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Education India 2014 – The questions that plague

27 Dec

In addition to the usual ones on quality, scale, access, affordability….


Three discussions in education 2014

December 11, 2014, 12:33 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI

I will call it the year of the battle between tradition and innovation. Globally and in India. It was the year of doubt, a year of taking a stand, and a year of gathering arguments as ammunition. A year of consolidation on some of the questions that have plagued us for long. These debates are not ended yet.

The first manifest itself as the debate on standards and standardisation. The common core in the US and other standardised curricula and exams have been attacked with vigour and defended with equal robustness. Private sector or even corporate solutions that have been used in school systems have improved outcomes in general, especially in initial years. But it is now that the cost of standardisation and incentives have come to the fore. Pasi Sahlberg has been campaigning for a few years to inoculate against the standardised testing virus that kills much of true and varied learning in classrooms by forcing students, teachers and entire schools to focus on a narrow band that will be tested. Others maintain that testing is the only way to understand what worked.

The same conversation needs to be had in India with regulations clearly nipping away at school autonomies (nursery admissions in Delhi, teaching to the text with extra classes banned etc.) so that class rooms are standardised and results in standardised tests improve. But here lies the rub – raising standards has little to do with standardisation. One size does not fit all. Often standards are raised in ways that cannot be measured in standardised tests. Often standards are raised when the fear and focus on standardised tests is removed, so that a student can do their best and discover their potential. The debate took different forms in different countries – for example, a massive campaign in the USA against the common core, a series of litigations in Delhi on Nursery admissions, the debate on improving the CCE system of evaluation and so on. It even showed in the conversations at the largest gathering of educators in the world at WISE, Doha where there was much discussion around play, empathy and creativity – these are things that one can never fully standardise.

The second trend was the play for textbooks and curricula. In many places it was a wave of nationalism creeping into textbooks, and a push back against the change in textbooks. National narratives are a powerful tool of social engineering and school textbooks have often served ‘rulers’ well. In India the battle for the books is on, where the ‘nationalist’ narrative seeks to find its own identity somewhere between the ‘leftist’ and the ‘right-wing’ assertions that have been ignored or overemphasised in past decades. The United Kingdom too had a similar debate when history was to be modified to include perspectives that teachers refused to teach – some even resigning rather than putting themselves in a position where they would have to teach material that they do not believe. Similar discussions have been heard in other countries such as Greece, Turkey etc. – a consequence not just of the recession, but also of the geo-political plates being shifted underfoot.

The third trend has seen consolidation is the steady growth of reliable research on education with a degree of granularity that makes it actionable. This has helped us move away from the uncertain land when decisions had to be made on the basis of Anecdata – thus leaving one vulnerable to blind spots or localisation errors. They too have their supporters – often teachers tell us that it is all very well to quote other studies, but ‘this will not work in my classroom’.  Classes, teachers and indeed colleges pride themselves in being ‘different’, almost immune from any generic solutions that may be applied. It has often been so – most solutions have not been scaleable, and we need more and better research that enables us to identify what really works in education. Better research leads to smarter education design, personalised learning, and of course better governance of education systems as we learn what really matters.

This has moved beyond research universities to corporates, think tanks and Foundations. In the UK one even has a new teacher led movement called ‘ResearchED’. In India it is led by organisations such as Accountability Initiative and others who continue to create evidence based arguments that help devise informed policies. Others too support better research in different ways – Technology (including Big Data Analytics) has given us the ability to monitor better, to consolidate data rapidly and ask good questions that can help formulate government policy. Another way it is fostered is by the ‘Monitoring and Evaluation’ of every intervention that is done by NGOs as they try to prove the impact to the donor’s funding. This is building a body of work that will need curation as a next step to allow it to be applied meaningfully across contexts. The journey ahead is long – but like medicine, it is time that education too moved to evidence based solutions and interventions.

What happened to last year’s grand discussions? Do we not talk about teacher shortages and training anymore? Has conflict education become less important this year? On the contrary, both these issues and a few others continue to rage – they are even more important than every before. They have moved beyond the stage of  understanding the nature of the problems to creating a range of solutions. Vital funds have been moved to conflict education, to rebuild what was destroyed by war, to sustain whatever growth is possible for children amidst long battles. Even in India, building a teaching cohort is a National Mission now.

The debates of this year are about the global citizen of the future. How does one balance tradition and innovation, the old and the new, the known and the unknown – navigating each side with ease.  How does one create an aware, curious, questioning individual, capable of forging their own path in the unknown while not losing sight of their self and their society? The world may be on the brink of a real world version of the “Hunger Games” with institutionalised inequity, with power complexes that simplify to the point of stupidity, with freedoms that give way to conformity. Educating intelligently is now about seeking a way out of this mess – and this is what the debates seek to address.

This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 11, 2014 linked here:

Education Policy: Plug the Leaks or Change the Boat + 2014 Assessed

14 Dec

This year has been interesting for education, not for its grand ideas but for its little fixes. It is time, come 2015 and the Budget, that some significant moves are made

The problems in education in India are akin to a leaky boat. After a while, one counts so many holes that one wonders if the boat itself needs to be changed, or if the leaks could be fixed. The story of education in India is a story of fixing leaks, with the promise of a new boat along the way.

Much has changed, including the Government. However, the principles remain the same — accessible, affordable, inclusive quality education. The goals too remain the same — employability in the short-run while building a foundation for a better person. Here, one questions the goal. Is there a view of personhood, of personal identity that will be imparted via education or will it be a journey of independent discovery through various schools of learning? This is a question that can be answered when a new education policy is formulated and announced ie our new boat.

For now, the only question that was being addressed was the urgent ones — the leaks were being fixed. Many feel that the progress in education has been very slow, many wonder if the priorities are aligned with the national needs and others have commented on the nature of advice and support that is available. The sector is a complex one and it is natural to take a while to come to grips with the inter-linkages. Having said that, a few trends were noted.

The focus on delivery: One of the big decision has been the splitting up of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to carve out a Skill Ministry. This makes sense only if the focus is moving away from holistic solution to seek pure operations. As an operational unit, the Skill Ministry will be focused enough to deliver but one wonders if this will be at the cost of pathways from skill certifications to higher education. This is one to watch.

The need to be above reproach: All the controversial decisions have been defended on the basis of the ‘rules’. The Four- Year Undergraduate Programme of the Delhi University was scrapped on the technicality of one permission not being on paper, the language dispute over German too started off with a contract that would not be renewed. The emphasis on regulations over policies and national goals is a trend to watch.

The escalation of issues: Senior time is valuable and must be used for larger issues. But on a visit to Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to respond to raising a school from middle to secondary. Again, the Human Resource Development Ministry intervened in an issue of a contract between Max Mueller Bhavan and the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan. This lays bare, the gap in the administration and the support system in education — and there is a need for improvement. The gap at tactical level was also exposed when the Government schools consolidation programme ran into difficulties that should have been anticipated by the team. And needs to be addressed.

The outreach from the Ministry of Human Resource Development: This has been its strongest suit. From writing individually signed letters to principals of Central Board of Secondary Education schools commending them for their achievement, to meeting school students and the open conversation on Teacher’s Day, the outreach has engaged the education community directly and has made the hub feel connected. The care shows in responding to issues like the institutional status granted to School of Planning and Architecture to ensure newly minted architects get jobs. Can this be extended further and more meaningfully in the creation of the new education policy as is promised.

This year has been interesting for education in India not for its grand ideas but for its little fixes — but tinkering only takes one so far. It is time, come 2015 and the Union Budget, that some significant moves are made that can power India’s future — by tackling basic issues on a war footing, including teacher shortages, standards in skilling, lifelong learning and alternative models of accreditation. One does hope that these wishes will be granted for the good of the country’s educational system and its stakeholders.

This was published on Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped linked here

Plug the leaks or change the boat?

Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Assessments: CCE or a Single High Stakes Exam

4 Dec

Can one go back from the CCE to a single exam?

You cannot go back to the past. It is gone and we have to plan for a smarter future. Even in the class X assessment system, the students who met the minister may want to go back, but times have changed. Having bemoaned the loss of the sturdy yet simple Class X examination, it still comes as a surprise to me when there are reports of students who have asked for it to be restored.

The old system had its merits and problems. It’s greatest advantage was its simplicity. A strong reason to reinstate it is that the old Class X exam was an excellent base line test for higher education. Marking the culmination of ten years of primary, middle and secondary education, it tested for the basics in a way that was equitable and accessible. The fairness of the exam had been tested and improved upon year upon year. Operationally it was no mean feat – tens of thousands of papers across five subjects are ferried across the nation after having been anonymised, checked to a standard, verified and then marks allocated to the right student. The process needed to be error free.

But the stakes were too high.

The future of the students depended upon this one exam. This would determine whether they would have access to subjects of their choice or would be relegated to the boondocks populated by ‘non-academic’ students. This was an act of judgement that could cost a student every hope they had of aspiring to be a doctor or and engineer, a computer scientist or an inventor. A slip here – a bad day, a fever or simple panic and the student knew that they had very likely consigned themselves to a different kind of life. In the Indian system, sadly, an Arts student can never apply to be a doctor, nor a commerce student change tracks to become a bio-physicist – for example.

The high stakes had to go. The pressure was building up on a whole generation in ways that were unsuited to their age. Parental pressure, tuition culture, grade inflation and mindless rote learning were some of the evils that emanated from that single exam system.

In an act reminiscent of the story of the monkey who sliced the king’s nose off when charged with guarding the king, the exam itself was scrapped. The stakes needed to be lowered, the incentives needed to be changed – why scrap the exam then?

Students, it seems are clamouring to have these exams back. I’d be cautious about that too. These were not necessarily representative of the entire education population, nor of all students. This was an interaction where they shared their personal views, no more. For one, the students seem to hate the CCE (continuous and comprehensive evaluation) system. In this very forum, on this blog we have shared the student voice with very valid arguments against the CCE. I too have stood against the CCE – as implemented. Not as designed. The idea and the design of the CCE are in keeping with the times. The students have been subject to a version of the CCE by a teacher cadre that has received little training or support in the implementation. It is up to the school and its teachers to figure out how best to make it work with little sight of the goals and the design principles of such a system. It is inevitably a confused implementation that is highly unlikely to appeal to either students, parents or teachers.

The CCE has its merits too. It gives students many chances to get it right. Each test, each project, each piece of work in their notebooks now earns them some value towards their grade. This not only gives schools a chance to customise according to the needs of the students and the local context, but also gives better grades to those who perform consistently. Most importantly, it does not put all the pressure on the three hours of the examination system held at the end of the academic year in an unfamiliar location. It has moved the goal posts from being an exercise in mere rote learning to much more – if implemented well. It therefore gives the education system a chance to keep up with the times and reward students for demonstrating  21st century skills of collaboration etc.

Does it actually do that? Not yet, but it can.

It is sad if poor implementation of a good idea forces one to regress to a solution that had been operationalised well but was inappropriate for the times. The solution now is not to revert to the old system – that solves nothing. The solution now is to find a path using all the pieces to hand to engineer a solution that works to assess student performance fairly in ways that test for consistency, growth, ability, competences and knowledge.

India is a country that has traditionally favoured the middle path. Here, happily, the middle path is available easily. It may not be a bad idea to restore the national class ten exams AND reduce the stakes. Design smarter assessments including examinations and CCE. The final score may include the results of the national exam but merely as a component of the overall two year score as is currently designed. Upgrade the CCE to be meaningful and efficient. Retain grades, but create a formula that works to the goals of testing and assessment for that level (which really cannot be much more than baseline and competence mapping for encouraging personalised learning plans). Design a system that will benefit millions in a generation to identify their potential and work to their aspirations for the future – not the past.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own. on November 21, 2014, 6:49 pm IST in EduCable | Edit Page, HRD ministry, Smriti Irani | TOI

Who Bears the Risk of Education Innovation

15 Oct

Eyes shining, a young boy walked into a small school. His hair was neatly oiled and combed. His school bag did not seem to weigh him down as he walked with steady steps to his classroom, careful to note the pathways marked. The school was a small, private institute that was known for its innovative pedagogy. Its first batch would take the class X examination this year.

Reflecting upon the challenge of the examination, I was reminded of another study circle I had encountered. “I take on students to help them know things; I can almost guarantee they will lose marks in the exam. If they want marks, they should go somewhere else.” More pedagogical innovations. The students, I am happy to report did quite well in their exams. But it was they who took the chance.

Pedagogical innovations are touted as the path to solving the education conundrum. And indeed, if we do not try new things we will never be able to change the way our children are taught. The current education system is slowly, torturously moving away from the industrial age paradigm that defined our generation. But every slight move away must go through a test of fire to prove their worth or not. Every step in the evolution is watched for enhanced learning outcomes, for effectiveness, for scale, for humanism, for access and more. The rewards of any intervention or innovation must be consistent and sustainable. It is a wonder that any innovation passes the test and gets adopted on a nationwide scale. The successes then belong to the system. The failures are discarded, and the juggernaut moves on.

The reason for putting innovations through the wringer don’t just lie on the rewards side of the scale-risk has much to do with it. The risk of innovations is high and often borne by students and their families rather than society, education systems, school boards or the government. If the child in the innovative school or the study circle does not respond well to the innovation, it is their measured performance that will suffer. Even if the interventions are good for students in the long run, but have a negative impact on immediate learning outcomes or ‘results’, it is possible that the student has to bear a certain cost that cannot be shared by the innovator.

If an innovation is adopted on a systemic basis, some of the risk is mitigated by being spread across the entire cohort. An example of this is the DelhiUniversity cohort that signed up for the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme that was subsequently scrapped. The larger the scale of the implementation, the more diversified the risk-as is true for any systemic risk. For most students at school, different examination boards represent various risk-reward profiles. When you choose CBSE, IGCSE, ICSE or your state board, what you are doing is playing one systemic risk against another to decide which fits your risk profile the best. As one grows older, we keep making choices based on our risk appetite.

There is a joke doing the rounds about engineers in India. It is said that one first becomes an engineer and then decides what he or she wants to do in life. This again is nothing but risk mitigation-an engineer or doctor for that matter is broadly assured of an income stream for life. The choice made between the ‘streams’ in India is often based on risk mitigation strategies.

A high degree of risk aversion is often observed in education, which makes any kind of change difficult. Ask a teacher to do things differently, and there is a high probability of a push back, at least initially. Even if the teacher is willing to try on a new pedagogy or technology, he or she is going to be held responsible on the previous criteria for success. Then why take the risk? They have evolved an efficient method of achieving success in examinations, then why change that. Rote learning has resilience precisely because it is optimised to efficiently deliver the goals of the assessment system while minimising risks along the way. In that sense, rote learning has won the race-its risk-reward profile meets the needs of the mass education system we seek to deliver and maintain.

It is of course up to every free agent to choose his or her own levels of risk in line with the rewards they seek. There is more variety in pedagogies at the nursery and kindergarten level in India than at other levels. Many children go to experimental schools where innovation in learning has often even been codified. But most parents are willing to take a risk in the early years, steadily moving in to more conventional ‘mainstream’ education by the time the child reaches the age close to the national/board examination. Clearly, the risk-taking capacity is higher when the stakes are lower and there is more room for innovation. Flipping that over-one needs to reduce the stakes in order to create an environment where innovation can thrive.

Ultimately the only fair question is-is there a reward for participating in innovation risk? For the designers of interventions, for schools, for school boards, for the system as a whole, there is an expectation of higher learning outcomes. But for an individual who participates in the process, there are few rewards. For them, it is probably more like being the subject of an experiment-where all the upside belongs to the system while the downside belongs to the individual. This skew in the risk-reward naturally pushes students (and parents) to choose the more traditional options in education.

The current mismatch in education is a result of this risk aversion. The reversion to the traditional mode has left students unprepared for the future. The industrial age classroom to examination hall complex survives because the rewards are skewed in favour of the education providers and the risks pushed to the consumers, the students. To break through this, one will have to ensure that the rewards for participating and succeeding in innovative educational practices are shared with the students. Until and unless that happens, we will remain trapped in tradition, unwilling and unready for the brave new world.

Time to Recast the RTE Act

8 Sep
Four years after it became an Act and a year of implementation later, it is becoming very clear that the Right to Education Act (RTE) is deeply flawed. The Act was called a sieve by this author in this very publication in 2010, and much of what was predicted has come to pass. It was a significant piece of social re-engineering where the intent was to bring the rich and the poor to the same classroom.
The RTE Act was a daring piece of legislation for two reasons. One, it implicitly admitted that quality education was being delivered in private schools, so they must be co-opted to serve the poorest despite the availability of government schools in their area. Second, the Act virtually nationalized a quarter of the private sector provision in school education for children, with the exception of those that could be certified as minority schools. It could have changed the landscape of learning had it focused on that—learning. Instead, the RTE chose to be an administrator’s tool to standardize schools to look uniform regardless of what was happening within classrooms. It legislated the trappings of education while ignoring the process and outcomes. While neither policy, nor a law is charged with the onerous burden of implementation, they are written to achieve certain outcomes. If one cannot get a sensible answer to the questions “how will this be done” and “what will it look like in reality”, then the formulation itself is suspect and will suffer from failures in implementation—as has largely been the case here, so far.
The new government has spoken of a fresh education policy, but before that it is clear that the RTE Act itself requires some amendments at the very least. We have seen that even four years after its enactment very little has changed in schools. Teachers are not doing things differently, nor has learning improved. The pressure on quality private sector education has increased—reallocating places does not enhance either quality or capacity. The Act needs to be turned on its head so that it starts to measure progress against its goals. While the popular view is that the measure of success of a school and its teachers must be the learning outcomes achieved, it may be wise to take a step forward and work towards value-add measures. Let us try to answer the questions “how much has the student learnt during the year?” and “how many learning levels did the student advance?” This not only brings the focus back to individual student abilities, but is also more fair to the teacher than an absolute measure of learning outcomes at milestones. Let the reformed law ask for achievement to be measured, not just the inputs as has been the case thus far.
The new RTE Act also must ensure that the implicit cross-subsidization of weaker students does not hamper learning. This shows up in two ways—cross-subsidization of fees and of classroom learning time. The current compensation offered by the government does not meet the cost per pupil for many schools, the deficit is necessarily transferred on to fee-paying parents. The cost of extras is a grey area still, and there needs to be some support to fill this gap. But the bigger gap is the learning achievement gap and that is clear at the very beginning. The Act needs to make a provision to provide remedial support. Without this support, academically weaker students slow down the class, thus lowering learning levels for all. This “learning cross-subsidy” is an avoidable cost and can be remedied in the reformed Act.
Age seems to matter more than learning levels in the RTE Act, and this too deserves a serious rethink as the peg to age has consequences. It means that a child with little or no learning may be asked to enter an age-appropriate cohort despite being several levels behind in learning. It has also led to undermining examinations, and indeed the authority of teachers in schools—since there are no adverse consequences of not meeting any required learning levels. One advances by age, not by competence. The RTE as it stands, stands against meritocracy. Surely, that could not have been the intent and needs to change. The most urgent reform required is in the recognition of schools.
There are many that provide adequate learning outcomes but do not meet the input criteria mandated in the Act. Asking these schools to shut down leaves students with options they had rejected earlier as being sub-par, and certainly not constructive when systemic strategy must be directed towards raising capacity. The Act needs to recognize that some schools can achieve full recognition, others need help to meet standards. Any discussion on recasting the RTE must include pathways via secondary recognition to such learning centres.
The Act discriminates between private and public schools and the amendments to the Act must include equal compliance and accountability. A school report card, school improvement and development plans, school management committees and more must be equally applied to all schools regardless of ownership. Similarly, the requirements for recognition that apply to private schools must be met by government schools too. Parity in operating and reporting must be the cornerstone for providing universal quality education. The new RTE Act must hold all schools to similar standards, rather than harp on standardization as it has done so far.
Interestingly, the RTE Act is a good example of a living Act with vigorous and even discordant negotiations with stakeholders over the past four years. Normally the consultation during the writing of the Act is supposed to create consensus; in this case most of the action happened after the Act was promulgated. But the Act needs more than tinkering, it needs to pivot along with the needs of the nation, and for that, it is time to recast the RTE Act.
Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed are personal.

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5 Hurdles to Skilling India

9 Jun
Skilling will power the India growth story
Meeta Sengupta, Hindustan Times
June 08, 2014
First Published: 23:03 IST(8/6/2014)
Last Updated: 23:04 IST(8/6/2014)

Skills development for employment and growth is on the front burner with a million new people to be trained and employed each month in India. The rise of this trained workforce is critical to India’s growth story — else who will power the engine? Without this soft infrastructure all investments in hard infrastructure are futile. And yet the skills story remains stuck. There are gaps in the skills story that are still not bridged while others are slow in their progress. Some others are at a standstill, for nobody will own them. There is demand and supply, and yet the conversion to higher value addition  is lagging. What stands in the way?

First, accreditation. Who certifies that the skills that trainers provide are adequate and transferable across the industry? Certification must (i) be mobile, and (ii) provide an income boost. The accrediting body assures the employer of the value of that certificate. The accreditation bodies hold trainers to account via inspections, improvements and programmes that ensure that the training and, therefore, the certificates are valuable in the market. India’s progress on this front has been slow. Where sector skills councils will become accreditors, there is a pathway though benefits are barely beginning to be visible. Till the accreditation network is in place, operational and credible, few skills certificates have a market.

Second, prior learning certification. Most vocational workers have learnt their skills on the job and are often very experienced. They do not need to retrain themselves for months on end to be able to perform to their standard. Across sectors, there is no universal mechanism that certifies the level of their skills within learning frameworks. Certifying learning with credible level markings creates a market for higher-order skills. Experienced workers will not hop on to the skills bandwagon if you equate them with young starters. Give them credit for what they know, help them upgrade.

Third, assessments. The lack of trust in assessments has undermined many certification processes. If employers do not believe that the assessment process was honest and the declared results are valid and reliable, they will not be willing to pay a wage premium. For example, the skills certification for driving licences in India has suffered because few believe it to be a credible test of skill. The distortion has made it a document that is not even accepted by the issuing authority as proof of identity, let alone skill. Without honesty within the process, it collapses.

Fourth, apprenticeships. This is an education programme that is trapped under the history of trade union negotiations with the labour ministry. The legal binds on hiring apprentices have made it all but unviable. No employer would want to enter this minefield though this is the right operational model to revive the skilling sector. Many industries ‘train’ their future employees and then offer them jobs. Much energy is expended working the legal hassles that have suffocated an excellent model for the revival of skills in large and small industries. The apprenticeship model has revived growth in moribund economies and is an excellent scaleable device.

Fifth, and the most important, financing. Often workers are unable or unwilling to pay for training that may not guarantee them a wage premium or even a job. Employers see no reason to invest in people who may leave straight after being trained. An underwriting agency is required along with a repayment plan that aligns with earnings of the trainee. The Australian model deducts repayments from salary in proportion to income. Those who earn more can repay faster. And honest repayments will sustain it for future generations.

While removing these speed breakers to skilling requires institutional interventions, it is critical to align the existing workforce with the training community to ensure steady growth even as they wait for regulations to settle down.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer, speaker and advisor in education and skills and designs institutional interventions

The views expressed by the author are personal

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India needs an Education Strategy

28 May


May 16, 2014, 8:12 am IST in EduCable | India, Living

India needs an education strategy

India stands at a cusp today between two governments. The previous one has been serving the nation for the past ten years the new one will hopefully get a mandate strong enough to stand for the next five.

As we stand on this platform between the old and the new (regardless of which party comes back to power, though by now it seems to be fairly clear) it is a time to call for change.

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education. For each of these I can hear critics harrumphing. I agree, not enough has been done. Progress has been painfully slow. In many cases the slow progress has been a boon because the direction chosen was so obviously flawed. A generation has lost many chances. The current one must not be let down.

The good news is that much of the thinking and debating has been done for years. There are clear opinions and choices on most institutional and policy issues. The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Other issues that always get pushed under the carpet are also acknowledged as being awkward – Foreign Direct Investment in education, private sector provision of primary education, the mess that the current community college model presents (when the answer is obvious to some of us) and of course the very troublesome issue of apprenticeships that falls somewhere in the gaps between the ministries of Human Resource Development and Labour. Many of the issues that need to be sorted out are ideological – tradition pulls policy towards treating it as a public good. Pragmatism and resource constraints, and dare I say it – common sense too – negates that view. At the same time one realises that the current structures, behemoths as they are may be flawed, but are the only vehicles for the distribution of the new national policies. These knots will have to be cut before the new government can begin to make meaningful progress.

Of course, some changes are easier than they look, such as the RTE Act that has been attacked by many. It is enough to acknowledge the RTE 2.0 movement that is ready to move past recriminations and chart a path to better education for all. The RTE comes with fundamental flaws that cannot be allowed to continue into the future but has clearly established the principle of social engineering via education policy. Where it fails is in arrogating private property to the state, in discriminating against the majority institutions and in creating a distrust of government aid. These flaws will only strengthen the suspicion that government wants to play big brother and nanny – a creepy thought at best. The RTE itself has many flaws such as the emphasis on input based criteria rather than on value addition during the school year (though activists cry out for output based norms for schools). Many flaws have been patched over, but fundamentally it remains a noble thought that seems to be designed for flaws to show up in operation.

The new government has all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place. They have all been tagged and sorted too. Now it is up to them to create a the picture that they believe will built a better future for the nation. It is time for a national action plan. What India needs is a National Education Strategy.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Degrees and Leadership: Smriti Irani and the MHRD post

28 May


In defence of Smriti Irani, India’s new HRD minister

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 – 6:25pm IST | Agency: DNA
  • smriti-irani HRD minister Smriti Irani

Does a leader always need to be an expert? Or is a good leader one who can leverage a wide range of expertise and skills? Ask India Inc, the entrepreneurial and the baronial – and the chances are that their business successes will provide the answer before they need to respond. Of course, an expert in the area will find it easier to process information and will have an easier learning curve when entering the arena. But those who are not experts also prove to be good workers and leaders. Not all good leaders are experts, but all good leaders know how to utilise the abilities of experts.

What about education? Surely in education we need educated leaders? They have to decide on broad issues of education policy, create legislation to revive the sector, identify and clear hurdles to scale and quality. It is a growing nation that must learn to invest in its own talent to participate on the global stage. It might have been better to have a learned greybeard to lead the initiatives rather than the youngest woman in the Cabinet of the Union of India, who, as the cynics and critics point out, has received no higher education. By that logic, no CEO or leader can be allowed to hold a post where they have not gone through the ranks. Nor would there be any conglomerates – for who can be all the things that a GE CEO leads? Or a Tata group CEO?

Smriti Irani, the young Cabinet minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) does hold a complex portfolio. What is more challenging is her inheritance – she faces a wide range of issues that seem to have decided on arbitrary criteria that has had little to do with the broader goals of education. She has to work with policies that impact individuals – and almost every family in the nation. Worse, she has to figure out which of the schemes she now supervises are useful and which ones are actually destroying the fabric of the nation. The nation now looks to her to have the ability to discriminate, to judge and to invest in the future.

So much needs to be dismantled, so much needs to be reconstructed and so much needs to be built. Consider the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Noble in intent surely, when it gave the right to be educated to every 6-14 year old in the country. Yet, so badly constructed that even three years ago, this author called the act a sieve. It is in a shambles today – forcing many budget private schools to close (should they not be supported to improve?), creating incentives for schools to declare themselves minority institutions (how is it inclusive, or even a national act if the it does not apply to a minority institutions) and of course the silent elephant on the table – the nationalisation of private property when 25% of the seats in the private sector were taken over by the act. Does she have the ability to distinguish between a left liberal argument versus a economic right social left argument and decide on the right course of action?

There is no point denying she does not have the academic grounding – but the argument here is precisely this – she does not need to have that if she has the ability to channel good advice. As a leader, her task would certainly have been easier if she had experience in the field of education. At the same time she would have the disadvantage of ideological baggage that would influence her decisions. And the critics would have carped about that. It is true, again, that the ministry of HRD is trapped in the middle of complex legislation and the entire sector is moribund due to regulatory messes. Higher education institutions cannot hire or fire the faculty they need to, talent cannot be nurtured or showcased due to hierarchies and tenure based structures. Research languishes, as does the quality of teaching. Does Smriti Irani have the ability to judge which area of science should receive more funding? Can she chair a meeting of the directors of the IITs and IIMs?

Certainly she can. She is a politician, and is not in that chair to provide the academic expertise. That is the job of the other people in the room including her ministry and advisors. She is tasked with a politician’s role – one of persuasion. Of getting support for ideas that drive through to results. Her leadership will be judged on her ability to get the job done. And the job at the moment is about managing the negotiation between different ideas and priorities. Her task is to involve more partners so that education can leverage the skills and resources that are available outside the government, and indeed the nation.

If this was a personal defence of the minister, one could call on her past achievements too – these are in the public domain. This is not about the person. This is about the sad conflation of degrees and competence when degrees themselves are not designed around competencies. Degrees may be the proof of certain learning but they do not represent the sum total of knowledge, skills and attitudes – each of which are required to be successful in a job.

For long the elitism of degrees has influenced choices in India regardless of talent. And this fascination with a linear education pathway that culminates in more degrees has made it difficult for individuals to follow their talent and aptitudes. Worse, teaching and learning are reduced to the tests that seem to deny that there are other pathways to success, not just academic. And academic pathways need not map to a certain age-line.

There are many who have become successful without following the trodden path, many whose learning has been honed outside academic hallways. There are skills that a Harvard and Ahmedabad cannot teach. Let us give the new minister a chance to step up and show what she has learned. Her competence will be tested in the public eye. The least one can do is be supportive and helpful. After all, we are on the same side if we care for a better educated nation.

One last question remains – would we all not have been happier if, say, Arun Jaitley had been appointed the minister for HRD? Yes, certainly. Erudite, well spoken, a sharp legal brain, proven intellect, the ability to negotiate in tricky land – it would have been ideal. Given the huge challenge in human resources, an experienced hand would have been useful. All the more reason to support the young minister, and call on others, including the cabinet mentors, to help her learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Meeta Sengupta is a writer, and an advisor an consultant in education. She tweets at @meetasengupta.




This was published in the DNA newspaper on May 27, 2014


On Cheating and Morals

17 Apr

Thursday, 20 March 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Cheating and bribery are becoming habits at the school level itself. Students copy in examinations and pay for leaked papers. The trend carries over into politics too

Is India really supportive of dishonesty? Should we give up the pretence of being an honest country where truth and equality are valued? Because, often, India gives enough data to prove that we do not believe in truth enough to be able to demonstrate our leaning towards it. Be it the elections or the exams, whenever we are put to the test, many of us crack under the pressure and use questionable means.

Consider this chilling piece of news: A boy in Uttar Pradesh committed suicide because he could not pay a bribe to be allowed to cheat in the examination — his dream of becoming a teacher was, therefore, lost. There is so much that went wrong here: Bribe, cheating, limitations on opportunities to a career, and the bullying of the poor; the mother had to mortgage her ring to arrange for the bribe.

This is not a unique example. Cheating has been rife and is almost institutionalised in many parts of the country. It is a rare examination room where cheating does not occur in some form or the other. While as an educationist I constantly argue for smarter examination designs to eliminate this evil, one has to admit that there is an element of training for a corrupt future going on here.

Examinations that merely test for rote-learning are bound to be gamed — and we see that they are by millions of people. If the objective is to win, and the underlying principle is the survival of the fittest, then of course the laws of the jungle will begin to apply. If the examinations were not such a high-stakes hurdle, then the situation might be different. As things stand, the marks will determine whether you have access to a decent education or whether you have to chart your own path through unguided waters. The price of purchasing that certainty is often paid by crossing the ethical divide.

Things do not get better as one climbs through the education ranks — as a student one often uses pirated or photo-copied textbooks (and the cases are still in court), essays and thesis assignments are often either plagiarised or outsourced for a fee, and, one hears that laboratory test results are ‘arrived’ at in various ways. Another example: Professor Muralidharan, who has worked for years on education in India and published serious academic papers, tweeted out a case of his entire paper being copied and cited by an academic in southern India, as shown on his webpage. Brazen plagiarism must have its roots in a history of not being caught out and shamed.

Academics now are charged with producing a given number of research papers per year to get their increments and promotions. With poor research training and little time and support, many plagiarise. Others often sit on the ethical fence and split their work into the required number of papers — just to meet the rules. Honesty is clearly not a way of life even as we learn.

This shows in choices made at election time too. As a nation, we do not vote for honesty. The number of criminals in Parliament has been widely reported. The number of criminals who are getting to stand on behalf of significant political parties is known too. And yet such people will continue to get elected. A recent paper by Milan Vaishnav (for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) estimates that the chances of winning elections for a candidate with no criminal charges against him or her is a mere seven per cent (rising to 25 per cent if there is at least one serious case against the individual). From the voters’ point of view, in a survey, a whopping 48 per cent indicated that they would be okay voting for such a candidate.

Who Will Pay the Skills Premium?

7 Mar


Who Will Pay the Skills Premium?

03/06/2014 | 

The market doesn’t want your skills training. That, Sir, is the first and only problem we need to face. The market doesn’t want to pay for the training and does not want to pay a premium for your trained folk.

Does this say something about the product or about the market?

The ‘Skills Gap’ has been discussed for over a decade in various countries across the world. Almost all have come up with some sort of white paper that declares how bad the skill levels are, why these are going to lead to economic decline, why they represent an inherent gap between industry and academia, and how awful it is that their graduates are not employable. India is not alone in this regard.

Nor is India alone in acknowledging the fact that there will not be enough jobs for the sheer volumes that will continue to flood the job market. India used to call this surge the demographic dividend. It is now teetering on demographic disaster. A truth that few wanted to acknowledge publicly was that India would almost inevitably have to export its unemployment problem. There will never be enough jobs per square inch of land in India to feed its teeming millions. (Till the population surge dies down as it is expected to in three decades). Not only does India have to fill a skills gap to meet the expectations of national employers, but those of global employers too. In an economy, that is not quite booming.

This is both a troublesome and a blessing. The best skilled people will be weaned away to better jobs globally leading to a “skills drain” as was seen with the brain drain phenomenon of the sixties. At the same time we can hope that the larger cohort will be trained to global standards, leapfrogging a generation of incremental quality discussions in the production of goods and services. But this is precisely where India is stuck at this point in time: the leapfrogging does not have a defined value. And therefore many are unwilling to pay for it.

Very simply: Why would an individual pay for a certified training programme if they are not convinced that it will significantly improve wages? Why would an employer pay a premium for a certified worker if they are not convinced that they will improve productivity?

(An aside: Who should answer these questions with proof?)

Maybe it is just a question of riding out the storm as we wait for the structures that bring order to be built. Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) are in place and growing. The National Skills Development Agency and National Skills Development Corporation are doing their bit. As we speak, the national skills qualifications frameworks have been drafted and a five-year plan for alignment created.

Without this foundation it is almost impossible to create a clear understanding of value. How can there be one till there is clarity on what the certificate really means? The meaning and value of the certificate can only be proven in the market when the pioneers and the crusaders work together. This must be given time to run its course and the market must be allowed to arrive at a true and fair price. Any prescription at this stage will merely be setting it up for failure. If a level 4 plumber must be paid so much by diktat and a level 5 plumber is paid an additional (fixed) sum, the entire system collapses — it cannot perform two basic functions of price. To give feedback to the supply system (trainers, curriculum developers and creators of operating standards) and to be responsive to demand (employers).

The challenge in the skills arena is the tightrope between standards (not standardisation) and speed. It is a about designing a scaled up system designed to be nimble. About creating a network of moving parts that do not clash with each other. Yes, it is complicated and the hard slog remains. As every start-up knows, the idea and the organisation is much easier than proof of the product in the market. This is where skills certification stands now. It needs to prove its value to customers and investors. It is a start-up that cannot be allowed to fail. The price of failure is the dignified livelihoods of at least one generation.

The question in skills used to be: Who will pay to fill the skills gap? As this has been resolved, the question that now needs to be answered is: Who will pay the skills premium? I am looking at you, employers.

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