The new Broom sweeps clean?

10 Nov

 

The vision at this stage for the growth of education can’t be small, nor can it be held back by tradition, though it’ll be tempered by support and resource

New blood enters the Ministry that runs education for India — the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development — and we wonder if we can begin to hope for reforms and change. The good news is that each of the new entrants is a seasoned Minister with experience in dealing with the bureaucracy and communicating with the public. Each of them has been trained in professional circles and, of course, their posting is proof of their political suavete. This has to be good for the education policy, we hope. The task is huge — the three Ministers have a long road ahead of them, especially in the light of the limbo of the past two years. Many plans have been mooted, much research and discussion has gone into creating and supporting initiatives, yet these merely nibble at the fringes of the larger issues ahead.

Recent months have seen some excellent rhetoric, but much has gone off-track for various reasons. The focus on a device type (tablets) as a proxy for rolling out technology-based solutions, the insistence on an indigenous solution and a fixation on an unrealistic price point, not as a goal, but almost as a personal challenge was certainly unfortunate. Much remains half-done, and the Bills are testament to that. They also point to the challenges that lie ahead. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act has been a rocky road, not least because of the way it was designed. It looked as if it had not been thought through, but one often wonders if this was reform by stealth, an experiment that was unleashed on groups that would not agree any other way. We have driven away many investors in higher education in our intent to be counted amongst the elite without having undertaken the quest to be one of the best.

It is almost ironic that these have been the very years that the private sector has gained confidence and staked its place at the table. It has a proven record of success and a history of delivering scale. The energy in this sector makes it much like the software industry in its early years of unbridled, almost unregulated growth — while the national strategy was being formulated. These years have also seen — at least on paper — great progress in school enrollments and infrastructure creation (with obvious lags such as toilets etc.) These have ridden the mythology of the demographic dividend, both in the public and private sector, and now arrive at the reality that the dividend is not for harvesting unless investments are made in quality and in access towards social and economic mobility.

Looking ahead, the opportunity for India is unprecedented. We have a double demographic dividend of the young and the old and experienced. We also have an entrepreneurial, if jugaadu, culture. Still, there is the willingness to try new ways of learning, a quest for the best and the lure of the certificate, even if its validity is suspect. And this is just about the people who seek to be educated. They do not seek the structures of the past, they seek a better life, access to opportunities and to dignified choices. The current policies are not giving them all that.

India’s grand vision for the future builds on structures and instruments and yet rarely seems to include the people it seeks to serve. For example, the vision includes technology based solutions for massification, predicating a National Knowledge Network on the future national broadband network. The effort has begun by linking a few universities — but what content are they sharing? Content by diktat is going to be unusable, or mediocre at best. A system that is created without the concerns and processes of the users cannot be sustainable; it would be a failure by design.

India may be at a stage where there isn’t enough time to muddle around with social experiments, even if they do meet long-term national goals. The vector needs to be more sharply defined in a national strategy for education. The alignment of interests, needs and goals needs to engage the people it affects and serves.

The vision at this stage cannot be small, nor can it be held back by tradition, though it will certainly be tempered by support and resources. Policy decisions need to run the gauntlet of the twin principles of diversity and community engagement.

This article was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on November 1, 2012, just after the cabinet reshuffle in the Government of India had given the nation three new ministers. The article is linked here and http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/52748-new-broom-in-hrd-will-sweep-clean.html

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