CHENNAI: September 5 is celebrated as Teachers’ Day in memory of great scholar Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the architect of independent India’s first higher education policy.
However, the new draft National Education Policy recently released by the Modi government diverges drastically from the legacy of this scholar, taking a 180-degree turn from some of the fundamental ideals enshrined by Radhakrishnan in the country’s education system.
The Radhakrishnan commission’s report, submitted in 1948, forms the basis for some of the ideals that are now taken for granted.
The most prominent among these ideals is the safeguarding of educational institutions from the influences of the political class and ensuring freedom to academicians.
Though there have been frequent infringements on this freedom — most evident in the revisions to the History curriculum at schools and colleges – they are still viewed as aberrations as there is broadly a consensus that the political class must leave the field to educationalists and academicians.
However, the draft policy deviates from this vision drastically, envisaging, instead, a set-up in which the entire educational system of the country is left in the hands of politicians — specifically, the party in power at the national level.
To understand the difference, one must go beyond the visionary words in the new draft education policy written by the K Kasturirangan committee. The policy lays out a detailed administrative mechanism for the country’s education system that puts the Prime Minister at the top of an overarching body that will be named the National Education Commission or the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA) — the policymakers favour the Hindi term.
The RSA, headed by the PM, will have 20-30 members that will include union ministers and bureaucrats from various central ministries. State chief ministers will be given a place on a rotational basis. Curiously, academicians only get a supporting role.
This apex body will control a myriad of other agencies that will decide what is taught, evaluated and researched in educational institutions. This includes regulatory agencies, curriculum-framing agencies, those which decides on funds for research activities and those that accredit education institutes.
This proposes a fundamental change in the country’s approach to education. So far, it has been academicians who decide and shape what is taught in the educational institutions and how. For example, Vice-Chancellors of universities have near total freedom in most academic matters. The University Grants Commission, which distributes funds to universities, is headed and run by academicians. Though it is the government that provides the funds, it is not a domain directly controlled by the government. These basic principles stem the Radhakrishnan commission’s ‘The Report of the University Education Commission’.
The report said, “We must resist the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process. Higher education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State but State aid is not to be confused with State control over academic policies and practices.”
Drafted in the backdrop of the Second World War, the report gave its reasons for this separation of the political leadership from academics.
“We know what Hitler did in six years with the German youth,” the report reads at one point. It was a reference to how the Nazi regime’s direct control over educational institutions in Germany enabled it to recruit quickly for its armies and wage a war on such a large scale.
“Exclusive control of education by the State has been an important factor in facilitating the maintenance of totalitarian tyrannies. In such States, institutions of higher learning controlled and managed by governmental agencies act like mercenaries, promote the political purposes of the State,” the report said, stressing on autonomy for universities and a total safeguard from influences of the government.
Lack of safeguards
The Kasturirangan committee did not elaborate on why it was diverging from the ideals of the Radhakrishnan commission report. It also did not explain what safeguards would be in place to prevent the imposition of ideologies of any ruling party into the school curriculum and educational practices. Instead, the committee says a change was being proposed for administrative reasons.
“Achieving the successful implementation of this Policy thus demands a long-term vision, availability of expertise on a sustained basis, and concerted action from all concerned actors, encompassing national, state, institutional and individual levels. In this context, the Policy envisages the creation of a National Education Commission (NEC)/RSA as an apex body for Indian education. As the highest level functionary of the government, the Prime Minister will chair this body and bring to bear the vision of education and the authority of the office in directing the educational endeavour. Also, such a step would ensure the necessary cohesion and synergy between the multiple dimensions of education in the country,” the draft policy says, repeatedly stating that inculcating the glorious past of Indian civilisation should be one of the main aspects of education.
Besides the PM at the top, the RSA will have the Union Education Minister (as per the proposed renaming), as its vice chairperson and a set of union ministers and bureaucrats. The space for educationalists is clubbed with others.
“At least 50 per cent of the members will be eminent educationists, researchers and leading professionals from various fields such as arts, business, health, agriculture and social work.”
The power of the proposed RSA is evident in the list of agencies that it would control (see box). However, the draft policy does not propose a similar shift in control over education at the State level.
There is no mention in the draft of how the views of the state governments would be included in decision making. While it does propose the option of forming a State Education Commission, headed by the Chief Minister, this is merely for better coordination with the Centre.
Why this paradigm shift? Perhaps it is rooted in the differences over what the fundamental aim of education is. Former union human resources development minister Prakash Javadekar, in his foreword to the draft policy, says one of the aims of the new national education policy is to “eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics and industry”.
In contrast, to Radhakrishnan, the purpose of education was, “We are building a civilization, not a factory or a workshop. The quality of civilization depends not on the natural equipment or the political machinery but on the character of men. The major task of education is the improvement of character.”