It has been a year since you took charge of the new ministry. What is your biggest worry as in charge of education in India?
My first priority – and that reflects my worry as well – is to improve the quality of government schools. It’s a tough job. Unfortunately, government schools which were much better earlier have deteriorated in two decades. That happened after teachers got more facilities – and I believe they must get it. After this, we saw they were lacking in motivation. There is a good lot among them and also a lot which is not so good. As a result of this, teaching in government schools has suffered. Then after the RTE [Right to Education Act] was brought in, there were no detentions in schools. This further reduced the accountability of teachers as he is not tested for anything. Therefore, we are now introducing detentions at class 5th and class 8th. In these classes the students will be given two chances – the first one in March and those who don’t qualify in it would get a second chance in May. Those who still fail will be detained. This will bring in the much needed accountability of teachers, students, parents and schools – all the stakeholders.
But aren’t we going back to the square one, burdening children with books, syllabi, exams and the resultant tension and stress? These were the reasons for ending examinations.
Writing examinations is not only about stress. Of course, making teaching only examination-oriented is a bad thing. But if there is no exam it’s also a bad thing. So, we must give examination to the students because unless you are given a challenge how will you learn to meet it? It’s not about marks only. Examination is not only about achieving the position of number one or two; you can still go ahead with marks and give ranks or grades. You must make it clear to a student as to where he stands; even his parents would only then know his standing. Otherwise, in survey after survey we are seeing that a student of class 7th is not able to solve the mathematical problem of the 3rd standard and student of class 8th can’t read the textbooks of class 5th. If that is the condition it’s only bad.
However, we are leaving it to the states to opt for exams at 5th and 8th standards. Already 24 states want to implement this; four don’t want it [the minister refused to identify them] while one is yet to decide. In the system of cooperative federalism, we are acting as enablers and not imposing anything on the states.
The CBSE has also reversed its decision on not imposing an examination on 10th graders. Why so?
The reason is that in this country more than 2.5 crore students appear for the 10th class examination each year and only 7 lakh are given the option of not appearing. What is this? It’s wrong and total absurdness. Had you applied this [no compulsory board examination for 10th] to all states, one would have understood the logic. But when 25 million appear and only 0.7 million are given the option of not appearing for the board examination, this is wrong. Even within CBSE only half of the students would opt for not writing examinations. Everyone has welcomed our decision; there is 90 percent approval. They have welcomed it also because we didn’t announce it mid-term. The announcement was made last year and therefore nobody is angry.
Our education encourages rote learning. The idea of ending examinations was also meant to make education less of a process of cramming the facts…
I believe the parents need to be taught that each child is special and they should not want their child to be like somebody else. My impression is that rote learning is not the way. We are trying to change this. We must make syllabi more relevant to life and aspirations of people. Our pedagogy methods and overall education must become an enjoyable experience. For this we recently conducted a programme called Sikshan Manthan in which we invited all stakeholders – education experts, NGOs, teachers, headmasters who have done experiments – to discuss innovative pedagogy and improving the quality of education. I sat through all the five workshops that have been held so far at Raipur, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Pune and Guwahati. After one more workshop on digital, physical and value education and life skills, we will come out with our own guidelines for the states. But from the workshops held so far, a communication is already on among the stakeholders for improving the pedagogy to make education an enjoyable experience.
How do you work to improve the standards of higher education?
My worry about higher education is that we lack in innovation. So, promoting research and innovation is the main thrust area of higher education. We have launched a programme called UAY [Uchchatar Avishkar Yojana] in which we are facilitating industry-funded research projects focused on innovation. We invited 700 best professors from 70 countries to India who have conducted courses in different institutions for three weeks each. This has resulted in the exposure of our faculty to the global scenario and also increase in the world’s perception of Indian education. We are also converting regular academic courses into a digital platform to be called SWAYAM which will become an online platform for anytime learning and anywhere learning. Already 1.25 lakh persons have registered for this platform. The Smart India hackathon held last year was also a good beginning. Under this 42,000 engineering students drawn from more than 2,000 colleges competed to give digital solutions for 600 problems proposed for solution by 30 ministries. Firstly, all these students worked for three months on problems. On April 1 and 2, some 10,000 students were divided into teams of six each and they worked non-stop for 36 hours to produce solutions for 200 problems. We would be using these solutions to create products in due course. This would be repeated, but maybe next year we take up mechanical engineering and then something else. The hackathon has given an opportunity to students to solve a practical problem with the spirit of helping the country. Under another scheme, the government has sanctioned Rs 595 crore for 258 socially relevant research projects.
All this is happening at the apex level, but the situation remains the same at the school level. Why so?
Our effort is to discourage rote learning and promote curiosity at the primary level. In fact, our teacher-student ratio at the primary level is not bad. There is one teacher for almost 24 students. But then this is also a fact that about one lakh schools are run by a single teacher. The reason is that more teachers want posting in district headquarters and state capitals. The deployment of teachers is an issue that we have identified as a key reason for poor standards of primary education. We are addressing this; we have told all states to compulsorily deploy teachers to the last mile. We are linking their grants to the deployment of teachers. The ministry has also come out with a learning outcome document, which outlines the learning a student should have at the end of each class. It brings in the accountability at every level. This will be given to parents as well.
There are allegations of Hindutva propaganda in textbooks. For example, Dina Nath Batra has campaigned for it. What is your opinion on this?
He [Batra] is like any other person; he does not belong to the RSS or BJP. He runs a school and hence may have an opinion on the issues. I had asked the public to give inputs on making corrections in the current school syllabus on the ministry’s portal. So far, 700 suggestions have come and he too must have given his input on that. We will scrutinise all the suggestions on removing factual inaccuracies and also update the information in the syllabi. The media unnecessarily writes about him; they are paranoid and do ‘table stories’ on education.
At some stage the NITI Aayog wanted more privatisation in education. What is your take on that?
I clarified it even on the floor of the house [parliament]. My take is, while private investment has a role in school and college education, we don’t want interference from them [private players] in education. After all, 6 percent GDP growth does not go only in the government’s pocket; it’s for everyone’s good. So, the 6 percent GDP growth will happen only if there is private investment. But the government can only accommodate a certain number of private educational institutions like the medical and dental colleges. Had the private medical colleges not been there, it would have been impossible to have more doctors.
What about the quality of education in private medical and engineering colleges?
This year 500 engineering colleges have got closed. These got closed because of the students who shunned them for admissions after going through online peer reviews and placement record. The colleges got closed because of the students making a choice and the government only gave approval to their closure. Technology will take care of a lot of things.
How do you look at JNU vice chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar’s suggestion for a battle tank in the campus?
The government is not into regulating the universities. However, on JNU I must tell you the reality; the NDA [National Defence Academy] alumni consider JNU as their alma mater. Military officers from top to bottom consider themselves to be the past students of JNU. One of them had suggested that a demobilised tank be kept in the university premises like a souvenir or a memento from its ex-students. One should not make a fuss about it. Anyway, this is not a government programme.
Our priority in JNU is different. Research is a very important aspect of any university and for the purpose of quality one professor can only take eight PhD students at one time. In JNU, we found that many professors were guiding 16, 30 or even 40 students at a time as if it was a classroom PhD. I brought changes and have asked them to strictly follow the UGC guidelines on this. This is so peculiar to JNU and due to its legacy. We are also recruiting 300 professors in the university as most of the posts of scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and divyang categories have been lying vacant for 10 years. All these years they were talking social justice without paying attention to the rights of the SC/ST and there was no empathy and sympathy for the physically challenged people.
You have said college teachers need not have experience of research for promotions and they can be recruited even on the basis of community work. Will you explain what you mean?
According to academic performance indicators [required for promotion], the college professors are required to have done research projects. This was leading to a bizarre situation where writings in the annual college magazine were treated as research papers. I didn’t want this pakhand [sham] to continue. We said a college teacher has to teach and experience of research should not be compulsory for him. If he does so voluntarily that is a different matter but nobody will be compelled to do research.
(The interview appears in the August 16-31, 2017 issue of Governance Now)