Special Report

Education milestones of 2008

Although the year that was didn’t witness a great leap forward for education, there’s no disputing that new winds of change are gathering momentum in the country’s K-12 and tertiary institutions of education. EducationWorld highlights the education milestones of 2008

When the year 2008 was ushered in last January, GDP growth for fiscal 2007-08 was heading north to 9 percent; the sensex of the Bombay Stock Exchange was riding high at 21,206 (January 10), and the Union government’s treasury was brimming with unprecedented tax receipts (Rs.403,000 crore in 2007-08). It was expected to be the year of education. On the government’s legislative agenda were the historic Right to Education Bill 2008, guaranteeing all children between six to 14 years free and compulsory education, and the Foreign Universities Entry Bill to expand capacity and raise standards in the tertiary education sector. There was also general expectation that the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All) campaign would gather momentum to attain its target of all children in primary school by 2015, and in its fourth year in office the Congress-led UPA coalition government would sharply raise education spending, to fulfill its 2004 election promise of doubling the annual outlay (Centre plus states) on education to 6 percent of GDP.

But as 2008 hastens towards its setting, it’s quite clear it was another year of missed opportunities. As usual, ephemeral political and economic issues took priority over the critical issue of developing the country’s huge human resources pool, and securing the future of India’s 450 million children (below 18 years of age). The Indo-US nuclear deal, the global financial crisis, bomb blasts in major Indian cities followed by the daring 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, and the possibility of a war with neighbouring Pakistan, pushed education to the bottom of the national agenda.

Nevertheless although the year that was didn’t witness a great leap forward for education, there’s no disputing that new winds of change are gathering momentum in the country’s K-12 and tertiary institutions of education. Most pertinently, there’s a new nationwide awareness that the quality of education dispensed in India’s 1.20 million schools, 18,000 colleges, 400 universities, and much-too-few professional and vocational education colleges/institutes, needs urgent upgradation.

In the following pages, EducationWorld’s assistant editor Summiya Yasmeen highlights the education milestones of 2008.

Unicef indictment

January 22. State of the World’s Children 2008, a United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report, was released in New Delhi. The report slammed India for tolerating one of the world’s worst child healthcare and nutrition records. According to SWC 2008, over 2 million Indian children below five years of age died in 2006. They were perhaps the fortunate ones, because 30 percent (38 million) of fast-track India’s 126 million children in this age group are low birth weight infants; 43 percent (54 million) are moderately to severely underweight; 20 percent (25 million) are moderately to severely wasted.

In the domain of provision of preventive health services too, India’s record is abysmal, says SWC 2008. Almost 150 million Indians don’t have access to safe drinking water sources and even more shocking, a mere 33 percent of the population has access to adequate sanitation facilities — statistics which explain the country’s high under-five child mortality toll of 2 million per year.

Comments the preamble of SWC 2008 which examines the child healthcare record of 195 countries around the world: “Child mortality is a sensitive indicator of a country’s development and telling evidence of its priorities and values. Investing in the health of children and their mothers is not only a human rights imperative, it is a sound economic decision and one of the surest ways for a country to set its course for a better future” (see Cover Story EW March 2008) .

Education casualty

February 29. Presenting the Union budget 2008-09 to Parliament, finance minister P. Chidambaram announced a massive government spending spree. The centrepiece of Budget 2008-09 was a loans waiver aggregating Rs.60,000 crore, owed by 30 million small and marginal farmers to commercial banks, regional rural banks and cooperative credit institutions on December 31, 2007 and still outstanding on budget day (February 29, 2008).  The outstanding debts of loan waiver eligible farmers was assumed by the Union government which will settle them by way of cash payments to creditors over the next four years.

In this give-away populist budget, development spending — particularly on education and health — became a casualty. Although in his 90 minute budget speech, Chidambaram acknowledged that “education and health are the twin pillars on which rests the edifice of social sector reforms”, and took great pride in announcing that the Union government’s expenditure on education at Rs.34,400 crore in fiscal 2008-09 will be 20 percent higher, of which Rs.13,100 crore is for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All) programme; Rs.8,000 crore is provided for the mid-day meal scheme (to cover a massive 139 million children); Rs.4,554 crore for upgrading secondary education and several other commendable but under-funded schemes, the total Central government provision for education in 2008-09 aggregates to less than 1 percent of GDP (see Cover Story EW April 2008) .

Student unions ban revoked

March 5. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati issued a government order revoking the ban imposed in September 2007 on student union elections in the state’s 13 universities and 242 colleges. Political parties, most notably the Samajwadi Party (SP), which have been in the forefront of statewide agitations to restore students’ rights, were jubilant. Fortunately for committed students who suffer the mayhem that invariably follows union elections in the state’s universities and colleges, the ban revocation order is strictly subject to student organisations adhering to the rules pertaining to student union elections drawn up by the Lyngdoh Committee in 2006, and endorsed by the Supreme Court of India.

Student leaders across party lines predicted clashes with the government over the issue of enforcing the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations, which they believe will disqualify the state’s most prominent student leaders from contesting union elections (see Education News EW April 2008) .

Health ministry volte face

March 10. The Union government issued a notification under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 ‘recognising’ postgraduate medical degrees awarded by certified education institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the US, generally referred to as the ‘English speaking’ countries. The notification stressed that only those awarded postgrad medical degrees in these countries are permitted to practice medicine in India.

Following this notification, students with undergraduate MBBS degrees from India who have completed postgraduate studies in any of the five approved countries, are permitted to practice medicine in India without serving an internship and passing the screening test of the Medical Council of India (MCI).

According to medical education sources, the Union health ministry’s volte face was prompted by the acute shortage of medical specialists in India. MCI statistics reveal that the total number of registered allopathic doctors in the country is only 683,582 with one doctor for every 163,000 citizens (see Education News EW June 2008) .

New IITs & IIMs

March 28. Union human resource development minister Arjun Singh announced the promotion of four new IITs, one IIM and 14 Central universities. Of the proposed four IITs, three — in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar — will become operational in 2008 with an initial intake of 120 students, while IIM Shillong will also admit its first batch of 60 students in 2008. The fourth IIT in Himachal Pradesh will become operational in 2009. Other states which will inaugurate their first IITs during the Eleventh Plan (2007-12) period are Orissa, MP, Gujarat and Punjab. Tamil Nadu, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Haryana will host new IIMs. The outlay for each new IIT with a capacity of 860 students is estimated at Rs.760 crore, and for each IIM with an annual intake of 180 students, Rs.210.25 crore.

Moreover Singh also announced the promotion of two Central government funded (Rs.150 crore each) IISERs (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) in Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram, with a first batch intake of 75 students each. The estimated cost for infrastructure of each Central university with a school of medicine and a capacity of 12,700 students, is estimated at Rs.720 crore spread over a period of nine years (see Education News EW May 2008) .

EW’s supplementary lab-lib-lav budget

April 6. Disappointed with the Union budget 2008-09, in which typically grudging provision was made for primary education (the 2 percent education cess levied on all direct tax payers was merged with the Central government’s modest provision for education to show a 20 percent higher outlay of Rs.34,400 crore), EducationWorld presented the blueprint of a supplementary primary education budget. With the aid and advice of Dr. A.S. Seetharamu, hitherto professor of education at the Institute for Social & Economic Change, Bangalore, the EW supplementary budget offered a fiscal road map to equip every government primary countrywide with a laboratory, library and toilet block.

Dr. Seetharamu calculated the one-time capital cost of equipping the country’s 1.05 million government and aided schools with adequate lab-lib-lav facilities at Rs.47,725 crore — an additional outlay aggregating to a mere 1 percent of India’s GDP (see Cover Story EW April 2008) .

Supreme Court approves OBC reservations

April 10. Delivering its long-awaited verdict in Ashoka Kumar Thakur vs. Union of India & Ors (Writ Petition (civil) 265 of 2006), a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court approved the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution of India and the consequential Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006. This enabling legislation reserves an additional (i.e in addition to the 22.5 percent reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes) 27 percent of seats in the country’s 85 Central government promoted institutions of higher education for OBC (other backward caste/classes) students.

Even as they expressed disapproval of quota legislation which militates against the egalitarian and non-discriminatory ideals of the Constitution, the judges of the apex court upheld the controversial legislation as reasonable, as after implementation of the CEI Reservation Act, aggregate reservation for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs in Central government institutions will not cross the 50 percent threshold set by the Supreme Court in several previous judgements (see Cover Story EW May 2008) .

Self-congratulatory report

May 22.  On completion of four years of office in New Delhi, in an annual ‘Report to the People’, the Congress-led 17-party coalition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, claimed major achievements in the education and health sectors.

The report’s education chapter titled ‘Well read — always ahead’ says the UPA government’s Education for All strategy has yielded good results, and currently 96 percent of the country is covered by primary schools within 1 km of cluster habitats, of which 85 percent have upper primary schools within walking distance. The UPA government also announced the introduction of a Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan programme to increase enrollment in secondary education, by improving access to secondary schools and upgrading school infrastructure through an investment of Rs.35,000 crore during the Eleventh Plan.

Yet monitors of the education scene in India were quick to highlight that though the UPA’s self-congratulatory annual report made great play about the Central government’s initiatives in higher education and the Union budget 2008-09, it was mum on the progress of important Bills — universal primary education and entry of foreign universities — as also about its promise made four years ago in the coalition’s CMP (common minimum programme) to raise the annual outlay (Centre plus states) on education to 6 percent of GDP (see Education News EW June 2008) .

IIT faculty reservations storm

June 9. Following the approval by the Supreme Court of the Union government’s controversial Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act 2006 on April 10, the Union human resource development (HRD) ministry issued an order to the directors of the country’s seven IITs to also introduce caste-based reservations for SCs (15 percent), STs (7.5 percent), and Other Backward Classes (27 percent) in faculty appointments with “immediate effect”.

But this directive to expand the ambit of  reservation to faculty appointments, precipitated a storm in Indian academia. Unnamed IIT directors were quoted in a spate of newspaper reports as saying that social group-based reservations will damage the quality of education in these “centres of excellence”, which are among the handful of Indian institutions of higher learning to be listed among the top 500 universities worldwide (see Education News EW July 2008) .

Victory for English in Karnataka

July 2. In a historic judgement in Associated Managements of (Government Recognised Unaided English Medium) Primary and Secondary Schools in Karnataka (KAMS) vs. State of Karnataka & Ors (Writ Petition No. 14363/1994), a three-judge bench of the Karnataka high court ruled that a state government order of 1994 mandating Kannada or mother tongue as the compulsory medium of instruction in all primary schools (classes I-V) statewide, is violative of the fundamental rights of the promoters/owners of Karnataka’s 11,954 unaided (independent) primary schools.

Moreover in a first-of-its-kind judicial interpretation of the recently enacted (2002) Article 21-A of the Constitution — fundamental right to education — the high court ruled that the right to choose the medium of instruction is implicit in the right to education.

For 20 million children in the state aspiring to fluency in the English language which as everyone — except benighted politicians with subnationalist aspirations — knows is the passport to the best jobs in the rapidly globalising Indian economy, it was a life-changing verdict (see Special Report EW August 2008) .

Higher education thrust pledge

July 24. At the end of a two-day education ministers’ conference in New Delhi, Union HRD minister Arjun Singh announced a National Mission on Education through ICT (NMEICT) with the objective of providing broadband connectivity to all institutions of higher and technical education countrywide. The minister also informed the conference that a sum of Rs.20,000 crore has been earmarked for incentivising state governments to promote 373 degree colleges, start new universities and 1,000 polytechnics.

On their part, in exchange for Central government largesse, state education ministers agreed to bifurcate/trifurcate some of their mammoth-size universities to bring down the number of affiliated colleges to a manageable number of 150. The state ministers also agreed that their universities would prepare perspective plans (academic, research and infrastructure) detailing utilisation of resources made available to them (see Education News EW August 2008) .

Conditional clearance for reserved quota for Muslims

August 5. The Supreme Court permitted the Andhra Pradesh government to go ahead with admissions in higher educational institutions under a controversial law that provides 4 percent reservation of seats for “backward Muslims”. However, in its order a bench of the court headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan made it clear that admissions will be subject to the outcome of several petitions pending adjudication by the Andhra Pradesh high court challenging the constitutional validity of the reservation legislation (see Education Notes EW September 2008) .

Backsliding on RTE Bill, 2008

August 8. The Union cabinet referred the draft Right to Education Bill, 2008 to a new group of ministers (GoM), citing the inability of the Central government to commit financially to its implementation. This is the second time the Bill, drafted to give effect to Article 21-A of the Constitution of India (viz, “the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may by law determine”), was referred to a GoM (it was first referred to a high-level group in 2006).

The re-worked RTE Bill, 2008 was widely expected to be presented in the monsoon session of Parliament after being buried in the HRD ministry, and tossed between the finance and law ministries and the Planning Commission for over four years. Despite assurances from the top including the prime minister, that passage of the Bill is a high priority of the government, the Bill was referred back to a GoM (see Special Report EW October 2008) .

ranks India’s most respected schools

September 6. In the annual EducationWorld survey of India’s most respected schools (2008), conducted by the Delhi-based market research and opinion polls agency C-fore (Centre for forecasting and research), The Shri Ram School, Delhi; Doon School, Dehradun and Woodstock, Mussoorie were adjudged India’s top day, boarding and international schools respectively.

C-fore field personnel interviewed 2,026 parents, principals, teachers and knowledgeable educationists in 15 cities across India, to rate and rank India’s 250 most high profile schools across 12 evaluation parameters — academic reputation, co-curricular education, sports education, competence of faculty, individual attention to students (teacher-pupil ratio), value for money, leadership/management quality, parental involvement, infrastructure provision, quality of alumni, integrity/honesty reputation and selectivity in admissions (see Cover Story EW September 2008) .

Jamia Millia suffers image blow

September 19. India’s showpiece Central university — Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI, estb. 1920) — was confronted with perhaps the worst image crisis in its history, after one of its students was shot dead by the Delhi police and another three arrested in connection with the deadly September 13 serial bomb blasts in the national capital, which claimed 25 lives and injured 100.

According to the Delhi police, the deceased JMI student Mohammed Amin Atif was the mastermind behind the Delhi blasts of September 13, and the other JMI students were part of a terrorist ring led by him which played a key role in similar bomb blasts that rocked several cities during the past months.

Within hours of the arrests, the university management expressed an intent to provide legal aid and counsel to the arrested students. This initiative immediately received the approval of minorities champion HRD minister Arjun Singh (see Education News EW October) .

India’s most educated states ranking

October 10. The latest edition of Elementary Education in India Report (2006-07) of the Delhi-based National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), reaffirmed the southern coastal state of Kerala (pop. 31.83 million) as India’s most educationally advanced state.

As per usual practice EEI 2006-07 ranked all of India’s 28 states and seven Union territories on its Education Development Index (EDI), which assesses primary and upper primary education in each state on the basis of 23 indicators. According to NUEPA Education Development Index, the country’s top five most educated states are Kerala, with an EDI score of 0.772 (of a maximum 1), Delhi (0.757), Tamil Nadu (0.741), Himachal Pradesh (0.707) and Karnataka (0.680), with Bihar and Jharkhand at the bottom with ratings of 0.321 and 0.381 respectively (see Special Report EW December) .

Law students clash in Chennai

November 12. Violent caste clashes broke out between student groups in Chennai’s Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College. Graphic coverage of the violence on national television channels showed enraged student groups armed with deadly weapons including iron rods, wooden logs and tubelights, brutally beating each other, even as a posse of policemen outside the college gate remained mute spectators.

Following widespread public indignation, the state government transferred commissioner of police, R. Sekar, suspended an assistant commissioner of police and an inspector who were present at the site of the clash, as also the principal of the college. When students of six other law colleges in the state began reacting violently to the incident, the state government ordered closure of all law colleges and delayed the ongoing semester exams.

Media reports in Chennai indicated that the proximate cause of the violence was distribution of a pamphlet on the occasion of Thevar Jayanthi (the 101st birth centenary of Muthuramalinga Thevar) on October 30, by a group of caste Hindu students in which the name of the college was shown as ‘Govern-ment Law College’ without the prefix ‘Dr. Ambedkar’ (see Education News EW December 2008) .

RTE Bill, 2008 tabled

December 15. The Right to Education Bill 2008, which was cleared by the cabinet in November, was tabled on December 15 in the Rajya Sabha by Union HRD minister for state M.A.A. Fatmi, ending months of speculation over the fulfilment of a promise made by the UPA government in 2004 to enact it during its term in office.

According to media reports, Union HRD minister Arjun Singh is contemplating pushing the Bill through the Rajya Sabha without referring it to the standing committee on education, to expedite its passage. However a disrupted Lok Sabha was unable to pass the Bill during the winter session of Parliament which ended on December 22 .