The Constantly Crashing Indian Education Systemby Opinion Express August 12, 2018 0 comments
A deplorable picture of neglect, unemployment, cheap politics, and sterile imagination – is that what has the Indian education system come down to? With growth that seems impractical, and less hope, Siddharth Pandey talks about what’s spelling doom for the system.
Main kisi bhi raajya par haath rakh doonga, wahaan se koodaa hi niklega.” (On whatever State may I lay my hand, it will only reveal garbage). So remarks one of India’s finest journalists Ravish Kumar in the middle of the 34th episode of the University Series (June 20, 2018) being aired since the latter half of the last year. Uttered in his signature disarming-yet-caustic manner, the comment draws attention to the extraordinarily wretched predicament that the Indian education system currently finds itself in. Such is the ubiquity of the pathos suffusing it that a sour concoction of helplessness, anger, and frustration invariably takes hold of anyone who tries formulating a pan-Indian perspective on the scenario of teaching and learning. Koodaa (garbage) might strike as too strong or even sacrilegious a word to use in the context of our institutions, given that we have been traditionally taught to euphemise them as ‘temples’ of learning. However, their shockingly shambolic nature leaves little doubt regarding their devolution into fields of rubbish (many literally so). From the ostensibly ‘best’ platforms for higher education, such as Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture, Kolkata’s Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, and Universities of Delhi and Bombay, to the little known institutions like Chhapra’s JP University and Dr Ambedkar Bihar University in Muzaffarpur — all of which the University Series has tackled with equal integrity and depth — a deplorable picture of neglect, unemployment, cheap politics, and sterile imagination emerges, a picture whose growth seems relentless and set to burgeon for years to come.
Platitudes about the importance of education routinely get bandied about by all and sundry, raising the question, then, that why does our system lie in tatters? The answer is way too multifaceted to be accommodated in an article, contingent as it is on a variety of factors, from murky power politics to a blithe disregard for accountability. Undergirding such dynamics are the notions of diversity and difference, the very ideas that we otherwise celebrate and uphold in principle, but which actually become the sources of messiness. Such muddling commences not in higher education but during school itself. Almost every State in the country has its own board of education even as they follow some common guidelines given by the National Curriculum Framework. Add to this another set of boards, such as the CBSE, the ISCE, the International Baccalaureate, to name a few, and the discrepancies between their quality, quantity, assessment systems and pedagogy range far and wide, creating an obvious hierarchy of perceptions that torments students no end, particularly when they reach the stage of seeking admissions at the college level.
The notions of ‘choice’ and ‘interdisciplinarity’ — grand and revolutionary as they might sound, and important as they truly are — also frequently result in contorted frameworks of curriculum framing and application, so that everything from multiple-choice questions to choice-based credit system becomes more of a tedious exercise in cramming, compartmentalisation, and confusion, which perpetually ensures the victory of an instrumentalist approach to education that has become the order of the day. It is remarkable that as a society, we are so much at ease with the fact that in the last two years of school education, we have to choose amongst the sciences, commerce, and arts. Again, that choice is actually a sham, as a hierarchical attitude undergirds the very existence of the tripartite structure.
As one of India’s most prolific thinkers Santosh Desai writes in his book, Mother Pious Lady (2010), “In the intricate algebra of educational options, Science is the undisputed leader, towering above the nondescript Commerce and cowering Arts. Nobody questions this absurd practice; it is also unclear as to what forms the basis of this hierarchy”.
And the replication continues within the fields themselves too. At the time I was making my first applications to enter college in 2005, it was well-known to the aspiring engineers that civil and mechanical groups obviously stood far above architecture (just as medicine and administrative services outshone the profession of teaching). Further, that architecture could by and large be only studied after passing an engineering exam like AIEEE or IIT also flummoxed me, as it naturally and equally felt like a humanities subject. It was only after I presented one of my first academic papers at the department of architecture of a foreign university that my instinct regarding the discipline’s humanistic grounding got confirmed for the first time, as the department was situated under its School of Humanities. Likewise, at my current university (Cambridge), architecture and the history of art departments are situated under one faculty.
My purpose in drawing attention to a foreign academic sphere is not to glorify it or to take it as representative of all foreign universities. Educationists across the world know that even the supposedly high-ranking international universities are not bereft of problems. Indeed, once you land up in any place, you realise that every system has its own issues to be solved. The very practice and politics of ranking are problematic and have rightly garnered criticism, as has the instrumentalisation of research culture, the skyrocketing fees structures of foreign and private universities, and the ubiquitously rampant ad-hocism.
But the situation of Indian universities is much direr as the University Series has repeatedly made it clear by occasionally resorting to rhetorical questions: “Kya aapne kabhi suna hai ki Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan mein 80-90 per cent vidyaarthi fail ho jaatein hain? Ki wahaan kisi ko koi farak nahi padta hai?” (Have you ever heard that in the top-ranked universities of the world, the majority of students fail? Or that such failure does not affect anyone?) Going by the horrific details that the programme has been bringing to light and on the basis of my own experiences and those of my friends and colleagues, it becomes quite clear that the general atmosphere is that of apathy, mistrust, and most revealingly, of unsustainability. The decade that has passed since my graduation from Delhi University has witnessed such drastic changes that the very notion of ‘change’ has become suspect. We seem unable to envisage the meaning and pragmatism of change, and politicians, bureaucrats and administrators endlessly indulge in ushering one ‘system’ after the other, from the Four Year Undergraduate Programme and the Semester System to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), whose workability thrives on an unplanned, haphazard sensibility, itself a product of the whims and fancies of the few in power.
Textbooks aren’t available, while others are being hastily written; new publication houses and journals have erupted in a jiffy and have coaxed many ad-hoc teachers to write something — anything — for them (along with a ‘fees’) so that they can collect the required points for promotion; the growth of physical infrastructure has hardly been commensurate with the increase in students; monthly Government scholarships, such as the JRFs, reach much later than they ought to (I have known students who have received them in a lump sum form at the very end of the academic year); and while some groups of college students have received exorbitant marks in subjects where attaining even a 60 per cent was a dream until a decade ago, other groups have failed in hordes (at times, entire batches of a particular stream) as a result of ‘strict’ measures instituted to curtail cheating (such as CCTV cameras), or simply as a consequence of mindless marking. While protests helmed by both teachers and students have gripped the nation for a considerable while now, infighting, lack of clarity, and egotistical politics amongst the teachers and students themselves continues to upend and undermine the protests’ revolutionary potential, as the University Series has time and again also shown.
In spite of thoroughly enjoying my time at Delhi University as a student and researcher in English Literature for seven years, I consistently failed the UGC’s National Eligibility Test (NET) mandatory for entering the teaching profession at the university level. Eight attempts in four years proved enough to cultivate a discomfort towards my own discipline, for I simply couldn’t bring myself to cram ‘the descending order of publication dates of the plays of Shakespeare’, or ‘the one, best quality of a teacher’ (as determined by the UGC) — two samples from the forever-growing list of senseless questions of an exam that in no way whatsoever assesses your critical or creative acumen. Two full scholarships from the University of Cambridge thankfully came my way, and I ended up doing an MPhil and then a PhD in my subject at the University’s Faculty of Education.
For a country like India, that frequently raises the question of desh ki seva (duty for your country), it may well be important to additionally ask: What if the desh itself doesn’t want you to commit to such seva? This sounds cynical, and cynicism is not compatible with hope or sustainability. While I firmly believe that anyone passionate about the emancipation of his or her society will eventually find some or the other way of making a small but worthy contribution, it is nonetheless important to take cognisance of those seeking the ‘available’ paths of engagement and facing failure and frustration.
Ours remains a truly strange and suffocating scenario: On the one hand, there is growing unemployment, and yet on the other, 30-50 per cent teaching positions in State and Central universities are simply lying vacant. The Government regularly doles out funds, but their application remains enwrapped in mystery and slapdash procedures. Even while ostensibly having a common salary for university teachers, there are glaring discrepancies between the payments received by different institutions. The same goes for scholarships too.
We demand and applaud the creation of new IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, but enter them and see how they are being run from ‘other’, parasite campuses (draining them as well), again with a lack of infrastructure and staff. AIIMS institutions, for instance, are reported to have a lack of 70 per cent of teaching staff, and another report states that 94 per cent of Information Technology graduates from the already existing institutions of India are unsuitable for jobs.
Ours is a “darkness visible”, a phrase I first came across in John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, where he coined the oxymoron to describe the miseries of hell. The miseries of the Indian education system are akin to being hellish, and the least we can do is take cognisance of the few people and platforms that are assiduously trying to build a holistic awareness about our worsening predicament, and then to introspect on how we ended up here, both as individuals and as a society, in the hope of revising and revisiting the notion of change.
The writer is finishing a PhD in English Literature and Material Culture at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Writer: Siddharth Pandey
Source: The Pioneer