Inconvenient spotlightThe second Annual Status of Education Report 2006 (ASER 2006) â€” a valuable initiative which measures the efficiency of government expenditure in rural primaries in terms of learning outcomes â€” researched, collated and published by the renowned Mumbai-based education NGO, Pratham, was formally released in Mumbai early this year (January). Like Prathamâ€™s inaugural ASER 2005, the latest survey is also a peopleâ€™s initiative conducted by 20,000 volunteers who visited 549 districts with 600 households surveyed in each.
"The objective of ASER 2006 was to gather reliable data on the status of childrensâ€™ schooling and basic learning at the district level in rural India, and secondly to measure improvements if any, in reading, writing and maths ability over last year," says Madhav Chavan, an alumnus of Ohio State University, former reader in physical chemistry in Mumbai University and founder-promoter of Pratham (estb. 1994). "Moreover since it became abundantly clear in ASER 2005 that mothersâ€™ education attainments have an important impact on childrenâ€™s educational status and learning outcomes, ASER 2006 introduced questions on parentsâ€™ educational attainments with mothers tested for basic reading as well."
The most significant findings of the 174-page ASER 2006 are that while overall enrollment into primary school remains unchanged, a perceptible shift in favour of private school education is discernible, especially in Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka. Enrollment, to which the Union HRD ministry and establishment educrats accord great importance, is steady at 93.2 percent in the six-14 age group, while in the seven-ten age group it is 95.3 percent. However, notes Chavan in his foreword to ASER 2006: "When one looks at the figures of children out of school from age 11 onwards, they re-emphasise the fact that more than half the children who enroll in grade (class) I drop out before completing grade VIII."
Refreshingly, instead of blaming poor parents or children themselves for discontinuing their education, ASER 2006 suggests that the fault is of the ramshackle, poorly administered government school system in rural India. "It would be (sic) hard to believe that public interest in sending children to school has not been stimulated adequately; the reasons why children do not stay in school are what should be engaging our attention now. Greater attention will have to be paid to those factors that result in pushing children out â€” inadequate infrastructure, insensitive teachers, and uninteresting (or irrelevant) curricula," admits Amit Kaushik former director of elementary education in the HRD ministry (2001-06) in his foreword to ASER 2006.
Comments Chavan: "ASER 2006 records some simple facts: the proportion of out-of-school children has not diminished; children are entering formal schooling one year too early; over-age children are in lower classes in large numbers; learning levels show some improvement but more needs to be done on a nationwide scale; mothersâ€™ education is highly correlated with the childâ€™s and half of mothers cannot read. There is a need to integrate the listless adult literacy programmes with improvement of quality in schools."
Quite clearly the value addition provided by the annual ASER surveys of rural education is that they highlight inconvenient truths, and make it impossible for the establishment to fudge the reality of abysmal government-provided elementary education in not-so-shining India.
Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)
Cloud over IGNOUWidely advertised as the worldâ€™s largest distance learning university â€” with more than 1.5 million enrolled students in 125 programmes, a faculty of 300 full-time teachers, and 3,300 part-time counsellors â€” the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU, estb. 1985), has recently attracted attention which its management can well do without.
With education â€” particularly capacity shortages in higher education â€” having impacted itself on the nationâ€™s consciousness after the additional reservations for OBCs (other backward classes/castes) in the showpiece IIMs and IITs, the abysmal two decade academic record of IGNOU which was launched to effortlessly expand higher education opportunities, has come under the scanner. Now it has come to light that nearly 90 percent of students enrolled in IGNOU donâ€™t pass their final exams! For instance, in 1996 out of the 1.20 lakh students enrolled in its BA degree programmes, only 3,079 passed their final exams. Seventy percent of the enrolled students were women, of whom only 2.5 percent managed to secure degrees/ diplomas/ certificates. In addition, of the 1.64 lakh students enrolled for the universityâ€™s BA courses in 2006, 75,000 dropped out.
Calculations made by some of the universityâ€™s erstwhile students â€” who recently filed an RTI (Right to Information) application seeking details about the universityâ€™s academic track record â€” highlight that of its entire student population of 1.5 million last year, only six lakh (or less than 40 percent) managed to secure degrees/ diplomas/certificates for the various courses they had enrolled. To make matters worse, the percentage of students who complete IGNOU programmes has been plummeting steadily from 27 percent in 2000. In 2002, it dipped to 26 percent while in 2004 it slipped to 22 percent. In 2006, it hit a new low of 17.5 percent.
Promoted as the democratic worldâ€™s largest mega university, IGNOU was established by an Act of Parliament in 1985. Currently it boasts 1.5 million enrolled students from 30 countries distributed in its nine schools of studies and a network of 48 regional centres, five sub-regional centres, 1,200 tele-learning centres and 35 partner institutions overseas. Offering 125 certificate, diploma, degree and doctoral programmes aggregating to 900 study courses, the universityâ€™s raison dâ€™etre is to provide cost-effective, quality education to the 10 percent of Indian students (between 17-23 years) who cannot, for various reasons, access higher education.
However, eminent educationists have always been well aware that like Indiaâ€™s other distance learning establishments â€” 13 open state universities and 106 other private/semi-private institutions â€” IGNOU has patently failed to measure up to its gargantuan brief. According to Dr. Veerbhadra Sahai, professor of political science at Delhi University, "Indiaâ€™s distance learning institutions have failed miserably due to adoption of faulty technology and lack of institutional accountability. Political infighting, bureaucratese and governmental interference have further aggravated this situation." Adds an IGNOU history professor who requested anonymity: "The open university may have started out as a noble experiment but it has been reduced to a joke."
IGNOU students complain that lack of academic rigour and minimal teacher involvement are the prime causes of disenchantment. Below par study material, indifferent pedagogies and teacher absenteeism are factors behind this high-potential distance universityâ€™s poor outcomes record. "Our course material is so confusing that it requires a lot of time just to decipher it. Moreover student-teacher interaction is dissatisfactory, which makes it tough for even good students to sustain interest in study programmes," says Kunwar Nagpal, an IGNOU business management student.
Typically, IGNOUâ€™s faculty members see no cause for worry. "Our courses are quite sought after and we enjoy a good placement record. If this isnâ€™t a measure of success, what is?" queries Dr. Rashi Kaul, an professor of business management at this open university.
Nevertheless IGNOUâ€™s poor pass and high drop out percentages have raised serious doubts about the viability of Indiaâ€™s distance learning education system. While the university has stuck to its original mandate of reaching out to the masses, along the way it has developed serious flaws which need urgent correctives. Until thereâ€™s urgent and comprehensive course correction, IGNOUâ€™s â€˜ignobleâ€™ academic record will dampen the enthusiasm of other distance learning students countrywide.
Neeta Lal (Delhi)
Dhamma Dipa sagaA deserted site and stomping ground of terrorists and militants a decade ago, has become an ideal centre of learning and has even attracted the attention of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Within a short span of five years, a famous school has sprung up on the site and was graced by a visit from the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was the chief guest at the 5th Annual Day celebration of the school on January 17.
The credit for transforming desolate, barren land into the celebrated Dhamma Dipa School to educate tribal children living in remote interiors of Tripura, is unanimously given to its founder and principal Dr. Ven Dhammapiya â€” monk, scholar and educationist.
Five years ago with a tiny enrollment of 30 boys and 20 girls, Dhammapiya established a primary school in Manu Bankul, 160 km south of Agartala, the administrative capital of the north-eastern state of Tripura (pop. 3.5 million). Currently the KG-class VI Dhamma Dipa School has 500 students, separate boys and girlsâ€™ hostels and several school buses. And if all goes according to plan, a new class will be added every year.
The establishment of the areaâ€™s first formal school has enthused the local tribal population with several local residents having donated land to the school. "I have an ambitious dream â€” I want to set up a university and an education complex with all modern amenities. This goal will be achieved by 2020," vows Dhammapiya.
Initially the school attracted local students. But now students from across Tripura have begun to enroll as boarders. Behind this success story which is now attracting international interest, is a saga of determination to promote a school in an area which was hitherto a hot bed of militant activity and where people were completely cut off from modern life.
Exasperated by the wretched conditions of local tribals, three youths of the Bankul area â€” Nifrunchai Mog, Thaichoi Mog and Ucchai Mog â€” promoted the Bahujan Hitai Trust in 1999 with the object of providing primary education to backward and illiterate tribals in the area. On land donated by Madhu and Anju Mog, a rudimentary straw hut for provision of primary education was constructed through voluntary labour.
The strenuous education acquisition efforts of the remote Mog tribe â€” one of 19 indigenous clans of Tripura â€” attracted widespread attention, parti-cularly of Dr. Dhammapiya who with the help of the Bahujan Hitai Trust established the day-cum-residential Dhamma Dipa School in 2002. The then consul general of Japan R.K. Kikuchi inaugurated the school, which offers teaching in the English, Hindi and Bengali mediums.
The moving force of the school, Dr. Dhammapiya started life in a remote undeveloped village named Shukna Charri. At the age of 10 he took the holy vows of a monk and after completing school education, proceeded to Hyderabad for higher studies. After acquiring a Masterâ€™s in philosophy from Central University, Hyderabad, he pressed on to acquire a Ph D from Bombay University. Subsequently he was appointed professor of philosophy at the Government College in Sabroom, Tripura.
While teaching at the college, Dhammapiya became aware of the urgent need to spread the light of education among the stateâ€™s illiterate tribals. Fortunately he found a benefactor in Ms. Mejaricharan of Ram Khameyang, Myanmar (aka Burma), wife of a successful businessman in Yangon. With her initial endowment and continuous donations from the public, Dhamma Dipa School is being constantly developed.
The school has transformed into a mission for a vast number of people as far afield as Japan and United States. The schoolâ€™s ambience and dedication of the people who have built it deeply moved HH the Dalai Lama, who complimented the people for their noble efforts and with his presence, transformed the annual day programme into a mega event for the entire population in the area as well as the state.
Syed Sajjad Ali (Agartala)
CIIâ€™s e-learning portalThe once much hyped Vidya Vahini ICT (information and communication technology) project â€” a joint venture of the Union HRD ministry and the CIT (communication and information technology) ministry launched by former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in May 2000 with the objective of serving 20 million school students by 2005, and hitherto cold-storaged by the successor Congress-led UPA government â€” received a new lease of life on February 16, when the Delhi-based Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) threw open the e-learning portal (www.eshikshaindia.in) to the public.
The CII-promoted Shiksha Trust, which had undertaken to provide content to Vidya Vahini, is now ready to power this portal with 500 MB of lessons and a facility for teachers to create their own online curriculums using creative technology tools. "The portal functions like the Wikipedia in the sense that teachers and students can collaborate with each other, augment existing data using the wikiengine also known as mediawiki. Animations, colours and diagrams will help students grasp difficult subjects. It also has blog features and forums to discuss career opportunities," says Narinder Bhatia, project head of the Siksha Trust who is a specialist in ICT enabled education.
CII-Shiksha, promoted in 2001, was conceptualised to provide assistance to schools which lack infrastructure, expertise and resources. Currently the DAV group of schools, the Central governmentâ€™s JNVs (Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas) and the Amrita Education Society group of schools are partnering this initiative with IIT-Chennai (for Tamil translation). The Mumbai-based OSSRC (Open Source Software Resource Centre) has also pitched in to empower the schools with open source software to cater to their academic and non-academic requirements. Available in English, Hindi and Tamil, it offers supplementary tuition to classes VI-X students in various subjects of the CBSE curriculum.
"The advantages of ICT in teaching/learning have been well established and widely accepted. However, much remains to be done, particularly if the objective is to bring new education opportunities to semi-urban and rural areas of the country. But it is certainly possible to do it with the help of such initiatives," comments Prof. Vijay Agarwal, former head of the department of computer sciences at Delhi University.
To this end CII-Shiksha intends to acquaint rural teachers with the possibilities of Vidya Vahini through a series of awareness workshops. "In addition to online content, we have also made offline education provision. Weâ€™re collaborating with several teacher training institutes to provide pre-service ICT training," says Bhatia.
"I am grateful that the Shiksha e-learning portal has provided me with wider exposure and many opportunities for sharing, interacting, discussing, collaborating and exchanging new teaching/ learning ideas, views and strategies with other teachers," says Rashmi Kathuria, a maths teacher with Kulachi Hansraj Model School, Delhi who received the first e-excellence national award of Shiksha India, presented by President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on January 12.
"There is a large gap in the availability of employable skills. How to bridge this gap is the question. To bridge the gap, an interface is needed between the school curriculum and the needs of the economy," said President Kalam speaking on the occasion.
If there was a discernible tinge of exasperation in the presidential speech on this occasion it could be connected with the launch of Sakshat, supposedly a "one stop education portal from KG to University" by the Union HRD ministry. Hugely promoted as a coordinated effort of UGC, AICTE, IGNOU, NCERT, KVS, NVS, CBSE, IITs, IISc etc to develop world class content, it is nowhere near justifying its lofty promise. "It is low on design and user-friendliness," says Sarika, a government school science teacher.
When your correspondent contacted N.K. Sinha, joint secretary in the HRD ministry for feedback on the progress of Sakshat, the gent heading this supposedly 24x7 portal didnâ€™t take the call. Against this backdrop of official indifference, Sakshat is unlikely to achieve its objectives with CII-Shiksha likely to score over it. India is already a latecomer in making use of ICT in learning/ teaching which requires active participation by all stakeholders. But the HRD ministry doesnâ€™t seem to know it
Autar Nehru (Delhi)
The DISA initiativeA chance encounter at a petrol bunk in Siliguri, West Bengal, introduced your correspondent to Premanand Roy, vice president of the Development Initiative for Social Advancement (DISA) which since it was promoted in 2003, has established 19 free-of-charge primary education centres for children aged two-nine years, and two adult education centres in the area. On February 17, DISA celebrated its fourth anniversary.
DISAâ€™s anniversary function was a colourful affair marked with poetry recitation and dance competitions for tiny tots aged between three-seven years. Over 300 children and 100 adults of Manik Ganj village (where the function was held) attended. "I was born and raised in this village and I had to walk 5 km every day to attend school. I want to give something back to the children of my village. Thatâ€™s why together with a few like-minded individuals, I promoted DISA as a rural nursery education initiative in 2003. Now we have expanded it to cover primary education," says Roy, an economics postgraduate of North Bengal University who is a teacher in the Government High School, Siliguri (West Bengal).
Most of DISAâ€™s education centres function out of bamboo huts and are managed by volunteer teachers. "I discovered that there were several women in the village who had studied upto classes VII-XII. We spoke to them and their folks and convinced them to contribute some of their time to teaching children in their villages. This way the cost of running our education project has been kept low," says Roy who discloses that DISAâ€™s corpus is a modest Rs.50,000 supplemented with donations from philanthropists and well wishers.
Unsurprisingly most villagers are happy with DISAâ€™s work and urge expansion of the project. "We donâ€™t have enough government schools in Haldi Bari and they teach only in Bangla medium. Parents in the village want their children to study English, hence we feel there is a dire need to expand our centres which teach English," says Roy.
Looking to the future, DISA has drawn up an expansion blueprint to establish formal schools and provide education upto class X. But lack of financial resources is a dampener. "We have approached several philanthropic organisations, corporates and the state government for additional funding to expand our activities. We hope that by 2008 we will be able to provide education upto class VII, and upto class X by 2010. Simultaneously we want to start vocational training centres for village women in tailoring, embroidery, etc so they can become self employed," says Roy.
Time for industry leaders and/or philanthropists to step forward!
Srinidhi Raghavendra (Haldi Bari)
Uniformity Bill fearsThe higher education system in Tamil Nadu is all set to experience a major structural change with the state government having mooted a Common Universities Bill to introduce administrative uniformity in all universities in the state. A high-level committee headed by A. Ramasamy, vice-chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Council for Higher Education (TANCHE), was consti-tuted last October (2006) to draft the Bill and suggest ways for smooth implementation of its provisions. The draft Bill is expected to be ready by March 20, after which it will be presented to the state government for tabling in the forthcoming budget session of the assembly in April.
Some of the salient features of the Bill are reduction in adminis-trative departments of universities; reduction in number of syndicate members; lesser representation for teachers; inclusion of councillors of municipal corporations and legislators into the administrative system; introduction of the post of pro-vice chancellor in universities and fixing a retirement age for vice-chancellors. The draft Bill advocates a two-tier administrative system for all universities comprising a syndicate and academic senate to replace the existing three-tier system comprising a syndicate, senate and academic council. It also prescribes norms for appointment of VCs, pro-VCs, registrars, finance officers, and controller of examinations in universities, heads of institutions, deans of faculties and chairpersons of departments. The minimum age for nomination of a VC has been fixed at 55 years, and the pro-VC to be appointed by the syndicate will be an academic with over 10 years of experience, but not over 50 years of age.
"The objective of the Bill is to streamline university administration by mandating uniformity in the administrative structures of all universities in the state, and providing a structural framework for new universities," says Ramasamy.
However, the governmentâ€™s proposal for common laws for all universities has aroused the suspicion of college administrators, faculty and teachers associations who apprehend that the Bill will further dilute the already limited autonomy of institutions of higher education. "The uniformity Bill will definitely impinge on university autonomy. The proposal to reduce the number of syndicate members and reduce teacher representation will leave academicians with hardly any powers to take policy decisions, or participate in decision making processes. The existing Madras University model which mandates 22 syndicate members of whom ten are elected representatives, is a proven democratic model and should not be tampered with," says Nirmala Prasad, principal, M.O.P Vaishnav College for Women and Madras University syndicate member.
Academics also advance other arguments against the inadvisability of a Common Universities Bill, which if legislated will be binding on all universities in the state. For one, they say that the legislation cannot be made applicable to professional universities whose statutes have to reflect their core activity such as engineering, medicine or law. Secondly, the Bill could be detrimental to academic activity in universities as variety and innovation will be scotched in the name of uniformity. Thirdly, there are local differences among universities. These include varying infrastructure, academic capability and the differing implementation of the choice-based credit system at the undergraduate level, which will make it difficult for a common Act to govern all of them.The most strident criticism of the Common Universities Bill is being voiced by educationist and eminent scholar V.C. Kulandaiswamy, former director of technical education in Tamil Nadu, former vice-chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and Anna and Madurai Universities who is also the author of Reconstruction of Higher Education. "The common Bill goes against the true concept of a university which is synonymous with diversity. Therefore all attempts to impose uniformity are contradictory to the essence of a university. Higher education institutions can develop only in autonomous environments through research and innovation. A Common Universities Act does not exist anywhere else in the world and if there are advantages in the Bill, universities in advanced countries would surely have enacted similar legislation," argues Kulandaiswamy.
Clearly there is considerable substance in Kulandaiswamyâ€™s argument. The best judges of the interest and well-being of universities are the academics who run them. The imposition of a plethora of rules and regulations upon them is self- evidently a prescription to dilute their already minimal autonomy, and deny them the right to develop their distinctive academic identities.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)