Education

Sorry Smriti Irani, This is No Way to Include Student Voices in the Education System

The absence of explicit mechanisms for student input in the draft document implies there is no clear plan of prioritising those that the higher education system is meant to serve.

Rather than banning exposure arbitrarily, universities and colleges should reform pedagogical practices and curricula. Credit: PTI/File Photo

Rather than banning exposure arbitrarily, universities and colleges should reform pedagogical practices and curricula. Credit: PTI/File Photo

On June 29, the human resource development ministry (MHRD) released a document titled Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy 2016. It contains some pleasant surprises: the MHRD expressed an interest in expanding the Right to Education Act (RTE) to the secondary level, improving services for students with learning disabilities and regulating private schools. Many of the proposed revisions are not only grounded in research, but also reflect India’s framing of education as a human right, a child-based approach that has set us apart from other democracies around the world.

Student participation

The inputs on higher education, however, lack the same rigorous, student-centric approach. For instance, on page 34 of the draft policy, there is a suggestion to convene “multi-stakeholder” institutional governing bodies that include “industry and alumni” but students are not mentioned; on page 35, a commitment to make “[e]valuation/accreditation details of each institution…available to the general public” does not address the current lack of substantive student input during the accreditation process itself; and on page 39, a section concerning the assessment of “academic performance of faculty” recommends using “peer review,” but not student feedback. While there may be an intention to include the student voice in each of these cases, the absence of explicit mechanisms for including student input implies that there is no clear plan or intention of prioritising the input of those that the higher education system is meant to serve.

Then there is the following passage on page 34:

The government recognises and will encourage the positive role played by students’ unions in furthering the interests of democracy and strengthening the democratic systems, governance and processes as well as debates, discussions and pluralism of thoughts. However, it has been observed that most of the disruptive activities and disharmony in a campus are led by outsiders and students who remain enrolled for many more years than what is mandated in the course of study they have enrolled in. A study will be conducted to prevent outsiders and those who have ceased to be students from playing an active role in students’ politics and disrupting the academic activities as well as to prevent them from staying in hostels and misuse facilities of the institute.

Learning beyond classrooms

Although the section pertaining to primary education in the draft policy is not necessarily in line with my personal views, it is clear that the recommendations included are well thought out. In contrast, the passage outlined from page 34 of the document feels like a knee jerk reaction to the events at JNU earlier this year, based on political expediency rather than research.

First and foremost, it is a puzzling reversal. The MHRD has acknowledged that in higher education, learning must extend beyond the classroom. In its original proposed themes, there were explicit references to finding ways for students to be involved in off-campus service activities and integrating industry leaders as teaching faculty. Another important element of off-campus learning, especially in a democracy, is exposure to various forms of thought propagated by the ‘outsiders’. The excerpt above, however, eliminates the possibility of this other type of learning.

In the excerpt above, the terms ‘disruptive’ and ‘disharmony’ are dangerously vague, leaving room for administrators to deem opinions dangerous simply because they are contrary to those held by powerful members of the institution.

Who has the authority to decide who and what is ‘positive’ and what is ‘disruptive’? What constitutes an ‘active role’? Rather than banning exposure arbitrarily, universities and colleges should reform pedagogical practices and curricula to help students gain the critical thinking skills needed to form their own logic-based opinions.

Also problematic is the implication that “students who remain enrolled for many more years than what is mandated in the course of study they have enrolled in” are detrimental to the safety and security of institutions. As a remedy, the report suggests “prevent[ing] outsiders and those who have ceased to be students” from abusing campus privileges.

Drawing the line

Commissioning a demographic study of college completion rates over time is a sound idea. While the all India survey of higher education contains data on enrolment and completion rates, it does not include disaggregated information about the average time taken to complete degrees.  Data from the US indicates that marginalised – and, in particular, low income – college students find it difficult to study full time because they are forced to balance multiple priorities, and survive economic and social shocks. Consequently, they take longer to finish their studies and are more likely to drop out. The low completion rates of women, transgender and disabled students, as well as those from economically backward backgrounds, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and other disadvantaged groups suggest that similar trends may exist in India.

While the study itself would be useful, framing it as a tool to eliminate ‘troublemakers’ is disturbing. Singling out those who take longer to graduate will, most likely, earmark minority groups for ‘elimination’, thereby reducing campus diversity. It is also inconsistent: the MHRD’s original consultation themes associated with higher education laudably included a question about whether students ought to be able to enrol for degrees at any age, a policy change that would increase access and diversify student population.

The current government’s emphasis on innovation and global leadership cannot be achieved without a new generation able to think critically, appreciate diversity, and make rational and compassionate choices. Before the education policy is finalised, the MHRD would do well to rewrite their approach to higher education so that it aligns with their approach to primary education: rights-based, research-based and learner centric.

Mathangi Subramanian is an award-winning author who has worked in the field of education for 14 years.