(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 13, 2011
The Left Alternative in Education:
The New Kerala Model
M A Baby
WHEN the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government came to office in Kerala in 2006, education was in doldrums. More than 2000 government and aided schools were on the verge of closure. Standards had deteriorated so much in these schools that there was an exodus of children from public funded institutions to private schools which were successful in creating a false impression of quality through window dressing and clever advertising. The plight of higher education was no different. Government and aided colleges which had only outdated curriculum and courses to offer were becoming redundant. Young boys and girls were flocking to self-financing professional colleges, most of which had only poor infrastructure and charged hefty fees. Rajani S Anand, the hapless girl who committed suicide by jumping off the multi-storied building which housed the office of the Commissioner of Entrance Examinations epitomised the sense of gloom and despondency that was characteristic of Kerala’s educational scenario in 2006. While education was becoming increasingly inaccessible, there was all-round deterioration in quality right from the primary to the post graduate levels. Kerala’s achievements in education were in danger of being eroded, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.
The LDF government not only attempted to stem the rot by taking immediate corrective steps but also initiated structural changes which would rejuvenate education in the state on a long term basis. The problems faced by the state were in some ways different from those in other states and the solutions had to be different as well. The LDF was also convinced of the need to evolve an alternate strategy of development that would be truly inclusive in terms of access, equity and quality, different from the agenda of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation pursued by the central government. This necessitated a lot of thinking and planning at various levels. What emerged in the process was a participatory mode for conceiving and implementing reforms, which is perhaps the most important innovation of the LDF government in education during the last five years.
True to its commitment to providing quality education for all, the government introduced a special scheme for the development of least performing schools in the state. It identified 104 schools with less than 33 per cent pass percentage in the SSLC examination for special quality enhancement programme. The ameliorative approach was not only novel in conception but in implementation as well. The local self-governments and the local people collaborated with the government in improving infrastructure and providing academic ambience conducive to enhancement of quality. The success of the programme was reflected in the SSLC results year after year. The average pass percentage in these schools was 80 per cent in the last SSLC examination. The performance of the students across the state has also improved over the last five years. The clear indicator in this regard is the SSLC examination results which saw pass percentage enhanced from 58 per cent in 2005 to over 90 per cent in 2010. The success of the initiative prompted implementation of similar programmes for SC/ST/Minority students across the state. Another important step taken by the government was to strengthen the mid-day meal scheme by adding milk and eggs twice a week. Apart from including the excluded, the steps taken by the government for improving the quality of the least performing schools/groups/individuals also helped evolve an alternative model for public-private-partnership in education. The government could revive the dormant tradition of philanthropic public-private-partnership in education through these programmes. The Kerala model where private resources are made available for public use is quite different from the model of public-private-partnership being implemented by the central government which would result in private appropriation of public assets. In a national-level study conducted in 2010 by Educational Initiatives, an Ahmedabad-based NGO, with the support of Google evaluating the learning levels of government school students in languages and Maths, Kerala has emerged as the top performing state.
The structural reforms undertaken by the LDF government at the school level include curricular reforms that have brought about revolutionary changes in the content and pedagogy of school education. Drawing upon the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), Kerala developed a Kerala Curriculum Framework (KCF). While adopting the basic principles of social constructivism and critical pedagogy advocated in the NCF, the KCF could localise its implementation by involving the entire stakeholders including students, teachers, parents and experts. This was complemented by extensive training given to teachers in the nuances of the new curriculum. The ban on recruitment of teachers was lifted and more than 5000 school teachers have since been appointed. The government also facilitated the opening of additional batches for plus one courses in the Malabar region, covering 120 panchayats, helping to enhance access, especially among Minority students. A systematic effort was made to universalise IT education and IT enabled education among school children which has been widely acclaimed. Steps were also taken to revise Kerala Educational Rules and to frame rules for the implementation of the Right to Education Act in the state.
The reforms introduced in higher education also had the twin objectives of promoting equity and excellence. A number of scholarships on merit-cum-means basis were introduced. In the higher secondary level, 10,000 scholarships each worth Rs 5000 were instituted. The State Higher Education Council introduced a five year scholarship scheme. 1000 scholarships are awarded each year to degree and post graduate students. A scholar will get 1.54 lakh rupees over a five year period. The funds required for the scholarships are raised through public-private-participation. The Council has received contributions big and small, the latest being the commitment to contribute Rs Five crores over a period of ten years by Kris Gopalakrishnan, CEO of Infosys. The government has also instituted Suvarna Jubilee Scholarship for BPL category of students and another scholarship for Muslim girls, apart from implementing the central sector scholarships.
The government constituted the State Council for Higher Education to innovate reforms and to co-ordinate their implementation. One of the important reforms initiated by the Council was to rejuvenate the government and aided sector and traditional disciplines. Steps were taken to restructure the undergraduate programmes by introducing choice-based-course-credit-semester system (CBCCSS) and grading. Kerala is perhaps the only state which has faithfully implemented the UGC vision on restructuring undergraduate education. It was possible to implement this complex reform without any hassles due to meticulous planning and implementation under the leadership of the State Higher Education Council. The implementation of the CBCCSS has opened up the opportunities for quality education for all, which is a remarkable departure from the prevailing practice of setting up exclusive islands of excellence. The object of the reform is to democratise quality in higher education. Kerala is the first state in the entire country to seriously take up the recommendations for setting up clusters of colleges. All Education Commissions in free India, starting with Kothari Commission and including National Knowledge Commission have commended the system of clusters of colleges, with a view to extending excellence from the centre to the periphery by pooling intellectual and physical resources available among neighbouring colleges. The scheme has now been implemented on an experimental basis in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. The Higher Education Council is also engaged in setting up a comprehensive data bank on higher education in the state, the first effort of its kind in the whole country. The reports brought out by the Council on the State Policy on Higher Education, Restructuring Undergraduate Education, Scheme of Cluster of Colleges, Examination Reforms, Revision of University Acts etc. have evoked unprecedented popular interest in higher education.
The scholar-in-residence programme (ERUDITE) is a novel scheme implemented by the government for collaborating with internationally renowned universities and their faculty. The scheme provides for extended visits by well known scholars to the universities in the state. A number of renowned scholars, including eight Nobel Laureates, have taken part in the programme so far. Apart from its inspirational value, the visits of such scholars have also led to sustained academic collaboration between the universities in the state and reputed foreign universities. The scheme is qualitatively different from that promoted by the central government which has piloted the ‘Foreign Universities Bill’ to facilitate the setting up of off campus centres of foreign universities in the country. The central initiative facilitates academic re-colonisation of India. Kerala’s experiment would promote academic regeneration through collaborative engagements on a global scale.
The efforts of the government to improve the quality of education in the technical education sector have borne fruits. Smart classes with internet connectivity have been set up in all government engineering colleges. Regular training programmes are conducted for teachers. For content development, schemes such as K-base, The Scholar, Gurusmarana and Promelavya are being implemented. Quality improvement programme was implemented in Polytechnics. Seventeen Finishing Schools were also set up to improve the employability of the polytechnic pass outs.
Despite obstructionist interventions from the vested interests and unhelpful judicial verdicts, the government could still ensure a modicum of social justice in the self-financing sector. A majority of the self-financing institutions which were started under the previous UDF regime with no regulatory control could be brought under an arrangement for seat sharing with the government and having socially sensitive fees structure. The total commitment of the government to social justice and its determination to ensure it, helped in overcoming successive challenges in the self-financing sector. The achievements of the LDF government in Kerala in the self-financing sector acquire more sheen if pitted against the retrograde steps being taken by the central government in this sector during the last five years. The common minimum programme (CMP) of UPA-I had promised that nobody would be denied access to higher professional education for want of financial resources. But the promise has not been redeemed so far. The draft bill prepared by MHRD in 2005 and the draft regulations prepared by UGC in 2007 which contained several provisions for ensuring social justice have now been set aside. In their place, Kapil Sibal has introduced the bill on ‘Prevention of Unfair Practices in Technical and Medical Educational Institutions’ which is intended to legalise corporatisation and commercialisation of technical and medical education. There is no provision in the bill for a common entrance test (CET) or a single window system (SWS) of admission. There is no provision for implementing constitutionally mandated reservation. There is also no legal sanction for an inclusive fees structure. The bill only seeks to ensure transparency in the business of education. With the enactment of the bill in the parliament, even the existing admission and fees regulatory committees in the state will have to be disbanded.
Even as Kerala was implementing its own unique programmes in higher education it was also trying to make the best use of enhanced central assistance for higher education. A number of new institutions including Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), a Central University and a Centre of Aligarh Muslim University have been set up in the state during the last five years with central assistance. The National Centre for Molecular Materials, Regional Centre of Indian Institute of Mass Communication and the World Class Central University will be established. The Centre for Engineering Research and Development (CERD) is established to encourage basic and applied research in engineering and technology and the Trivandrum Engineering Science and Technology Research (TREST) Park is established to enhance industry-institute interaction and to promote R&D activities. A number of Inter-University centres have been set up in the state on the model of such centres set up by the UGC which would hopefully develop into advanced centres doing study and research in frontier inter-disciplinary areas including bio-informatics, intellectual property rights and development studies, environment and sustainable development, nanomaterials and devices, biosciences, disability studies, social science research and extension, Kerala legacy of astronomy and mathematics, plant biotechnology, marine biotechnology, genomics and gene technology and biomedical research. The Raja Ravi Varma Centre of Excellence for Visual Arts is envisaged as an inter university centre in Visual Arts. School for Performance, Aesthetics and Culture (SPACE) is an interdisciplinary research and study centre of unique character for creating aesthetic awareness and experience and for promoting the study of performing arts and cultural practices.
In addition to these, new colleges and courses were started in government, aided and unaided sectors. The 12 year ban on appointment of teachers was lifted by the government. More than 2500 teachers were appointed in colleges and universities during the last five years. Of this 1700 were appointed to new posts created during the period. While the previous UDF government had progressively reduced the budget allocation for higher education, the LDF government increased the budgetary allocation year after year. The non-plan grant for universities alone was enhanced from Rs 790 crore in 2005-06 to Rs 2296 crore in 2011-12.
Education is the key to development in a knowledge society. It is necessary to ensure the continuance of the policies initiated by the LDF government for consolidating the gains made and making it more inclusive by expanding its base. In the context of the coming elections, it is not enough to assess the reforms already implemented. The impending reforms are as important as the reforms already implemented. The agenda of reforms presented at the third International Congress on Kerala Development assumes critical importance in this context.