Monday, June 29, 2009

Centre and Kerala on collision course over education reform

Gulf Today

KERALA Education Minister MA Baby's immediate response to Union Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal's plan for educational reform, announced last week, points to the emergence of a new area of conflict between the Centre and the state.

The reform plan envisages making the 10th standard public examinations optional. These examinations are conducted by Central and state boards.

Sibal wants to make the examination optional in schools under the Central Bureau of Secondary Education (CBSE) from next year itself.

The 10th standard examination once enjoyed a high place as it marked the end of the school stage. On passing this examination, one became eligible for certain jobs and for admission to colleges. It lost its glory when the two-year higher secondary stage was introduced and a pass in the 12th standard examination became the minimum qualification for most jobs and for admission to colleges.

Sibal's programme also provides for replacement of marks with grades, creation of a single higher education authority for the country, introduction of semester and credit transfer systems, and legislation to punish those guilty of educational malpractices.

Education, originally in the State List of the Constitution, was put in the Concurrent List in the 1960s, giving the Centre also the power to legislate on the subject. Many states, including Kerala, have criticised the Centre for announcing the reform plan without consulting them.

Some items in Sibal's programme are in accord with the educational goals Kerala has been pursuing. For instance, it envisages a law to provide free and compulsory education to children in the 6-14 age group. This is an area where the state has achieved success.

The state has already made the changeover from marks to grades. The process was initiated by the United Democratic Front government and completed by the present Left Democratic Front government.

Educational malpractices are a problem dogging the state since long. Though the Supreme Court ruled against capitation fees, the state has been unable act against institutions which take them. Baby had recently called for Central legislation on the subject.

The real problem is not lack of legislation but lack of will. Most educational institutions in the state -- 8,146 out of 12,646 secondary schools, 958 out of 1,703 higher secondary schools, 150 out of 189 arts and science colleges, 73 out of 84 engineering colleges and 25 out of 33 medical and dental colleges -- are under private managements. Christian missions control a large majority of them. As minority institutions, they enjoy special rights under India's constitution.

It was an attempt to check malpractices by school managements that prompted the Churches to launch the "liberation struggle" which resulted in the dismissal of the state's first Communist government 50 years ago.

Even though the Supreme Court said the provisions of the Education Bill which that government brought forward were valid, later Communist-led regimes made no attempt to enforce them, fearing the wrath of the Churches.

There is no reason why MA Baby, who has relentlessly pushed up the 10th standard success rate in the last three years, should treat the board examination as sacrosanct. His real worry is that if there is no weeding out at all the state will have to provide facilities for all students to go on up to the 12th standard.

This requires an investment of about Rs100 billion, which is beyond the state's means. Sibal's solution for the resources problem is induction of domestic and foreign private capital. Last year a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm estimated that India's education market offered scope for investment of up to US$40 billion.

Since, in the country as a whole, private schools constitute only seven per cent of the total, the Centre may be ready to welcome private investment. The Kerala government, however, has to bear in mind that private managements already dominate the state's educational sector.

Besides, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the government, is opposed to the entry of foreign capital on ideological grounds.

The CPI-M has another cause for worry, too. Last week the Yash Pal Committee, set up to advise on renovation and rejuvenation of higher education, recommended to the Centre that a National Commission for Higher Education and Research be established to undertake comprehensive reform on a continuing basis.

The new body is likely to limit the influence the party now wields on the universities through the syndicates and the senates.

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