The Hits and Misses of the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee Report on Education

Despite its boldness in identifying the crisis in education, the range of issues it covers and the number of recommendations it makes, the report is stymied by a limited perspective on change.

A classroom in a government school in Bihar. Credit: Flickr

A classroom in a government school in Bihar. The report’s recognition of low budgetary allocations as a major reason for a decline in educational quality is particularly significant. Credit: Flickr

The much-awaited T.S.R. Subramanian Committee report for the evolution of a new education policy is finally in the public domain, after the ministry’s reluctance to release it or respond to it, despite the fact that it is the framework for the next national policy on education.

It is a pity, therefore, that more has not been written and said about the contents of the report. In fact, there is a lot in it that merits discussion, even though much of its content is not particularly new. The fact that it is fairly candid in its assessment of the sector and states truths, even if old, such as the need for greater financial allocations, decentralisation and investment in teachers, is worth revisiting in public discourse. Recent policy analysis has tended to skirt around these issues and instead seek solutions around them instead. This makes their revival in the report noteworthy.

Also refreshing is the plain-speak on all the major national institutions associated with education, such as the All India Council for Technical Education, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), National Council for Teacher Education and National Council of Educational Research and Training, and the need for drastic reform in them. This should be a wake-up call for the human resource development ministry, which has had, for the most part, an approach that has blindsided institutions.

Acknowledgements at last

The report’s recognition of low budgetary allocations as a major reason for a decline in educational quality is particularly significant.

In fact, the report is quite categorical in emphasising the need to change the current situation in this regard. “Education has been given comparatively low priority by both the Central and State governments, judged by the budgetary support provided thus far. This must change if anything of significant value is to be achieved,” it says. 

In light of recent research by economists, who have sought to estimate ‘outcomes per unit of cost’ as the basis for reform measures (mostly in the form of performance pay for teachers), the acknowledgement of low budgets, in the system as a whole, is greatly welcome. It is hoped that change through a plethora of low-cost options will cease to be the only approach taken by policymakers and others to improve learning levels.

Also welcome is the reference to the manner in which the district information system for education – the official data on school education – is operated from the NUEPA. This is a much-needed acknowledgement of the problems in the data and information systems in the education sector. In fact, it is the first time in the existing policy discourse on education that the deep inadequacies of the data regime have been noted, although only in passing.

Unfortunately, however, neither the analysis nor the recommendations for a disaggregated data system, based largely on the greater penetration of information and communications technology, go far enough in calling for an overhaul of the system. That would include streamlining definitions and methods of estimations, and instituting a decentralised system for the collection, dissemination and management of basic data.

An uneven critical gaze

A surprising omission, if one may call it that, is the full-fledged analysis of the role of the private sector in education. This neglect may be read as a demotion of its importance and an emphasis on public education – which seems to be the focus of the report, given the government’s general inclination to increase the involvement of the private sector. Even so, a stated position from the committee on some of the major developments in that area would have been welcome.

Its assessment of the Right to Education Act, on the other hand, is fair, as are its recommendations for amendments. It strongly upholds Article (12)(1)(c), amid all its criticisms, and even calls for a re-examination of the exemption of minority institutions from the purview of the Act – which is in line with both constitutional principles and the spirit of the Act. While the report’s reinforcement of the need for standards and norms similarly reflects a correct reading of the Act, its call for norms being localised might make regulation necessary and result in corruption. On the other hand, its recommendation for curtailing the no-detention clause till class five is, arguably, reasonable.

The report also correctly identifies the critical role of teachers. It thus devotes its largest section and greatest number of recommendations to that topic. Most of the problems mentioned, such as recruitment procedures, the education and training of teachers and accountability systems, are well known. But the recognition that the “appointment of unqualified and low paid contractual teachers militates against quality of teaching and learning” is a welcome one, as data on the issue tends to be obfuscated, leading to the common perception that teachers are paid unduly high salaries across the board. However, the report still holds teachers disproportionately responsible for poor learning levels – an all-too-obvious, mainstream and monotonous line of argument – and fails to provide deeper insights or an original policy direction. It does, nevertheless, provide an opportunity to re-examine the accountability issue in a larger sense, with the other agents in the system being brought into the ambit as well.

In fact, one way in which the report is seriously remiss is in failing to apply a critical lens to the institutions of the bureaucracy, such as the offices of the human resource development ministry and state education departments, especially at the frontline, which are most in need of large-scale reform. Poor capacity, a lack of appropriate procedures for action, poor feedback mechanisms and misplaced or missing accountability systems have all led to institutional decay in these offices and contributed to the “loss of credibility in the public education system” that the report cites. A general recommendation for a separate ‘education service’ is the closest the report comes to acknowledging the problems in the education bureaucracy as it is today, but even then, it does not delve deeper into that recommendation.

In the end, therefore, despite the range of issues it covers, the boldness with which it calls out the crisis in the sector and the number of recommendations it makes, the report is stymied by a limited perspective on change.

Its suggestions, hence, are more about administrative changes than institutional reforms, and take the form of generalised pointers rather than specific policy statements. All in all, they are reasonable, but not radical, shifts in thinking – which is what the situation demands.

Years have passed waiting for a policy that will leapfrog the sector into a phase of significant change, for policy with a little more force, capable of breathing life into a moribund sector. Unfortunately, while the report correctly identifies many problems, it fails to deliver winning solutions.