PRAKASH JAVADEKAR: The Human Resource Development Ministry touches close to 27 crore students (270 million), from kindergarten to the post-graduate level. After the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the expansion of primary and secondary education happened at great speed. Because of the initiative we have now nearly achieved full enrollment. Even the latest UNESCO report says that only 30 lakh students are out of schools.
Right now, the issue is of quality, and that is the real challenge. So how do we improve the quality of education at all levels? To that end, there are two things which we are planning. At
the primary level, teachers have to be motivated, they have to be trained properly, vacancies need to be filled, in-service training and pre-service training is required… Secondly, we need community participation.
In case of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), NITs (National Institutes of Technology), IIITs (Indian Institutes of Information Technology), central universities and other organisations; we lack in innovation there. That is India’s problem. Sustainable growth can only take place with innovation. We have taken quite a few initiatives to encourage that as well. Modiji is committed to improving the education sector. He wants to set aside more funds for research and innovation.
At the primary level, we want to promote inquisitiveness. Only if we promote inquisitiveness, will innovation happen.
COOMI KAPOOR: Bureaucratisation and a general lack of respect for teachers seem to be big hurdles in improving the education system. Talented people don’t want to become teachers because of poor emoluments. How do you plan to get around these issues?
It is a scenario that concerns us. We want to promote and give value to our teachers. I have taken two small but significant initiatives for it. On Guru Poornima, we honoured Parliamentarians who have been in the teaching profession. There are 16 of them (MPs associated with teaching).
We also want to motivate students to become good teachers. Fortunately, in all the tribal areas that I have visited, everyone wants to become a teacher. It is good sign. At IIT, Delhi I met around 200 PhD students, more than 100 of them said they want to become teachers. We want to groom students from an early stage so that they are well equipped to become good teachers. It’s about technology, it’s about delivery, it’s about how you teach… Everything is important. With the Seventh Pay Commission, even the salaries will improve.
The second issue is about respect and freedom, particularly at the higher education level, where a teacher is also a researcher. The freedom that is granted for research by good institutes world over, we need to give our teachers the same kind of freedom. There needs to be funding for research and freedom for pursuing their own assignments. We are promoting that.
We also have good, talented Indian students doing their PhDs in foreign countries. We will track them from the fourth year of their PhD. We will interview them in foreign countries when job fairs happen and bring them back. Youngsters today are ready to come back.
COOMI KAPOOR: Your predecessor, Smriti Irani, was criticised for interfering in the functioning of educational institutions.
It would be unfair to cast aspersions on anybody. As far as Smriti (Irani) is concerned, she has taken many good initiatives. Now, we are not interfering in the autonomy of institutes, in fact I want to make more colleges autonomous. Colleges and universities should come forward and say ‘we will float our degrees on our own strength in the market’. ISB (The Indian School of Business) is not recognised by any regulatory body in India but it is the most respected institute world over.
RITIKA CHOPRA: Speaking of autonomy, the IIM Bill has been stuck for a while now. The Bill is ready but it is being sent back and forth between the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. As far as we know, the PMO has sought autonomy for the IIMs.
Not just the IIMs, I want to give autonomy to any educational institute which is ready to float its degrees in the market without crutches. As for the IIM (Bill), there is no back and forth. There are many initiatives being taken in higher education sector so there is a pile-up of Bills. We have already cleared the IIT Bill and the NIT Bill. The IIM Bill will also be coming in soon. (The IIM Bill is meant to empower the 19 management institutes to award degrees instead of diplomas for their two-year postgraduate programme. The draft law is modelled on the IIT Act).
RITIKA CHOPRA: The Centre has been slow on appointments. A number of institutions, even those under the HRD, have been without a head for almost two years.
You will see a slew of appointments in the days to come.
AMITABH SINHA: Your ministry attracts controversy like probably no other. How will you make the education policy less contentious?
We are taking everybody into confidence. I believe that education is a national agenda, it is not a party’s agenda. In October, we will hold a special conference where MPs who are interested in talking about education, can give their suggestions. Many of them have given written suggestions but we will still have one workshop of MPs.
I have written to all governors too, because they serve as chancellors in their respective states. I am getting tremendous response and suggestions from everyone. I have made it very clear that we are not tinkering with constitutional provisions. We want to strengthen the education system. There are five pillars of any new educational policy: accessibility, equity, quality, accountability and affordability. Keeping these five pillars in mind, we have to build a new education policy.
We will handover all suggestions to the new panel which will be headed by an educationist. It will then prepare a proper draft (of the new education policy), which will go to the Cabinet. I think every generation has a right to revisit its education policy to make it relevant to the national objectives. Education is an emancipator, an enabler… Education is empowerment.
VANDITA MISHRA: There is ample evidence to show that the RSS is particularly interested in your ministry. Every time there is a BJP government, there is a certain mechanism of interaction, co-ordination, talking to each other on HRD appointments, agenda… How are you going to deal with this?
There is no special mechanism (of interaction) with the RSS. They never interfere in the ministry’s work. I meet everyone, the communists and the Congress too. I am an RSS product but I believe in everyone who works sincerely in the field of education.
COOMI KAPOOR: But the perception is that appointment to educational institutions are given to only those of a certain ideology?
No, that is not the case. Appointments of teachers or professors in state universities are done by the states. I only have 23 IITs, some IIMs, NITs, IIITs and some Central Universities… even there we are trying to make the appointment process more transparent and merit based.
VANDITA MISHRA: What is your view on student politics? When the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad Central University controversies happened, there was a view that instead of playing politics, students should study.
I think the biggest challenge for students today is competition and so most of them concentrate on their studies. For those who want to organise themselves into parties, it is acceptable in a democracy. Under the Constitution, that freedom is already granted.
RITIKA CHOPRA: You said there would be complete transparency in your ministry, but it hasn’t made public the report of the one-man judicial commission on the Rohith Vemula case.
The Rohith Vemula report, prepared by Justice (Ashok Kumar) Roopanwal, is under process and as soon as it comes to me, I will give it to all of you. For me, his suicide is a blot. It should never have happened and we shouldn’t create an environment which makes students take such extreme steps. Our focus is to stop suicides on campus and so we will wait and see what recommendations have been made by Justice Roopanwal.
We will also add more things and make it a comprehensive package with provisions included for grievance redressal, counselling services, and other facilities for students. We have to ensure as a country that our students don’t commit suicide on campus and that their redressals are dealt with at the right time. There needs to be a dialogue and there needs to be a system. This is what I want to put in place. (Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide on January 17, 2016)
COOMI KAPOOR: One big challenge facing parents and students is the complete lack of standardisation of exams and syllabi across states. Some state universities are very generous with their marking, giving 99-100% results. During the Delhi University admissions, this meant that thousands of students were left out, not because of a lack of ability but because of the marking system. Shouldn’t the ministry be doing something about it?
We have already taken note of this. There are two issues which need to be addressed by a new policy. The percentile method was devised to check inflation of marks by some states or some boards. Then there is a system of entrance exams to ensure that everyone starts on a common platform. So we have to create a system in which well performing students are rewarded.We are also looking to expand opportunities. We already have 38,000 colleges and the students are making the choice.
AMITABH SINHA: What is your idea of an autonomous institute? What sort of control should the ministry have over them?
I’m not thinking in terms of control. We are here to guide and facilitate. World over, good institutes are those that change their syllabus regularly and make it more relevant to the times. Teaching a 20-year-old syllabus would not be a good idea today. Therefore, the syllabus has to be updated by the faculty. For this, they need to work hard and interact with each other. To enable this, we want to do two or three things. We want IITs and other good institutes to interact with other colleges in their region through faculty and student exchanges. That is the kind of atmosphere we want to build, and that is what autonomy means to us.
HARISH DAMODARAN: We’re seeing an explosion of demand in rural areas where hardly literate parents now want to send their children to private sector institutions. Does the government have any measures to meet this demand?
The long-term strategy is to improve the quality of public education. That is the answer. I’ll tell you a story of how things can be changed. I had adopted a village called Paldev in Bundelkhand, near the MP-UP border. I go there once every 30-40 days. When I first went, I spoke to the teachers about school results and they said it was 11% in class X and 28% in class XII. I told them that it was low but that I wouldn’t transfer them. Instead I said we would work with them. We organised a special training course for teachers to make education more interesting. We also got the parents involved, asking them to send their wards to school every day. We wanted the 11% to become 35% and the 28% to become 50. But to my surprise, after seven months of sustained efforts by the students, teachers and the community, the 11% became 51 and 28% became 82. This year, the 82% became 85% and 51% became 77%. So the whole scenario of the schools changed. What did I do? Nothing. The same students, same teachers and same village changed their own situation and I’m completely convinced that we can similarly motivate and support thousands of teachers to improve the quality of education for millions of students.
ANAND MISHRA: As HRD minister, does it bother you that schools in Jammu and Kashmir have been shut for the past two months?
Everything is working in Jammu and Leh, but the Valley is witnessing a curfew of this scale after many years. Terrorists have attacked and burned down schools… But even today Kashmir has a much higher national average in literacy. Girls’ education is also progressing. So let’s not see everything as being dark, good things are also happening. Even in these past two months, teachers continued holding classes in areas other than school buildings. People there are the same as everywhere else. They want to learn. This year, under the Prime Minister’s scholarship scheme, 1,900 engineering and medical students have been given admissions. There were 3,800 scholarships, which were also availed of by students from the Valley. There are many initiatives in place and I am very confident that everyone wants to learn.
ANKUSH KUMAR: How much of your focus is on digital education and do you think it will help in decreasing the student-teacher ratio?
We have a new initiative, SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds). More than 300 courses are ready for classes IX to the post-graduate level. These are online courses, formulated by a team of five teachers, and taught by some very eminent teachers as well. So there will be lectures, tutorials, mid-term and final exams as well as certification. We also want to bring it to television as online formats sometimes have glitches. We have already contracted 32 channels of Doordarshan, which are available free on dish TV. I called a meeting of all cable and dish operators and they enthusiastically participated in the discussion. While we are providing it to them for free, they will charge their customers for it. That’s market forces at work. There will also be more openness: education anywhere, anytime. If you’re interested in a course, you can take it up and get a certificate for it. That’s a big initiative which we’ve tested successfully and will roll out soon.