It is just as well that the government has junked a proposal in the K Kasturirangan education panel’s report—the official line is that this was a ‘draft’, not the final policy—that suggested reviving the three-language formula with a focus on mandatory Hindi in non-Hindi-speaking states. Protests, spearheaded by Tamil Nadu, against the “imposition of Hindi”, could have quickly spiralled into the kind of radical anti-Hindi agitation that rocked Tamil Nadu intermittently between the late 1930s to 1986 after the education policy first proposed this; not surprising then that two Tamil ministers in the government—Nirmala Sitharaman and S Jaishankar—tweeted on this being just a proposal on Monday, not the policy when there was a furore over the proposal.
Indeed, given the many challenges India’s education sector faces, it is not clear how this proposal even came into play. What makes this even more unfortunate is that, while the first Narendra Modi-government spoke of sweeping higher-education reforms—including scrapping UGC and AICTE—this hasn’t really got translated into action.
That said, the Kasturirangan panel has some interesting suggestions, though it is not clear that all of them are either practical or even implementable. Given the perennial problem relating to both rampant cheating in some school boards, as well as the uneven standards, asking the National Testing Agency to conduct separate all-India examinations for entrance to universities is a good idea; whether the political class will allow this to happen is open to question.
Related to this, allowing students to give their secondary examinations in phases rather than in one shot—Chemistry and Physics in one semester, Maths in the other—also gives a much-desired flexibility; as does allowing students multiple entry and exit points in their undergraduate education. The idea of ‘teaching’ universities being distinct from ‘R&D’ ones is a very good idea, but quite unrealistic in a shortage situation.
When India has an acute shortage of quality universities, which politician will allow an existing university to scale back the number of students it admits on grounds of wanting to focus exclusively on research? Also, if a university is going to want to reduce the intake of students, will the government-grant system still provide it the same level of funding?
When, for instance, the last Modi government was talking of scrapping UGC, this was to be replaced by an independent grant-giving body; but when the policy finally got formulated, the grant-powers remained mostly with the government-run UGC. Allowing various colleges to grant their own degrees sounds problematic in India where most feel university certification is better—indeed, till recently, even the prestigious IIMs couldn’t offer ‘degrees’ but gave ‘diplomas’—but this is sensible since, sooner rather than later, as in most developed countries, employers will be able to distinguish between good, bad and dubious degrees.
The recommendations that need to be examined with a lot more caution are the incorporation of Indian knowledge systems into all levels of education; as long as this focus is on Charaka, Patanjali and Aryabhatta, and not on furthering propaganda (interstellar vehicles and head transplants in ancient India), the effort would be indeed merited.
Like earlier panels, the Kasturirangan panel also talks of having separate regulators for different aspects of higher education—one for standards setting, another for funding, and a third for accreditation and another for regulation. Given how the panel is quite forward-looking in its recommendations—save for the unfortunate one on the compulsory use of Hindi—it is odd that it wanted to regulate the fees set by private schools; politicians plugging this makes sense given its appeal to voters, but how do eminent scientists and educationists fall in the same trap?