Education

India's Three Science Academies Don't Want to Rock the Education Boat

It is not clear why INSA, IASc and NASI felt the need to publish their 50-page-long joint statement on the draft National Education Policy.

The three Indian academies of science – INSA, IASc and NASI – have issued a joint statement on the recent draft National Educational Policy (DNEP), which remains open to public feedback until July 31, 2019. It is pleasant to see that the three academies are trying to remain relevant.

Like the DNEP, the academies’ statement was prepared in consultation with numerous members and stakeholders. However, unlike the DNEP, not only are those consulted not identified, but nor are the authors of the statement. This is unfortunately not the first time: they did the same with the notorious report on Bt brinjal some years ago. If the anonymity is intended to suggest that this is the opinion of all members of the three academies, or worse, of all scientists in India, this is unacceptable.

(Disclaimer: I am not a fellow of any of these academies but have some involvement with the Dialogue journal promoted by the Bangalore academy.)  In contrast, the DNEP identifies its authors, lists all people consulted and specifically thanks people responsible for significant input, including peer reviewers.

The academies’ statement runs to over 50 pages. A common theme is their combined view that the Indian educational system is large, diverse and “evolved organically”, and that the DNEP proposals are too radical and overarching. Beyond that, the comments can be broadly be categorised thus.

Possibly useful observation

Occasionally, the statement makes a valid or thought-provoking observation, which in some cases has not been made by others (to my knowledge).

As others have observed, education – being on the concurrent list – should be reformed with the full consultation of states, and the DNEP should have been made available in all state languages, not just English and Hindi.

The document rightly notes (p. 32) that legal education should be based on Indian constitutional law and not “fall back” on “culture and traditions of people”, much less on mythology. This is a disturbing section (16.7.1) of the DNEP. The academies also note (as have others) the absence of the word “secularism” in the DNEP.

However, the DNEP does repeatedly emphasise the multicultural nature of India and the important role played by Islamic madrasas and other religious schools in education, and nowhere suggests homogenising or eliminating these.

The academies make good points (p. 36) about the undesirability of a US-style tenure-track system in India, especially the impact of such a system on women with children. It is not clear why they then argue for permitting the 5-year tenure-track system “as an option for some institutions”. Is it because some institutions already use such a system?

Also read: Glimmers of Hope and Reform in the National Education Policy Draft

Then, the academies are correct in saying (p. 40) that governments should not mandate research topics. The DNEP does not suggest that governments should do so. However, it could be a consequence of the funding schemes suggested there; and there are reports of such interference already occurring.

The academies (p. 46) argue for supporting faculty members for travel to international conferences. It is even more important for graduate students and postdocs on the job market, which they do not mention.

They also argue (p. 46) “for unhindered and timely access to literature” and for “a robust and a functional system for open access to literature to all”.  It is not clear what they mean. Do they advocate for scientists to publish in open-access journals? Or for all institutions to submit to the extortionate policies of publishers like Elsevier? There are internationally-debated pitfalls in both approaches which are not even hinted at here.

Cheerleading

Frequently, the statement agrees with the DNEP but offers additional advice, which appears gratuitous or beyond the scope of the DNEP. There are too many examples to list; a few are below.

P. 7: “The focus of the examination system should be restricted to testing the conceptual understanding of the subject.” This is in fact stated repeatedly stated in the DNEP, such as in section 4.9.

P. 7, on major issues holding back school education: Again, the DNEP authors exhibit full awareness of all these points.

A7, p. 15-17: Welcoming the idea of vocational training, the academies go on to offer a pageful of gratuitous advice.

P. 32: They consider the “mentoring” proposal, where senior/retired faculty members would mentor research programmes in universities, “useful” and offer their own “expertise” in identifying such faculty. I can only say that I personally know numerous internationally-known scientists who have never been recognised by any of the academies.

P. 35-38, B6-B7: Much advice on how to run a higher educational institute, most of which the authors of the DNEP would not dispute, but it is somewhat outside the scope of that document.

P. 42-43, B9: Much discussion on course curricula, none of it in real disagreement with what is in the DNEP.

P. 47: The academies ask that corpus funds from industry, as suggested by DNEP, be “available directly” to faculty. The meaning of this is not clear.

Strawmen and phantoms

Sometimes, the statement criticises things that the DNEP never said or offers advice that the DNEP already contains.

P. 4: “With democratization of knowledge and availability of technology for easy access to information, DNEP should have focussed more on how to teach and not only on what to teach.” In fact, an entire chapter (no. 4) deals with pedagogy, including children “sourcing their own material”. It also discusses using technology for teacher training, and for “open and distance learning” in higher education.

P. 17: “Courses in applied and specialized disciplines, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology etc., should definitely not be offered at the school level.” The academies should be pleased to learn that the DNEP nowhere suggests such a thing. The DNEP recommends that such topics be “woven” into undergraduate education. That said, biotechnology is applied basic biology and nanotechnology is applied materials science and quantum mechanics. Why shouldn’t some flavour of these topics be “woven into” the appropriate courses in high school, to serve as inspiration and motivation for students?

P. 20: the academies object to the notion of private schools being “free to set their fees”. However, read in context, the DNEP is certainly not encouraging profiteering and is instead suggesting substantial oversight and restrictions on school fees. They have similar objections to fee structure in higher education (p. 32) and even object to the idea of funding scholarships for needy students by charging higher fees for those who can afford it. They do not explain why they think this is wrong.

P. 53: They write that “fee structures in all central/state universities and institutions need a rational review so that not only the availability of resources and infrastructure can be improved, but only those seriously interested would come for higher education.” So while private institutions should be subject to fee restrictions, in public institutions, fees should not only cover costs but be high enough to actually discourage people who are not “seriously interested”?

P. 21: On mid-day meal scheme expansion, the academies write (in italics), “However, teachers must not be given the responsibility for cooking meals…” Fortunately, the DNEP doesn’t suggest such a thing.

P. 23: the academies criticise a proposed three-year tenure track system “due to the delay in the attainment of job security.” On the contrary, the entire point of a tenure-track system is to establish job security for competent teachers, who do not have such security in most schools today. At the same time, the academies point out the necessity of a mechanism to remove non-performing teachers, which would in fact be made more difficult in a tenure-track system similar to higher education.

P. 26: The academies object to the proposal of three categories of universities and also object to the DNEP’s statement that these are not sharp categories but a continuum. They say the “categorization of ‘teaching university and ‘research university’ is uncalled for” and “this distinction runs counter to the basic concept of a University.” They also say (p. 39) that mandating research in teaching institutions has led to “rampant plagiarism”. While there is merit in this last point, it is hard to know what the academies’ stand on this actually is.

P. 28: The academies also object to the “phasing out” of single-stream higher education institutions (HEIs) in favour of multidisciplinary universities, envisaging “disruption”. They cite AIIMS, IARI and law universities as examples, but why should these not affiliate with larger universities as their medical, agricultural or law departments?

Mysteriously, they also cite IITs, which already have departments in basic sciences, humanities and social sciences and management, and are well on their way to being true multidisciplinary HEIs; and IIMs, which do not offer degrees (only diplomas) and do not have undergraduate courses. The academies also exhibit a touching concern for the fate of elite scientific HEIs such as IISc, TIFR, JNCASR, etc.

P. 35: The academies consider the proposed four-year B.Ed. programme “not desirable” because it is of a “different duration” from the 3+2-year B.Ed. system, and because, in their view, a graduate of such a programme would have inadequate knowledge of their major to be eligible for a master’s. The first observation could equally be made of the four-year BS programme at IISc Bangalore. The second just seems strange. Why would a good four-year bachelor’s dual degree in, say, mathematics and education, be inferior to a three-year single-degree programme? Many such dual-degree programmes already exist and are highly regarded.

P. 47-48: The academies appear to confuse NAAC-grading with NIRF ranking. They point out the rigidity of NAAC criteria, but as an example, say TIFR “was penalized for not having an anti-ragging committee!” Is it so absurd that ragging could possibly occur at an institution like TIFR?

P. 50: The academies demand the creation of endowed chairs for distinguished professors. I am sure the anonymous writers of the academy report would welcome it but it is not clear why the DNEP has to consider this.

Status-quoism

In several cases, the statement strongly supports the status quo of education in the country or exhibits regressive thinking.

P. 7-9: The statement claims that the “no detention” policy is unaddressed by the DNEP, but it is the academies who do not state their view. The idea of detaining a child is rejected by most pedagogical experts. A student who is unable to master grade-appropriate material in a good learning environment probably has learning difficulties. The solution is individualised attention and flexible curriculum, which is what the DNEP suggests.

P. 7-9: The academies’ statement, on the one hand, dismisses the idea of a flexible examination system as “impractical” and adds that “flexibility in choosing courses to study … is good, but that flexibility should not be extended to the choice of subjects the student is to be examined in.” It’s hard to understand this statement. Are the academies suggesting that students may study subjects of their interest but be examined only in the same few subjects that are currently required?

The academies’ concern seems to be that all students must learn some core subjects – but the DNEP says exactly that. The statement also attacks the idea of computerised multiple-choice examinations, claiming that this “precludes” assessing expressiveness and writing skills, but criticises the current system and its emphasis on rote-learning.

The current reality is that with the sheer number of students taking the board exams across the country, individual and uniform assessment of expressiveness and writing skills is simply not possible in that framework (and does not occur), and is best done separately. Rote-learning and repetition of canned answers is statistically more likely to please a random examiner. The academies’ statement in fact notes the problem of “answer templates” on p. 9.

Then on p. 17, they welcome the idea of flexibility in course choice!

P. 10: After rejecting the idea of flexible examinations, the academies’ statement also rejects a nationally mandated detailed curriculum, and goes on to describe what they think a common curriculum should contain. Apart from some uncontroversial suggestions, they recommend NCC and scouting/guiding for all ages! In fact, the NCC is only for children aged 13 and up; moreover, scouting/guiding programmes in other countries have been criticised for regressive practices, including separating boys and girls, homophobia and even tolerance of sexual predators.

P. 11: The statement suggests that offering students more choice in classes IX and X will cause more students to drop out in class VIII. It talks about the perils of clubbing classes 9-12 as a “single component” but nowhere is it described as such in the DNEP.

P. 11-12: The academies’ statement, like the DNEP, praises the role of anganwadis and play-schools, but opposes the DNEP’s idea of integrating such structures into larger schools on the grounds that “formalism” should be avoided up to age six. Why shouldn’t the informalism of anganwadis/play-schools instead seep upwards into higher classes? The DNEP emphasises activity-based learning at all ages throughout, and play-schools fit into a continuum. The goal of the DNEP is to reform all of education, not just to preserve the bits that work well now.

P. 13: In the space of two paragraphs, the statement contradicts itself on the issue of multiple languages for young children, saying they would “hardly have an occasion to practice” and that “multiple mother tongues are often represented” in a single classroom.

The idea of teaching three languages to six-year-olds seems extreme in a formal educational setup but the DNEP emphasises activity-based learning, and assessment only of fundamental concepts, at that age. The academies instead prefer the status quo: of two languages (state language + English/Hindi) in primary school, three in secondary school. They are silent on their desired formula when the state language is Hindi.

Also read: Budget 2019 Fails to Give Education the Radical Boost it Needs

P. 15: The academies oppose the semester system because it will require additional examinations and will offer “too little time” for learning. They seem unaware that the amount of material, and time available, will remain exactly the same (as it does in universities) or that schools already have half-yearly examinations. The only effect would be for the final year examinations to be based on the second half-year’s syllabus, not on a full year’s syllabus. Yet elsewhere (p. 8) they favour continuous assessment for younger students. Why then favour annual examinations for older students?

P. 19: The academies oppose the separation of educational regulatory bodies based on differing responsibilities, because the roles are interrelated. On p. 55, they also oppose a unified apex body like the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog because, allegedly, school education, higher education and professional education are “very different and specific domains”.

P. 25: The academies endorse the current “variety of higher education institution experiences, ranging from the relatively multidisciplinary to the narrowly specialized”, completely ignoring the question of quality. The entire point of the DNEP’s observations on HEIs is reversing the stratification of HEIs into a few elite institutes versus hundreds of ill-funded or mediocre ones.

P. 29: The academies demand that professional bodies like the Medical Council of India (MCI) “have a large stake” in higher education training, without commenting on the rampant documented corruption indulged in by MCI in the inspection of colleges.

P. 45: The academies propose strengthening the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) instead of creating another funding agency, ignoring the fact that the SERB is only for science and engineering. On the other hand, the proposed National Research Foundation (NRF) also covers humanities and social sciences. However, they also raise some valid questions about the proposed NRF.

When words fail

P. 46: On the DNEP’s proposal of a system of awards to recognise outstanding research, the academies protest that a “plethora” of awards already exist and ask that “multiple recognition of same individuals” should be avoided. Perhaps they can start at home, by avoiding multiple academy fellowships.

P. 54: The academies suggest that “if the institutions work in two to three shifts, the effective size of infrastructure at each institution is automatically doubled/trebled.” There are some undergraduate colleges that work in shifts – morning and evening. This is a reflection of our sad infrastructure but in what way is it desirable? And how would a three-shift system work? Do the academies envision midnight classes?

§

Overall, the response of the academies contains some useful comments, most of which have been made by others. It contains a lot of commentary that does not really contradict what is in the DNEP. But mostly it betrays discomfort with the sweeping changes proposed in the DNEP.  These views could have been submitted via the feedback process. So one is left wondering what the intention behind releasing such a public document was.

Rahul Siddharthan is a member of the computational biology group at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.