Institutional autonomy imperatives

EducationWorld November 2019 | Anniversary Essay

Institutional autonomy imperativesIndian education needs enabling environments where edupreneurs, school principals and teachers have wide autonomy to deliver consistently better learning outcomes.

All parents want their children to develop into good and productive human beings. The nine-member Kasturirangan (KR) Committee that submitted the Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) to the Union human resource development (HRD) ministry on May 31 (and which is now under scrutiny for finalisation of NEP, 2019) has shown a subliminal awareness of this aspiration. The NEP draft recognises that 21st century children need to learn for life and not merely for school-leaving board exams.

Unfortunately, although the draft recognises the critical importance of 21st century education for a well-skilled and literate India, it fails to acknowledge the role of autonomy and trust in motivating society’s best and brightest citizens to establish schools, develop learning resources and become teachers. Instead, the draft report recommends that all schools — including private unaided institutions — will operate under a common framework and teach one curriculum to the entire community of 300 million students countrywide. Teachers in the new India envisaged by the KR Committee will have to select learning materials from “national textbooks with local content and flavour… crowdsourced at cost”. The draft further states that teachers will “be accountable… to the public at large for what they are doing or not doing, for education in schools”.

No thinking, intelligent person will be motivated to become an educator if she is mandated to deliver a one-size-fits-all education designed by a single authority and has to operate under a microscope in an environment of mistrust.
The grassroots reality of contemporary 21st century India is that despite the ready accessibility to free-of-charge government schools, 40 percent of the country’s 300 million in-school children are enrolled in private schools because the latter are accountable to parents and students to provide acceptable learning outcomes. Yet despite the massive contribution of private schools to the national development effort, their promoters and managements are experiencing an under-siege mentality because of onerous government legislation such as the RTE Act, irrational tuition fee regulations and ceilings, co-curricular education fees being made optional (which goes against the NEP’s recommendation of holistic education) by state governments, and multi-layered supervision of private schools proposed by the DNEP. Moreover curiously, the policy draft diminishes the role of promoters and managements in running the very schools that they have funded and established.

The type of education required in the Internet age and the rapidly globalising marketplace is any time, anywhere customised learning with the teacher exercising varying degrees of control and facilitation, augmented, if necessary, by technology. The onus is on educators, complemented by peer and community-based learning, to develop and nurture lifelong learners in schools, colleges and workplaces.

Meanwhile as documented by Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), the dismal performance of Indian 15-year-olds in PISA and our own National Achievement Survey (NAS) tests, and rock-bottom rankings of Indian universities in the annual THE and QS World University Rankings, there’s a snowballing crisis in Indian education. The antidote is decentralising administration with trust between stakeholders as the main driver for accountability, and a school system that encourages curriculum innovation and experimentation for raising academic standards to global norms to effectively prepare our students for the new era of diversity and intense global competition.

In short, we need enabling environments where edupreneurs, school principals and teachers have wide autonomy to deliver consistently better learning outcomes. This is not to argue that schools should not be subject to audit and regulation. Institutions that indulge in malpractices such as extorting capitation fees and inflicting corporal punishment on students should be penalised as per law. But all citizens have a fundamental right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice as affirmed in the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in the T.M.A. Pai Foundation Case (2002). Therefore, it’s a natural corollary that they should have the freedom to decide when and how they want to teach and assess, what learning materials to use, what facilities and programmes of learning to prescribe and the tuition fees they need to charge, with a reasonable (10-15 percent) year-on-year increase for inflation, built into fee structures.

In turn, parents should also be free to choose schools based on their aspirations for their children, and their capability and desire to invest in education. To exhort our children to explore their potential, become innovative and entrepreneurial while chaining their teachers down and bolting the door is the perfect prescription for failure. One hopes that NEP 2019 in its final form will respect institutional autonomy and regulate education institutions by prescribing minimum inputs with maximum focus on quality and learning outcomes. Over-regulation and micro-management of education institutions has resulted in the near destruction of India’s education ecosystem from preschool to Ph D. We need to learn from past mistakes and wrong-turns.

(Nooraine Fazal is the founding CEO and managing trustee of Inventure Academy, Bangalore)

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