been almost forgotten since it was superseded in June 2017 by a second committee. However, it is the only source of systematic thinking on education for the government at present. We need to go back to such documents in order to study and understand the inner dynamics of policymaking and where the policy has gone wrong, or else we will not go beyond the level of repetitive recitement of a critique that is quite well-known.

The Subramanian Committee suggested that over the next decade, at least 100 new centres for excellence in the field of higher education needed to be established. “A climate needs to be created to facilitate establishment of 100 such institutions in both private and public sectors over the next 10 years. This may include brand new institutions, as well as existing institutions upgrading themselves to levels of excellence. To achieve this, a liberal and supportive regulatory environment will need to be put in place.… If a sponsor is willing to invest, say Rs.1,000 crore over a five-year period and the proposal is accompanied by a broad, credible plan of action, full autonomy should be offered for choice of subjects, location, pedagogy, recruitment of faculty from India or abroad as well as freedom to fix tuition fees—with the proviso that over a five-year period the new venture will be subject to careful scrutiny by the official accreditation/evaluation agency.” (Subramanian Committee report, paras 7.4.9; 7.4.10). Thus if an educational initiative was a business corporation under a good management, it was to be encouraged.

The agenda thus chalked out by the Subramanian Committee prefigures clearly the pattern of corporatisation now projected by the MHRD. By the way, an interesting thing has happened. For many years, a large section of the academic community, particularly college teachers, has set its face against the University Grants Commission (UGC), almost as if it was a “class enemy”. This perception has begun to change, substantially so, in the recent past. With all its faults, the UGC had, in some matters, developed over decades a certain protocol that imparted some transparency to the process of distribution of grants to educational institutions. This, after all, was originally supposed to be the chief function of the UGC. Since the protocols of the long-expected “new education policy” have not yet been duly adumbrated and adopted, the government has had to make do with a series of ad hoc decisions, which may differ from case to case. With the next general election approaching, the temptation to make more ad hoc decisions has overcome the bureaucracy. An instance is the “unprecedented” announcement on May 25, 2018, of the “approval of Rs.4,889 crore by the PAB [Project Approval Board] of Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) under the HRD Ministry. According top priority to excellence, Rs.100 crore has been approved for the universities to enhance their quality and excellence” (MHRD Press Note, Times of India, May 26, 2018). A few years ago, the UGC would have locked horns with the MHRD and protested against such a decision being taken without reference to the UGC. Today there is not a word of dissent.

New education policy

We began with a question on the rationale of privatisation. I take leave of the readers of this column with a bigger question: How do we explain the extremely slow pace of planning the new education policy (NEP)? Why did the present government fail to formulate the NEP in the four years of its administration? One commonly voiced explanation on campuses has been as follows: Intervention by the government has been made more often in the area of school education than in colleges and university-level institutions. There is a tendency to accord priority to issues in school education for the obvious reason that there is more money involved, and the number of beneficiaries (and thus prospective voters) in the domain of schools is much larger than at the college and university level. However, when the government did turn to colleges and universities, the MHRD dithered repeatedly.

To recapitulate briefly, the government began the process of formulation of the education policy in early 2015 and set up the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee in October 2015. The Committee report, submitted in April 2016, was regarded as an input for another draft education policy, for which the MHRD set up another committee headed by the space scientist Dr K. Kasturirangan, formerly of ISRO, in June 2017. This committee was expected to finish its job by December 2017 but was granted an extension until March 2018. In mid April 2018, MHRD officials announced that more time was required to complete the draft of the policy document since various stakeholders were being consulted. In any event, the report will be available only after the commencement of the new academic year in schools and colleges between April and July. Deccan Herald, in its editorial of April 23, 2015, stated that even after four years in power the government had failed to finalise an education policy. Earlier, the MHRD had been prodded by its parliamentary panel headed by a Bharatiya Janata Party Lok Sabha member. Despite this, there is no sign of what has been advertised for four years as a “new” education policy.

In the meantime, privatisation has taken place without being officially noticed. The worst impact of these developments has been on the fee structure. The inability of students from the poor strata of society to pay the revised and high rate has taken its toll in the past two years. In a number of instances, it has led to widespread protest movements and even suicide.

How do we account for the government’s failure to formulate a statement on its education policy in the last four years? Did it draw upon intellectuals of the Right? There may be, in the ranks of the Right, an undercurrent that accounts for hesitation in respect of privatisation. Right-wing intellectuals probably failed to persuade the government, particularly the Ministry controlling Uchhattar Shikshan (higher education), to move towards a definitive policy statement. It was probably more convenient to postpone a definitive policy statement that would reveal cracks and differences within the political regime.

It is problematic how stalwarts of the RSS will reconcile the new strategy of corporate entities investing in education with the RSS’s emphasis on indigenous knowledge systems and traditional values. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya is often remembered by members of the present government as an intellectual who contributed certain foundational principles. He was certainly interested in educational studies (in fact, after an M.A. in English literature, he opted for B.Ed and M.Ed degrees) and education was central in his scheme of themes because his ideology of Ekatma was to be pursued through appropriate education. However, it is difficult to find in his writings educational ideas that may be seen as consonant and harmonious with a policy of privatisation. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s emphasis on “education for all” was part of an economic philosophy that included the ideas of swadeshi and decentralisation. That approach was not consistent with the idea of privatisation, which would open the door to capital, especially multinational capital.

Moreover, the language of management in the Subramanian Committee report was completely alien to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s approach in the domain of education. For example, the Subramanian Committee observed: “Educational institutions could be established as Section 8 companies under the Company’s Act, which will facilitate full information disclosure and compliance to the provisions of the Company’s Act. … It could also be a corporate entity under Company Act, with perhaps the added stipulation for the state or regulator nominating at least two independent Directors on the Board of Management” ( para 7.4.10). Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s ideas are not consistent with this kind of corporate vision.

However, the agenda of privatisation has received some support since it is consonant with the neoliberal philosophy of the ruling political regime. At the same time, it is problematic how stalwarts of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) will reconcile the new strategy of corporate entities investing in education with the RSS’s emphasis on indigenous knowledge systems and traditional values. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has clearly expressed the view that “Western societies are driven by markets”, unlike traditional Indian society. And, finally, there may be conflicts between what the MHRD calls various “stakeholders”, particularly investors in educational enterprises and aspirants for financial grants from the MHRD. Any attempt to spell out the details of the proposed NEP would inevitably bring to light such conflicts. For all these reasons, it is not easy to formulate the NEP, particularly in a year when the forthcoming general election raises expectations nursed by the constituencies in which those stakeholders are active players.

RSS and higher education

We must also bear in mind the fact that the present political regime contains within it a strong lobby on education policy. Presiding over a National Teachers Conference organised in Delhi in March 2017, Mohan Bhagwat reportedly called for a separate wing of the RSS for higher education. We can piece together the story with some difficulty from stray declarations to the press. The RSS has been running numerous schools since 1952, but the new agenda is intended to address higher education as well. According to an estimate published in 2016 by the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, it had under its management 12,363 “formal schools” and 12,000 “single teacher schools”. And what is the agenda of Vidya Bharati? According to its national secretary Shiv Kumar, the Sansthan’s motto was to “Indianise, nationalise and spiritualise education”. According to the website of Vidya Bharati, the total number of their students was several lakhs in 2016, while associated school education work was conducted by Shishu Mandir Seva Bharati, Vanabasi Kalyan Ashram and Bharat Kalyan Pratisthan. In addition, there are advisory bodies with claims to ideological leadership, such as Bharatiya Shiksha Niti Ayog and the Shiksha Banchao Andolan Samiti. The website http://www.organiser.rebrandinggurukuls gives an idea of the range and depth of their activities, but to depend solely on that would be to throw caution to the winds.

Thus there are two strong lobbies pushing for different agendas within the ruling regime. On the one hand, there is a group focussing on the traditional knowledge system, on mother tongue as the medium of instruction, the importance and sacredness of Sanskrit, and so on. On the other, there is the lobby sponsoring what is internationally accepted as standard knowledge, teaching in the English medium, aspirations to international ranking, complete freedom to determine the fee demanded of students, and so on.

These pressure groups are pulling in different directions. That leads us to the question whether such differences can be reconciled in the long run, and indeed to the bigger question: can a political regime resolve inner contradictions if they happen to be about fundamental principles? Do we know enough about these opposing elements trying to secure control over education policy? We need more information about the above mentioned positions and differences, and the social composition of these different pressure groups. Perhaps we need to study them in order to understand who is calling the tune in policymaking.

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