Interview With Dr K Kasturirangan

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Cradit India Today

‘The concept of a liberal education is critical to India at this juncture’

Dr K Kasturirangan, chairman of the panel that drafted the New Education Policy (NEP), answers INDIA TODAY’s questions on its key recommendations:

Q. What were the major flaws your committee identified while formulating the draft NEP?

Many of these are not newly identified challenges, but some new issues have been flagged thanks to advances in our understanding of education since 1986/ 1992. For example, neuroscience now tells us that 85 per cent of a child’s brain development occurs before age six. An education system that fails to add­ress the resulting needs of children is flawed, a consideration to extend the RTE Act to include 3-6 year-olds. The education we offer must be based on our present understanding of the cognitive and socio-emotional developmental stages of children. It is largely absent in the present pre-school system (often a downward extension of primary school) and the ’10+2′ structure. In the past, we put emphasis on inputs (rather than outcomes), and although these led to dramatic imp­rovements in access to education, an unacceptably high number fail to att­ain basic educational outcomes-found­a­t­ional literacy and numeracy. It has severe consequences, including high dropout rates. The assessment system in schools and higher education promotes shallow learning and high-stakes exams, and misses the merits of low-sta­kes assessment to facilitate deeper learning.

Q. What about the challenges in higher education?

The transition to higher education via entrance exams has led to an entire parallel system of coaching classes that significantly perturbs the school system itself. Undergraduate educat­ion in India, except through some premier engineering and medical institutions, largely fails to achieve even the narrow goal of preparing students to enter the workforce. A fragmented system unable to provide infrastructure and quality faculty, and the lack of a holistic knowledge system in the 21st century are to blame for this. Sub-standard research is a major issue at the postgraduate level, which reflects in the poor quality and quantity of PhDs, papers and patents-three good indices of a well-functioning education system. Flaws in the regulation/ governance systems too must be addressed to ensure a vibrant higher education ecosystem.

Q. What solutions has the draft NEP come up with for school education?

We have proposed developmentally appropriate stages to replace the 10+2 school structure: a five-year Foundational Stage which covers pre-school to Grade 2 (ages 3-8), a three-year Preparatory Stage (Grades 3-5), a three-year Middle Stage (Grades 6-8) and a four-year Secondary Stage (Grades 9-12). For the crucial foundational literacy and numeracy for all children, we need a National Tutors Programme (NTP) and a Remedial Instructional Aides Programme (RIAP). NTP will leverage the untapped potential of peer instruction, which benefits not only those being tutored, but also the student-tutor. RIAP is a highly targeted programme that taps into community resources to assist students at risk of falling behind. Further, RTE must be extended from ages 3 to 18 to ensure that all children develop socio-emotional maturity and excel in the broad-based ecosystem of liberal education that we are trying to create. The concept of a liberal education is critical to India at this juncture. The actions we are recommending-breaking the distinction between curricular, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities; breaking the silos between science and arts, between professional and vocational streams-all these are a must to develop both the analytic side and the creative/ artistic side of the brain.

Q. What are the reforms for vocational and higher education?

Integrating vocational education and providing multidisciplinary exposure is the best way to prepare students for a global future. The very character of vocational education is changing. A liberal approach has to form the basis of all undergraduate education. There will be flexibility to exit early (e.g., with a BVoc degree in vocational education) and to rejoin later. Graduates from such a 4-year programme will be better prepared for cutting-edge research. A new body, the National Research Foundation (NRF), will energise research by addressing the issues that plague the current system. Today, if an active researcher in a top institution reaches retirement age, we have no mechanism to retain him/ her. At the same time, the majority of our 900 universities and 40,000 colleges have an acute need for such talent. So we have created a pathway to link supply and demand. We have also created new regulatory institutions with a clear separation of roles, and a system for academic, administrative and financial autonomy in higher education institutions.

Q. What about the funds required to implement the recommendations?

We strongly endorse the view that all financial support for education is investment, not expenditure. Public investment in education must double over the next 10 years, from 10 per cent of overall public expenditure today to 20 per cent by 2030. This is a guideline, but breaking it down into a yearly allocation requires greater analysis. Generally, we expect funding to ramp up in the first 2-3 years, then have a sustained peak, and then wind down.

Q. And autonomy in functioning?

We affirm the view that education is a not-for-profit enterprise, and we are trying to promote a culture where institutions care deeply about their image in the public eye and their freedom to function with full autonomy as long as they act with integrity. Thus, we have advocated a system of transparency where institutions publicly declare their (high-quality) outcomes, which are then scrutinised by a ‘light but tight’ system of rules and regulations. We have taken care to ensure that there is a clear separation of concerns between various regulatory bodies.

Q. How long will it take to implement the new policy?

Much of the changes should happen in the next five years, with a tailoff for the next two to three years. Over the subse­quent 10 years, we expect a detailed performance assessment of the new education policy. If successfully operationalised, we hope that with appropriate fine-tuning, it can remain effective for another decade or so.