Fifth columnist: Educational Apartheid
Politicians still believe that education is yet another route to patronage and vote bank politics

Everyone agrees that education is the key that holds remedies to various ills that plague the world in general and India in particular. The big problem is not everyone is agreed on the way to go about educating the young and the impressionable, particularly the vast community of underprivileged children, who constitute the bulk of the young student community in this country.

Take the truly progressive Right to Education Act (RTE), an impressive piece of legislation enacted by the former UPA government, which if implemented across the board, could do wonders to improve the health of the country’s education system.

The Union cabinet’s decision this week to scrap the no-detention policy in schools till class VIII, a key provision of the RTE, is a big step backward in the opposite direction. The no-detention policy was instituted to arrest school dropouts, particularly among the economically marginalised communities.

Section 16 of the RTE Act, which came into effect in March 2010, stated (until the amendment this week) that no child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled till he or she completes elementary education, which is until class VIII.

The cabinet approval this week of the proposal by the human resources development ministry to amend the law to provide state governments with the freedom to draft appropriate rules under the Act to detain a student in Classes 6, 7 and 8, can be considered a body blow for those whose lack of economic opportunities has led to educational backwardness in the first place.

However, no child would be held back in a class unless they have been given an additional chance to clear examinations after failing once. In between the first and second attempts, the student would be imparted remedial coaching. The proposal was passed at the behest of several state governments and has now been placed before the Parliament for approval.     

However, last year the Central Advisory Board of Education, the highest body advising the Centre and states on education, passed a resolution to scrap the no-detention policy on the somewhat specious grounds that it was leading to lower learning outcomes. Frankly, it is the poor quality of teaching rather than students that is to blame for a mess that has plagued the education system.

Now with this one move, it is clear that the dropout rate, a perennial concern for educational planners in the last seven decades, is set to go up. Bringing back yearend examinations for Class 5 and 8 and detaining students who fail them, is unlikely to improve learning outcomes. All this would do is to simply palm off the responsibility of learning to students, letting teachers off the hook.

Juxtaposed against this, students from well off backgrounds can overcome the traditional pass-fail system through out-of-school tuitions, which too has the patronage of influential teachers in thousands of schools throughout the country. Look at it any way, this one single move casts a shadow on the future of millions – if not billions – of disadvantaged students throughout the land.

It needs to be recalled that an important aspect of RTE was continuous comprehensive evaluation where teachers were expected to periodically assess students’ progress without a pass-fail examination. Truth to tell, this system was never implemented properly. An analysis of RTE in the last two years reveals that more emphasis was laid on implementing 25 per cent free seats for economically weaker section students in private schools than on upgrading infrastructure or teacher training.

It reveals in affect that improvement of quality of education continues to get short shrift. Politicians, in tandem with educationists and policy makers, still believe that education is yet another route to patronage and vote bank politics, rather than improving the lot of succeeding generations.

Neither would it be an exaggeration to suggest that it is precisely this approach that acts as the guiding light for caste-based reservations, both in higher education and government jobs. Experience has repeatedly demonstrated – indeed, if any demonstration was required - that reservation quotas initiate a race to the bottom with every influential community battling to get a share of the reservation pie. In turn, it perpetuates a creamy layer within the disadvantaged communities, which is a more modern version of divide and rule, as far as the politician is concerned. 

Under the circumstances, the lopsided contrast in another cabinet decision on the same day could not be more telling. The cabinet approved a pending decision about creating 20 `world class’ institutions in the country or creation of government educational institutions as international class.  The University Grants Commission (UGC) had in February passed a new set of regulations to set up 10 world-class institutions in the public and the same number in the private sector.

Of the proposed 20 institutions, 10 in the government sector are earmarked to get Rs 500 crore as state assistance, as per an Expenditure Finance Committee note. Guidelines allow these institutes to fix their own fees for foreign students and decide salaries for foreign faculty, as well as the freedom to choose admission procedures. Can there be a bigger case of Apartheid about two sets of students belonging to the same country? If there is one uniform tax in one country, should there be two sets of educational norms in one single country?

Ranjit Bhushan