Starting with the latter half of the 19th century, many Indian students went overseas in pursuit of higher education. Some of them later became leaders of the freedom movement. This trend continued after the turn of the century. Gandhi and Nehru studied in England, Ambedkar went to the United States and Lohia and Zakir Hussain acquired their doctoral degrees in Germany. Even today, we notice that thousands of some of our best students go abroad in pursuit of higher education and never return. Not all of them are driven by the attraction of a foreign degree. Before it brings them better income and status, it is the opportunity to study abroad that provides them a more satisfying experience of learning and research than is available in India. It is not merely the personal consequences of having one’s higher education abroad, but also its experience that differs rather sharply from what is available in India.

‘Politics of waiting’

The gap between our universities and those in Europe and North America began to narrow in some cases by the 1980s, but the 1990s reversed the trend. Established policies were ignored, and a new ideology took over. Even as the industrial policy shifted away from quota-permit-inspection raj, the system of education used precisely these means to regulate the burgeoning private-commercial sector. This attempt met with failure and corruption in all areas of professional higher education, including engineering, medicine and teacher training.

Institutional decay is a common, national story, but its details differ from State to State. Not one of our 700 universities figures in the list of institutions adjudged the best in the world. This list includes not just the American, European, Australian and Japanese universities, but also some in China, South Africa and even Malaysia. India’s absence in global educational rankings is usually seen as a national embarrassment, but that is hardly the point. What ought to concern us is the impact that institutional decay has on the young. An Ambedkar, a Ramanujan or a Jagadish Chandra Bose hidden in a young mind today would need an American or a European university to identify and nurture it. Let us imagine that such a young person returns to India after completing a doctoral degree. The first thing he or she would have to worry about is getting through the National Eligibility Test (NET) organised twice a year by the University Grants Commission (UGC). This notorious test cannot be negotiated without a lot of cramming. Qualifying in it is an essential condition to get the job of a lecturer (now renamed as assistant professor). Even if the young person we are contemplating manages to qualify in the NET, the challenge of getting a teaching position still remains. In all likelihood, he or she will get an ad hoc position, with a fixed salary and no rights or dignity. Ad hoc teachers cannot freely present their views in staff meetings as their contract is to be renewed every four or six months. They usually teach a lot more than permanent staff, yet they cannot borrow books from a library without a hefty security deposit. An ad hoc appointment can last for years, and it can make the most positive young mind cynical. The “politics of waiting” analysed by Craig Jeffrey in his book on educated unemployment in India is actually quite damaging, both to individuals and to society.

Deprived of dignity

You can find any number of young men and women across the country who have been teaching for years in vulnerable positions known by various names like “temporary,” “contractual,” “ad hoc” or “guest.” They keep waiting for permanent vacancies to be advertised, but in many parts of India, such advertisements are now a thing of the past. In any case, getting a permanent or tenure post in an Indian university now implies managing a highly complex constellation of favourable factors. These include patronage, contacts, a desirable social background and luck. To these, the UGC has added a maze of quantifiable points. This remarkable device offers the same score whether you publish your work in bogus journals or genuine ones. The same applies when it comes to participation in seminars. Despite all the song and dance of transparency and accountability, the basic processes of selection and appointment are usually quite earthly. It is no wonder then that courts are dragged into giving a stay on appointments so frequently. The difficulties and delays faced in the process of selection and appointments have destroyed the careers of tens of thousands of capable young people. Hundreds of universities and thousands of colleges have also been wrecked in the process.
Downsizing trend

In both higher and school education, the trend to downsize permanent staff started in the early 1990s. Economic reforms formed the background of this trend. Long before the Fifth Pay Commission explicitly ordered a reduction in posts, the process of recruitment of teachers had either been stopped or drastically modified in many States. Apparently, contractual hiring of teachers and reduction of support staff were perceived as a convenient means of meeting the fiscal crisis in many States. Once the number of low-paid, vulnerable teachers grew, they became politically useful for rival political parties and union leaders. Both these processes were quite visible across northern India. In Madhya Pradesh, lecturers have not been recruited since 1993. New courses of various types have been launched, and they are being taught by guest or ad hoc teachers. States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh have followed this trend. In a puzzling case, Delhi University decided to juxtapose its launch of a new four-year undergraduate course with a tacit ban on permanent appointments. The number of ad hoc teachers in Delhi now stands at the astonishing figure of 4,000. At the school level too, Delhi now boasts of 20,000 guest or contract teachers. But Madhya Pradesh has gone farther than any other State to downgrade its teacher workforce. School staff recruited before the 1990s were declared a “dying cadre,” and a new spectrum of low-paid contract teachers replaced it. Political change aroused hope among this new vulnerable cadre, but the policy did not change. Madhya Pradesh was once respected for its robust public system of higher and school education; it now tops national rankings for rape.

Cultural wealth

Education signifies cultural wealth. This wealth consists of thoughtful minds and an ethos shaped by an exchange of ideas, the reading of books and creative activities. The happiness of teachers forms the centre of such an ethos. By denigrating the teacher, India has damaged what capacity its system of education had for producing and conserving cultural wealth. Decay of libraries has contributed to this process. Schools in our country seldom have libraries, but many provincial colleges once boasted of rich, usable libraries. I recall visiting Allahabad’s famous Ewing Christian College as part of an inspection team and discovering to my horror that its famous library had been partitioned. The old collection was locked up; the part accessible to students mostly had guidebooks. Public libraries have also suffered neglect.

The once-prestigious Delhi Public Library is now a shadow of its past glory, with nearly half of its permanent posts lying vacant. Perhaps libraries no more qualify to be a priority in Indian universities and colleges. Adroit planners have endorsed its neglect and shifted the focus to e-resources. These resources are, of course, important, but they cannot substitute the ethos a library creates. In countries ahead of us in education, the maintenance of the library as a special place is regarded as key to inducting the young into a community of knowledge.

If the new government at the Centre wishes to improve the state of education, institutional recovery will have to be its topmost priority. Other reforms can wait. Universities and undergraduate colleges determine the quality of teachers at all levels from kindergarten upwards. No matter where we look, non-appointment has become a culture. Enrolment has increased while institutional capacity has diminished. Even in the richer southern States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, commercial and political interests have injured the quality of education. If money has indeed been saved by letting vacancies accumulate or by filling them cheaply and by cutting down support staff, this kind of saving has incurred a big price. What has India gained by doing this kind of saving? It has weakened the already limited capacity the system had for serving children. Had Dr. Radhakrishnan — whose name we invoke to honour the profession of teaching — been alive, he would have been startled to see how the nation has treated its teachers.

 Courtesy: The Hindu, September 15, 2014

 Prof. Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT


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