MHRD’s First Year – Published in India Today

29 Jul

Controversy has dogged her footsteps for reasons that are as political as any other. One could speculate that her rapid rise, her gender and her qualifications – or the lack of them have won her few friends. But Smriti Irani seeks no rescue – in her own words. She has a job to do and she is here to do just that. Some worry that the job is to embed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) agenda into the nation’s education system, others are more concerned about high-handedness that has lost her ministry a series of senior bureaucrats. This is the stuff of politics – the real question is simply this: what are the achievements of the ministry in its first year?

It is a mixed bag

As with every ministry of education, it is a mixed bag. It would be easy to say that the ministry itself is so complex that it is impossible to please everybody. That is true, and it is equally true that the bureaucratic logjams that have been created in the past decades make it almost impossible to navigate unless one is an insider. With few specialists in education, the system has been built by a series of administrators, practitioners and academics. To have come to grips with this in the first half of the year is commendable in itself. To have survived the critics is equally an achievement, but then no less was expected of one raised to such a high office.

Amid many challenges

Half the challenge to any minister of education is the expectation that the mess of a few decades will be swept clean very quickly. One wants the schools to start performing, the teachers to start caring, the school heads to lead in innovative ways and for rote learning to end so that skilled, competent students emerge from school and higher education ready to take on the world. This is not change that can happen in a day. Or even a year. The problems in India’s education system had been reduced to access, affordability and quality but really boil down to outcomes and aspirations. India is running to keep up with itself.

Filling the gaps

This government had inherited a few good things – an investment in infrastructure (of sorts) and planned solutions to most issues that plague the education system. Many of the solutions had been discussed for a few years and were lying in limbo. Some of the older solutions have been operationalised and this deserves high praise – to make things move in the right direction is no mean achievement. In its reports the ministry has listed the initiatives taken during the year. Each of them seems to be a small step, has received a small budget but clearly fills a gap that eases student pathways. The extra funding received for support to learning in early primary years was essential, given the lag in learning outcomes. If this is not fixed soon, the gap will increase leading to school drop outs and loss of talent and income over the years. Other schemes have included a range of scholarships, especially for the girl child – an imperative in India today. The personal outreach to schools is commendable and builds bridges for the future – there is much to do. The list of achievements is not trivial and have been put out by her political supporters and fans, not the least among them being the overhaul of the teacher-training programmes.

Have mistakes been made along the way?

But naturally. It is impossible to deal with such a sensitive ministry that holds the key to India’s future growth and not ruffle a few feathers or not make a few mistakes. For example, the higher education establishment is used to being treated with far more deference and have occupied the traditional role of being a raj-guru in many ways over the past few years. To have seemingly disrespected this group is not constructive if one needs the group to support new growth targets and directions. But the real failure here is not of optics, it is of ambition – higher education and educators are more than teaching, skilling and administrative institutions. These are incubators of ideas and growth. They must be encouraged to feed their global ambitions – and held to global standards. This requires fine handling and it is very easy to miss a step here – as we have seen. This must be corrected, and soon. A simple solution would be to scale up – a sensible solution would be to increase international collaborations rapidly and a stable solution would be to co-opt the establishment into the growth process.

There are a few disappointments too – and these remain as expectations for the year(s) ahead. The private sector has made an enormous contribution to education and has much to contribute to the speed at which things can improve – more public–private partnerships (PPP) would be welcomed. The Right to Education (RTE) Act is due for reform and this is a minor minefield ahead. The question of an education cadre in the civil services seems to have been parked and would benefit from a strong debate. There is time for this and more.

A year is a very short time in education, and even shorter with recalcitrant teachers, administrators and a student-parent body that seeks change in outcomes but is unwilling to change its way of doing things. This is a challenge worthy of the best. The initial 100 days saw many small changes put in place, the rest of the year has seen bolder changes. But till we have sight of the new education policy, (which is in its consultation phase now), we are not going to see any clear direction emerging. So far the ministry has been rule-bound in what it has done, and while this may be right, it has also highlighted the challenges faced by this shackled giant. The rules, and even the institutions need desperate update and one hopes that in the year ahead one sees bolder but more respectful initiatives that support the growth and learning trajectory of the one person that matters – the student.




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