The political and administrative power vested in the proposed National Education Commission doesn’t augur well
One of the rather disquieting aspects of the Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) is its advocacy of a National Education Commission or Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA). This reincarnation of the Planning Commission, to be headed by the Prime Minister, will be all powerful.
It will “be responsible for developing, articulating, implementing, evaluating, and revising the vision of education in the country on a continuous and sustained basis. It will also create and oversee the institutional frameworks that will help achieve this vision.” In addition, it will have the power to review the budgets and their utilisation of all Government of India agencies that are “related to education in any way”.
If this emphasis on political and administrative power in an education policy does not face much resistance, it would be largely because of the widespread disdain in India for the existing education system. The elite in our cities that have the ability to set up chairs in universities often prefer to do so abroad.
The children of a broader urban elite, extending right down to the upper middle class, are increasingly being sent abroad to study. Those who are forced to make use of the Indian education system often prefer to see it as a source of a degree rather than an education. The degree itself is valued not for the knowledge associated with it, but for its monetary value in either the job or marriage markets. Most of those who seek no more than a vocation prefer to get that education informally rather than in any educational institution.
As in other aspects of life in India, the preferred response to a near-crisis situation is to hand over all power to a single centralised authority and hope that it will set everything right. The DNEP provides the government an opportunity to become that all-knowing power. While the chapter on the RSA only speaks in terms of broad visions, a detailed reading of the 400-odd pages of the report brings out the monolithic structure that is being put in place.
All Higher Education Institutions (HEI) will be brought under a three-tier structure, consisting of research universities, teaching universities, and colleges. Various aspects of the functioning of these institutions will be controlled by bodies constituted by the RSA.
The RSA would also control the direction of research in the country through a National Research Foundation. The Foundation would be given an annual grant of ₹20,000 crore for its activities which include the funding and facilitation of research. And to make the intended government control over the direction of research explicit, the report expects the Foundation to “Act as a liaison between researchers and relevant branches of government”. This interaction is expected to ensure “that research scholars are constantly made aware of the most urgent national research issues of the day”.
The expectation that such a monolithic institution, which seeks to develop even closer interaction between government and educational institutions, will solve the crisis in education, is yet another case of the repeated triumph of hope over experience. India’s research institutions are already clustered around the national capital or State capitals.
This close proximity of researchers to government, and consequently political parties, has hindered, rather than enabled, educational institutions. Academic institutions have been set up to promote the joint interests of individual politicians and their academics. One just has to scratch the surface of most new professional colleges to find their political connections. They would undoubtedly welcome the National Research Foundation as it would extend the monetary benefits of the researcher-politician nexus to research projects.
The DNEP is not unaware of this reality and goes on to recognise that this corruption is not just financial in nature, but includes any force that harms integrity and honesty in the operation of systems. But with rather childlike innocence, it expects this corruption to be fought by “effective leadership and new resolve” that will help shut down all corrupt institutions.
What it does not do is tell us is at what point does the close interaction between the politician and the educationist turn into corruption. The DNEP abhors the role of political influence in the choice of leadership of academic institutions, but simultaneously hands over the entire control of these institutions to the RSA, a body headed by the prime minister and packed with a variety of other politicians.
Across the 400 odd pages of the DNEP there are numerous, and welcome, expressions of what is wrong with the education system. But there is no explanation of why these problems came to be. Instead, there is only a reliance on an all-powerful institution that can do what it wants. Ideally, education would help the young speak truth to power. The DNEP evidently believes it is more important to speak power to truth.