Nation in Arrears

The literate and the illiterate; the lettered and the unlettered; the educated and the uneducated; the knowledgeable and the ignorant; the wise and the idiot; the luminary and the layman — the education scenario in India stumps all across the spectrum. Forget enlightenment, even an elementary understanding turns elusive thanks to a maze of policies, judgements, rules and regulations joining hands with an equally confounding combination of politics and profiteering. But to think through all this, at the root of the confusion is the basic question: Is imparting education a service or business?

In Bharat, down the centuries, education was much more than a mere academic exercise. The gurukula system was a comprehensive personality-moulding process which included inculcating knowledge, scientific and spiritual, besides enabling the aspirant to develop skills in tune with his aptitude and to help his gainful employment in a vocation. The element of competition was absent and this allowed a student to develop without reference to his peers. Individual talent flourished in a no-pressure atmosphere. And life was the true test that determined success. Also, the guru was supreme and the guru dakshina was a voluntary offering with no tariff guiding it. Commerce had a strict no-admission board confronting it.

The Nalandas and Taxilas of yore were great centres that attracted students from distant lands. Today the nation does not have a single university in the top 100. Of course, even incurable day-dreamers would not imagine a return of ‘those days’. But it must be understood that the present education system, which is competition-oriented and has material benefit as the goal, is not the result of a gradual evolution process. The shift was sudden and intended, wrought by the British under the supervision of Lord McCaulay. They dismantled the reigning system in the name of civilising us but the real motive was to convert education into some kind of a ‘clerk’ or ‘babu’ vending machine for the British administration. Incidentally, ‘programming’ the populace thus would also dampen their freedom itch. I would say that Mr M’s scheme did delay our Independence and worse, ensured the colonisation of our minds even after, and till today. And in his place is the new master, the ubiquitous modern M, money!

Still, if the British made the education system subservient to their imperial needs, post-freedom, India did have the opportunity to rectify many pitfalls if not totally reverse the direction. Art 21-A of the Constitution, as amended in 2002, makes education a fundamental right, thus placing it beyond the pale of commerce. For, when a right comes for a price, it ceases to be a right. But at the risk of contradiction, one must assert that this right is not a choice but a must, for it has the sanctity of a doctor’s prescription for one’s well-being. Thus not making, at the least, primary education, free and compulsory was the first fatal failure. Indeed, this is most glaring in a scenario where TVs are given free and a CM justifies it by saying that it ‘educates’ the people! On what? Which of the daughters-in-law bumped off that offensive, nosey M-in-law?

Such pervert priorities apart, the next on the sin list was privatisation of education. Guranteeing a fundamental right like education is a Government’s lawful obligation. Moreso for a welfare State because Education and Health are the two key measures of welfare. But the Government has nonchalantly outsourced this sacred duty. While a good part of education was always in private hands, the latter were mostly non-profit organisations or missions of all religious hues. This public-private partnership supplemented the Government’s efforts with the primary onus still on the State. But today, the Government is a minority stakeholder in education with the private sector enjoying an unfettered overlordship. This reversal of roles has made the Government a facilitator for the private sector and a collaborator in their commercial mis-deeds. We know the ‘non-profit’ tag is a joke, even though only ‘charitable trusts’ still run earning, er, learning centres. The SC, while warning against blatant privatisation recently, has described such institutions as ‘masked phantoms’.

Having thus abdicated from its moral and lawful duty, the only residual commitment of the Government was to at least ensure proper conduct of those to whom it had delegated. The tragedy of today is the utter failure of the State to protect the ‘consumers’, the students and its abetting the perpetrators instead. There is no dearth of court strictures or statutes or rules or regulatory bodies. Still, if the law of the jungle, where predators call the shots prevails, it is because the watchdogs were sniffing away at the bits of bones thrown their way so that they can look the other way. The UGC and Medical Council of India are cesspools of corruption. Approvals are for the asking and sure there’s an asking rate. But can’t those greasy outfits at least ensure value for money? Many colleges and damned, pardon, deemed universities have enrolled students and are looking for campuses to put them in! Again, the pedigree of those who award degrees is of no consequence. A look at the roster of persons parading under the banner ‘Educationist’ will make you shudder. Really, more than the educational institutions, private and government, it is these regulatory authorities that need fixing.

TN as ever symbolises the rot most aptly. Many of the engineering and medical colleges are run by politicians who have been in power. They have made the most of the government’s withdrawal from the education scene. But a politico being what he is, little surprise education too is what it is today: A Racket. There are already 29 deemed universities and 39 more applications are pending! All of the Government’s promises of action flies in the face of its inability to ask a DMK minister, whose college bargained over capitation fee on camera, to quit. But TN’s education milieu is murky even without such hardselling ‘educationists’. A student begins his academic year in utter despair. Passing plus 2 is the easiest of the ordeals. First he has to negotiate the quota quagmire. Till last year there was this legal turmoil over CET which kept him on tenterhooks. And then there is counselling which is a nice way to describe haggling. And then he has to raise the money to bridge the distance between his marks, howsoever high, and the college classroom, howsoever near. There’s now also the risk of the college being derecognised, plunging his funds and future into uncertainty. Thankfully, the vital thing, obtaining the degree after the prescribed years should be no big bother, for the ‘seat package’ naturally includes an assured presence on the convocation day. You cant fail after you have spent a few crores, stupid! Indeed, those wanting to reform the education system, should set their bases in TN. The rational State is a single window for all that is wrong in the realms of learning!

The education system is not creaking but has collapsed. It needs nothing short of a complete overhaul, from content to teachers training to learning methods to laws to regulators. HRD minister Kapil Sibal has made a slew of radical suggestions likes scrapping of the Tenth Std exams. We can do with more. For the nation is still struggling in Pre-KG. Doubters can Google their way to those depressing statistics and reports!

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Jawahar T R