The first 100 days of a government are usually about signalling what comes next. For the Narendra Modi government, the first 100 days were about learning the business, and big announcements have been postponed to the 100th day and beyond. Their actions however have been watched, and this is clearly a government that recognises the last mile problem and seeks to address it. There is a distinct if subterranean movement towards pragmatism which can only be lauded since the greatest need in the education sector now is good implementation of grand ideas.
There seems to be a will to make education relevant and accessible in ways that meet latent aspirations. Skills have been separated from education with a separate budget and a minister - a clear signal that the government means to press on with the skills agenda and give it as much room as the rest of education. Similarly for schools, there has been little action on fundamentals yet, but a strong signal sent to achievers. The education minister sent personalised letters to CBSE school principals when their students performed well in the examinations. Higher education has borne the brunt of some regulation-mongering leaving many wondering about the future of innovation and indeed pure sciences. Even the seven goals that were given to the IITs were all about innovation at best, with nary a mention of pure research or even invention. The push is towards creating pragmatic solutions for the common man.
So far so good, let us wait for some real action in what we hear of primary education. The government has had to begin its initiatives with building toilets, a basic necessity for schools. Sanskrit Week received its own share of criticism. All Indian languages do not have Sanskrit roots, nor is Hindi the natural language of transaction for everybody. Massive outrage on supplementary texts that have dubious credibility was brushed aside - this was a state matter anyway. States with surplus teachers in some areas have been asked to transfer teachers to areas with shortages. Should this not have been happening already?
An essay competition has been mooted for the Teacher’s Day named "Guru Utsav" which is being monitored by the human resource development minister Smriti Irani herself. At one level this could be called personal attention to details - and some of the nation’s biggest industrialists do this on a daily basis via great teams on the ground. At the same time, this degree of micromanagement, almost centralisation, is difficult to parse.
One, how does this work with the overall strategy of increased federalism, especially in a sector that is already on the concurrent list? Second, do they have the supportive teams on the ground to enable such initiatives? Should they not be focusing on urgent strategic needs such as increasing the size and quality of the cadre of teachers, or indeed on increasing the capabilities of the administrative teams on the ground?
Many would have liked to see action on the core issues troubling education - teacher shortage, slipping learning outcomes, violence in schools, paucity of lifelong learning in schooling and research capabilities and delivery in higher education. Announcements have been made to plug some big gaps such as learning opportunities for the lesser-abled and the provision of broadband and WiFi networks, each of which resolves some last mile problem. Expanding the network of IITs, IIMs and AIIMS are all worthy goals and will need years of ground work to bring results. Indeed, India does not have a pipeline of soft resources to be able to carry off this expansion.
But some actions in higher education makes one wonder about the quality of the advice they are getting. It started with scrapping the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) of Delhi University. A technical glitch in the permissions process forced the University to back down and revert to a three-year program, which was a terrible thing for a worthy, if badly implemented innovation. But the government and the UGC chose to stick to the letter of the rulebook and insist on a 10+2+3 model of education for all. In a country as diverse in India, one size does not fit all.
Sadly, once having insisted on that rule, this was applied to other successful programs including a prestigious research university and a range of private universities. Each had brought value to students through their program design, yet were forced to conform. The juggernaut travelled to the IITs even though they do not fall under the purview of the UGC at all since they have an act of their own. The only way to put a positive spin on this is to laud the attention to the rule book, but then the niggle really is that the rule book itself is outdated. Program design anyway should be an operational decision left to a university and not subject to a central rule book.
Modernisation is not mere digitisation, though that does increase efficiencies and is almost a hygiene factor. Modernisation is about increasing possibilities to meet the standards of a global market. To make the responses nimble, relevant, timely and reliable, institutions need operational freedom.
The imperatives for education are clear - the school sector needs a stronger backbone of mentoring and support to improve quality and bring more people into the teaching profession. Higher education needs to continue and grow the journey of collaboration in addition to improving its global reputation via rigorous original research and better quality of student outcomes. Lifelong learning institutions need to be built to create bridges between skills and education.
These are massive goals in themselves, and the first 100 days have seen mere tinkering at the edges of the big issues. This may well turn out to be a good thing if the time has been invested well in understanding the opportunities that must be delivered. A new education policy has been announced and everyone looks forward to both the process of its formulation and the policy itself - hopefully it will be a declaration of a strong strategic vision on education for India.