Ministry of Human Resource Development is deliberating on terms of reference and composition of a commission on education. Given the state of our education system and its performance at all levels it is a welcome step. An even more urgent need for a commission to formulate a coherent policy of education emerges from the recent flurry of half thought through reforms. However, a cursory glance at the history of Indian education after independence will conclusively prove that commissions (and committees) come and go; education continues on its steeply downhill road as usual. Recommendations of commissions become subject of excited debates in the press and then part of academic discourse; their practical impact never results in any improvement. With this history in mind one naturally wonders if the new education commission is going to be another exercise of the same kind.
The second problem is that the UPA2 government has only about one year left now. The Prime Minister announced the intentions of his government to appoint a commission on education on 15th August 2011; the government took more than eighteen months to come to the stage of deliberations on ToR and composition; when less than a year of its mandate is left. A commission that covers all that is being considered in the ToR, as one hers, can hardly complete its work in the tenor of the present government. And if it does, the quality of its analysis and recommendations is likely to be uncritically guided by current push for ‘education for economic competition’, as that is the dominant ideology in power circles today; or by some particular school of educational thought that might be close to the heart of bureaucrats or their confedents. Again, our recent history tells us that the new governments—if headed by another party—almost never respect such decisions made by the previous governments. Therefore, an education commission set up now will be relegated to very low priority and a new debate on its ToR and composition will begin as soon as a new government is formed.
Before one can start thinking of the ToR for and composition of the commission a reasonable assurance from the system to counter this threat is necessary. Without such assurance setting up a commission on education is nothing but a vacuous exercise, or worst, a political fraud played on people. This assurance can not come from the present day government, nor from any particular party. The only mechanism that may reasonably assure this is perhaps the CABE. If the CABE decides that it will relentlessly push for the recommendations of the commission to be debated in the parliament and in public in a time bound manner, and that also continuously pressurize the government for implementation of the accepted recommendations, again in a time bound manner; the exercise of setting up a commission may become useful, and perhaps effective in improving the education available to out children and youth. Therefore, a firm commitment from CABE is a necessity.
Some general points about the ToR
An important step in tackling the first problem; that is: ignoring recommendations of commissions; can perhaps be taken up in the ToR itself. There is a dire need of studying our political and administrative system to understand why all useful and positive recommendations fail? Just repeating this common truth will not help. We need to understand what is there in the character of our educational administration and political system that reduces all reforms to naught, or worse still, used them for the sole benefit of the administrative structure itself. The recent Right to Education Act is a glaring example of turning it against those who pushed for it. The civil society pushed for this act mainly to force the government to take responsibility and improve its own education system. What is happening in the implementation is that it is being used against all but the government system. The new education commission should seriously study all previous commissions, their recommendations, what happened to those recommendations, and why? It should suggest mechanisms to avoid the same fate of its own recommendations.
Any system—political, administrative, economic—to be true to its policies requires a critical mass of people in it who understand those policies and their implications, who have firm convictions regarding their beneficial nature, and who have qualities of character to take personal risk and responsibility in pushing for them. If the critical mass of such people in a system falls below a certain level—I am not sure what that level is, it is the job of social sciences to study that, the system stops functioning for the values it was created for and stats being used for the benefit of powers within it. It is clear that there are very few people in our education system who understand education, educational policies and have the required strength of character to implement them in spirit and letter. No amount of legislation and systemic reforms in pure organizational and administrative terms is going to be successful unless the critical mass of such determined individuals within it is increased. The education commission should study this problem and suggest ways and means of increasing this critical mass of driving energy within the system.
Another condition for systems in democracies to function well is that they are under the constant gaze of a critical citizenship. It is the job of education; of school education in particular, as the Secondary Commission on Education (1952-53) argued way back; to produce such a critical citizenship. Our education system has failed to achieve this most important goal of education in a democracy. Or, perhaps it is deliberately made to fail by those in power. Education today is not important enough in public perception to influence political fortunes of parties. Though the importance of education for one’s own children is fully recognized by all parents; most of them see it only as a tool for individual competition, and not as a necessity of common public good. As a result those who have means make arrangements for their own children to compete in job market; and those who do not, simply feel helpless. Seen from a democratic point of view, this is a serious aberration. A sate that claims to be democratic is automatically responsible for correcting such serious aberrations in the society. Therefore, this is a responsibility of the state to bring about a change in public perception on education; making it a common public good rather than an instrument of individual competition. The commission should study the public apathy for education, attempt to find its root causes and suggest ways of establishing education as a common need for welfare of all. However, that alone will not work, the commission should also suggest ways of how can public at the local level demand its right to good quality education and force the system to heed that demand. On the front of goals of education, the commission should study why our education failed in producing critical citizenry and suggest measures to be taken in curriculum, pedagogy and school organization that can correct this lacuna.
More specific points and issues regarding ToR
I have heard tat the draft ToR suggests a review of the education system in the context of the goals as articulated in the Education Commission (1966), National Policy on Education 1986 and Plan of Action 1992. If that be the case, it would prove to be inadequate and skewed. The aims of education since Education Commission (1966) are tilted towards using the citizen as resource to achieve national goals as set by the powers that be. Education is seen as an instrument for social engineering. One strong rejoinder to seeing citizens as resources is the Report of Committee for Review of National Policy on Education 1986 (1990). In curricular documents National Curriculum Framework 2005 re-emphasizes development of independent thinking democratic citizen as an important aim of education. Overall, the aims and vision of education as articulated in The Report of University Education Commission (148-49) and Report of Secondary Education Commission (1952-53) are closer to the constitutional vision of India; where the critical democratic citizen who imagines and makes the nation as per that imagination comes in a sharper focus. Therefore, the proposed commission should not limit itself to Education Commission 1966, NPE 1986 and PoA 1992 for guidance in aims of education. It should take into consideration all commissions, policies and important committee reports after independence.
In view of various documents on curricula, teacher education curricula and legal provisions like in Right to Education Act one needs to study the relationship between educational aims, curricula, pedagogy including assessment, and teacher education anew. Many recent recommendations and legal provisions might be creating international incoherence in education from aims to classrooms and teacher education. Coherence between aims, curricula, pedagogy and teacher education is essential for clear and unambiguous decision making and confident practice in education. The proposed commission should look into these fissiparous tendencies in various policy documents and suggest ways of keeping policy decisions clear and coherent in future.
ToR for a commission does not require narrow specifications. Inclusion of narrow specifications in ToR either skews the vision or demands a very long list of such specifications. The commission should be free to workout out an appropriate educational vision for the country which takes into consideration present day needs as well as is imaginative enough to serve long term planning and developing vision, both of nation and education in it. If one takes this view then demanding strategies and recommendations from the commission on ‘integration of sports and extracurricular activities into curricula’ and ‘how to use demographic advantage’ are somewhat inappropriate. They simply express the planners’ specific concerns, which might be ery legitimate and even urgent. But there are many more concerns on this level of specification that might have to be included in the ToR once these once are given a place in it. Therefore, the best way would be to leave the commission free to develop a vision and detail of education for the nation as it thinks fit.
Education is obviously for wellbeing of the citizen, society and nation. That includes economic concerns as well as intellectual and moral development of students. In this context, talking of skill development and vocational education in the prevalent sense is unnecessarily limiting and poor educational thought. An alternative vision of vocational education has to be developed which includes intellectual and moral richness and lateral movement between academic and vocational education at all stages. If vocational education has to figure in the ToR, it should figure for suggestions and recommendations for this richer concept of it.
Structure and composition
A commission with such a broad and comprehensive mandate and having limited time available to it exposes itself to the danger of working with cursory understanding and inadequate analysis of the existing situation, dues to pressure of time. This might result in recommendations of less than adequate depth and worth. Therefore, the commission has to guard itself against this danger. One way of ensuring deeper analysis could be to develop a structure that ensures adequate study and deliberations on each important aspect. Setting up separate committees on school education, higher education, professional education and teacher education could be one way of ensuring adequate depth of deliberation on various important issues. That means that once the commission is set up it has to work out an elaborate structure to accomplish all the tasks in time.
Research and scholarship needed for serious deliberations on all these aspects of education today is not readily available in our conry. Unfortunately the academic institutions which were created to keep abreast in study of education and research are lagging far behind the times and fall disturbingly short of their mandate. Therefore, the commission would need a number of academic task forces to furnish it with needed information, various academic positions on aspects of education and their relevance for the country. The exact nature and number of such task forces will become clear only when the commission works out its full agenda. But there should be an adequate provision for resources (including time) to form such task forces and allow them to come up with in-depth studies. One such task force should definitely study the problems related with administrative and political will in implementing policies efficiently and without distortion.
The process and procedures for working out a vision for national education should obviously include all voices. Therefore, membership of the commission and committees has to be thought through very carefully. A commission composed of bureaucratic and political favorites can hardly meet the demands of the set tasks. It should include academics, civil society, teachers, private sector, public sector, people from general public, people from corporate world, discerning politicians (if we still have such a species of political animal around) of all hues and administrators.
All committees and commissions face a serious problem of adequate deliberations of high quality partly due to tight schedules and partly because often adequate procedural norms for deliberations are either not worked out or not followed strictly enough. Transparent and adequate deliberations should be ensured through adherence to procedural norms and availability of time. Half discussed decisions leave people dissatisfied and remain somewhat inadequately argued, and therefore, fail to make the public impact they should.
In addition of proper and in-depth deliberations within the commission and its committees a wide ranging and open public debate is essential, both to take all views into consideration and make its recommendations acceptable. The public debate should also be used to raise citizens’ awareness of educational issues and to generate interest in education. It could provide an ideal opportunity to turn the provisions of Right to Education, Child Rights, various other policy provisions, citizens’ rights regarding education, etc. into tools in the hands of the public to force administration to provide good quality education. Such a wide ranging debate would require use of all kinds of methods and possibilities. Public meetings, media, websites and electronic media, televised debates, and so on. The commission should make conscious and concerted efforts to start a social churning on education.
Looking at the history of our governments and administration of selective, biased and inadequate action on recommendations and policies, nothing less than an all out effort by public to hold them accountable will work. This is the job of civil society, media and academia to strive to create conditions under which public can make such efforts. Will they measure up to the task? We do not know, but without public pressure recommendations of the proposed commission will not get implemented what ever they might be. So, let’s hope and keep our fingers crossed.
 Central Advisory Board of Education