Privatisation push

Print edition : July 05, 2019

At an anganwadi centre in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. Photo: T. Vijaya Kumar

K. Kasturirangan, former ISRO Chairman. He led the drafting committee for the New Education Policy. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Children at a rural school in Ballari district. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Prakash Javadekar, former HRD Minister. Photo: V. Sudershan

The draft of the new education policy speaks of making education universally accessible but pulls back on the issue of public investment and pushes for alternative models in school education and a greater role for the private sector in higher education.

NATIONAL Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have always taken education seriously. Witness the zeal with which the content of history books was modified. The new draft National Education Policy, the first policy document to be released after the new government was sworn in, also bears this out. It is an interesting tome of over 480 pages and reflects the ideological underpinnings of the ruling dispensation within a broad neoliberal framework. It stresses the importance of imparting quality education to children in the three-to-six age group. There is, however, no commitment to greater government investment in education and strengthening regulatory bodies.

The drafting committee for the policy document was constituted in early 2018 and was steered by K. Kasturirangan, former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). According to him, the committee was a follow-up on a report by an earlier committee headed by the former bureaucrat T.S.R. Subramanian in 2016.

The decision to produce a new policy was taken in June 2017 by Prakash Javadekar, the then Union Minister for Human Resource Development. Javadekar, said Kasturirangan in the draft report, wanted the policy to be ready in six months. That did not happen, but the new government’s very first “achievement” was to announce the release of the draft report, which carries a foreword by Javadekar, and not the new HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal. The word “draft” is, however, missing in the foreword. Even if this was an inadvertent glitch, the need to release the draft even before Cabinet allocations were done was mystifying.

The policy ran into controversy from day one by suggesting a three-language formula, with Hindi as one of the compulsory languages in the non-Hindi-speaking States. There were other issues, too. The document starts with a curious observation by the chairperson that the decades since Independence had seen “a preoccupation with the issues of access and equity” while it dropped “the baton with regard to quality of education”. The assumption seems to be that the goals of equity and access have been met and all that is needed is to ensure quality of education.

The draft emphasises “early childhood care and education” (ECCE) on the basis of the globally accepted view that 85 per cent of cumulative brain development happens before the age of six. Preschool education, according to the draft policy, is not only connected with higher retention and attendance rates in later years but has better educational and life-related outcomes, such as higher incomes, and leads to lower rates of unemployment and crime. It can be argued that an absence of preschool education does not lead to lower incomes, unemployment and crime.

The draft recommends greater voluntary and community involvement in the process of ECCE. This raises the question of the government’s vision of its own role in strengthening ECCE beyond the services rendered by anganwadi centres.

At the moment, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres and their workers are entrusted with the additional responsibility of preschool education. The draft policy envisages a greater role for the ICDS centres in terms of the content of the ECCE programme and notes that so far these centres have focussed on play and day care but not so much on education. It also acknowledges that this is because the centres have poor infrastructure and lack trained teachers for children between three and six. Curiously, it does not recommend greater investment for such centres. It does not also critically assess the quality of the preschools that flourish in the private sector, especially in cities, or evaluate their fee structure.

The draft report says, correctly, that the goal of education is to build an equal and better society. The first thing the new policy ought to have done was to ensure regulation of commercial shops of education that start right from the preschool stage.

The document repeatedly stresses the importance of Indian-ness in education and the role of the “local”. It recommends that the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) prepare a pedagogical and curricular framework incorporating the “numerous rich traditions in India involving art, poetry, songs, gatherings of relatives and more to impart a sense of local relevance, enjoyment, culture and sense of identity of community”. It does not clearly explain in what way “gatherings of relatives” and a sense of “identity” are crucial for children as young as three to six. The question of “identity” is a loaded one in a country as plural as India, especially with respect to such young children.

Peer tutoring

The draft stresses “foundational literacy and numeracy” in young children and says that teachers alone cannot be responsible for this. It recommends one-to-one peer tutoring, which it says was a feature of the “successful ancient Gurukula system”. This will be revived and “prestigious peer-tutoring positions” will be instituted. Peer educators and community volunteers will be roped in for all school subjects and not just for foundational literacy and numeracy. The draft calls for a National Tutors Progamme to enable high quality peer tutoring among students.

The document expresses concern about steep school dropout rates, especially after Grades 5 and 8, though it observes that gross enrolment ratios have gone up in the primary stages. The gross enrolment rates for Classes 9 to 10 and the 11 to 12 were 79.3 and 51.3 per cent respectively for 2016-17, the latest year for which data are available. It acknowledges serious deficiency of secondary and upper secondary schools and accepts that difficult access can be a reason for the high dropout rates. The policy recommends expansion of infrastructure to make education universally accessible but falls short of recommending greater government investment in public education.

The recommendation for flexible models and diluting the provisions of the Right to Education (RTE) Act and encouraging non-governmental philanthropic organisations and alternative models such as gurukuls, pathshalas and madrasas rather than public-funded education appear contradictory. The alternative forms can only supplement a robust universal education system, but this the policy does not categorically advocate. A more candid and honest policy would have also looked at the economic compulsions that keep people from sending their children to school or pull them out midway through school.

The policy recommends restructuring school curricula and pedagogy in four stages in a way that will “heavily incorporate Indian and local traditions, ethical reasoning, socio-emotional learning, computational thinking, logical reasoning, scientific temper, languages and communication skill…” in a manner that is “developmentally appropriate”.

Constitutional values

The teaching of constitutional values, says the draft, will form a part of ethical and moral reasoning. The constitutional values mentioned in the document, however, do not include secularism, sovereignty or socialism. It is well recognised that there are 15 constitutional values embodied in the Preamble, including justice, liberty, equality, human dignity and the republican character of the Indian state. The values listed in the draft, therefore, make interesting reading: “Democratic outlook and commitment to liberty and freedom; equality, justice and fairness; embracing diversity, plurality and inclusion; humanness and fraternal spirit; social responsibility and the spirit of service; ethics of integrity and honesty; scientific temper and commitment to rational and public dialogue; peace; social action through constitutional means; unity and integrity of the nation and a true rootedness and pride in India with a forward looking spirit to continuously improve as a nation”.

“Integration”, “Indian systems” and “multidisciplinary” are other catchwords. The document says there will be no “hard separation” between the arts and science streams and between academic and vocational education. Whether this is meant for all schools, public and private, is not clear. In addition, for teaching vocational education in schools, trained persons with both pedagogical and experiential expertise will be required. Indian systems of knowledge should be part of the curriculum not only for their “historical accuracy (which is a sufficient reason on its own) but also for the often more holistic nature of the traditional Indian approach, which leads to a deeper understanding, as well as for reasons of increased relatibility due to geographical location, national pride, inspiration and self-esteem”.

NCF to be revised

The National Curriculum Framework, 2005, will be revised, says the draft, by the end of 2020, taking into account the changing context of education. While the policy talks about autonomy of higher educational institutions, it recommends a National Testing Agency comprising “numerous academic, educational and psychometric experts” who will from 2020 administer aptitude tests taken on multiple occasions.

A whopping 92 per cent of teacher education institutions are privately owned, the draft says. There are 10 lakh teacher vacancies in the country. The pupil-teacher ratio was 60:1 in certain areas. In order to encourage students to become teachers, the policy suggests a large number (number not specified) of merit-based scholarships at four outstanding BEd programmes in colleges and universities. The problem is not just of a BEd degree but that of ensuring proper remuneration against regular jobs and timely promotions for teachers. The draft policy does not speak of the nature of employment, whether it will be contractual or permanent. However, the policy does look at the modus operandi of appointing para teachers such as Shiksha Karmis and Shikshak Mitras, who are teachers employed at very low salaries in some States, especially ones ruled by the BJP. It says this practice will stop in 2022. But it does not say that the government will create posts to absorb the para teachers in permanent posts.

For under-represented groups, the policy recommends special educational zones, inspired by the experience of special economic zones. The idea of secluding such groups for their special educational needs runs counter to the idea of universal and equitable education to all in a given geographical area. The tested way of ensuring that the education system does not perpetuate inequalities is to provide a well-funded universal public education system.

Regulation culture ‘sclerotic’

The draft states that “regulation culture is sclerotic and disempowering” and advocates self-regulation. While lamenting the “rampant commercialisation and economic exploitation of parents by many for-profit private schools”, the policy actively pushes for the encouragement of the private school sector and says it should be “enabled to play a significant and beneficial role”. It proposes to let private schools to set their fees and allows “reasonable increases that stand public scrutiny” but says “they shall not increase their fees arbitrarily”.

It acknowledges that private schools had become less socio-economically diverse in the last 50 years. But it adds that making them comply with the provisions of the RTE Act has not worked and asserts that it is therefore better to give them the autonomy to “do the right thing” and “innovate” in order to “encourage best practices”. It says that the RTE provision (12(1)(c)) for inclusion in private schools of children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds was “not quite in tune with the principle of autonomy of institutions (including for student admission) in this policy which empowers schools and trusts them to do the right thing”.

Reduced role for UGC

The document says higher education must focus on “multidisciplinary and 21st century competencies”. It says the purpose of quality higher education “is more than the creation of opportunities for individual employment”. Yet, it says, higher education “must build expertise that society will need over the next 25 years and beyond”. It should aim “not just to prepare students for their first jobs but also for their second, third and future jobs over their lifetimes”. It makes an observation on the burgeoning of fake colleges but blames it on a “heavy-handed, mechanistic and disempowering” regulatory system.

The draft policy thus discourages the regulation of education at every level, primary, secondary and higher, though it intermittently complains about the profiteering from and commercialisation of education. The regulatory system “stifled creativity and innovation” and nurtured “mediocrity and graft”, it says. Public-spirited private philanthropic institutions of higher education were discouraged, it says, while commercial higher educational institutions had been allowed to exist.

Initiatives in higher education

The draft policy says that it is time to bring back the great Indian tradition of multidisciplinary universities and collges in the tradition of Nalanda and Taxila. Universities and colleges in India are more or less multidisciplinary, so the draft does not seem to be saying anything new. It talks of phasing out single-stream higher education institutions (HEIs) and introducing a “liberal broad-based multidisciplinary education” as the basis of higher education. By 2030, all HEIs will develop into one of the three types of institutions: research universities that will focus on research and teaching; teaching universities where there will be cutting-edge research; and colleges with high quality teaching, including of the professional and vocational.

Some 5,000 to 10,000 autonomous colleges will impart “liberal education”, the only new concept envisaged by the policy, where the stress is more on Indian systems to the exclusion of the global repository of liberal knowledge systems. Public funding for HEIs will be conditional, and there will be a system for determining such funding.

The establishment of the National Research Foundation (NRF) by an Act of Parliament and endowed with a corpus of Rs.20,000 crore is one of the main policy recommendations for higher education. Interestingly, the NRF will “on occasion identify areas of research that are of special importance to the country and prioritise funding to them”, says the policy. It will directly fund “outstanding research proposals” and help seed centres of research in select disciplines in various universities. The funding, clearly, would be discretionary.

Universities and institutions will be “encouraged and facilitated to address faculty shortage by taking measures to attract and retain faculty, engaging with other institutions in the vicinity to share faculty, inviting rolling faculty of eminent and superannuated scientists/experts/professors from industry, making use of talent from the private sector and inviting overseas researchers, etc.”.

The policy encourages autonomy to the extent of recommending that the fees in all professional courses can be left to the management of these institutions, both public and private. “Regulation must be minimalistic, light but tight—to ensure public spiritedness, equity, excellence, financial stability and probity, along with good governance,” says the draft policy, referring in part to the University Grants Commission (UGC) which has a twin role of both funding and regulation. According to the draft, there should be a separation of standard setting, funding, accreditation and regulation. Independent bodies will carry out these functions. What is not stated is that the government will play a crucial role in setting up these “independent bodies”.

Setting up HEIs will be made easier, says the draft, indicating that regulatory obstacles to setting up new universities will be smoothened away. A quasi-judicial body, the National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA), will replace the UGC as the sole regulator for higher education. The UGC would henceforth be called the Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC) with no powers to set norms, including salary norms in HEIs, or fund research, which will be the domain of the NRF. The HEGC will focus on scholarships.

Each HEI will have to state education outcomes as its goals and will be constantly assessed. Whether the nature of outcomes will determine the level of funding is not clear. The NHERA will have the power to shut down, penalise or derecognise any HEI found wanting on regulation issues.

The policy document reflects the trends over the last five years. It legitimises the push for privatisation in education at all levels in the name of encouraging philanthropic institutions, which has been evident for some time. It pretends to prioritise equity but its prescriptions are not aimed at equity in education. Its objectives are directed at creating more educational institutions in the private sector.

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