Putting the cart before the horse

By H. Srikanth

For the second time in a row the Conrad government sought exemption for Meghalaya from holding the Common University Entrance Test (CUET), and the central government generously allowed all central universities in the northeast to admit students in the affiliated UG colleges of the central universities as per the past practice. This exemption was, however, not applicable to PG admission. Barring Nagaland University, other central universities in the northeast went for the Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET) for the PG admission. The delay in holding the CUCET in 2022 resulted in late admission, leading to the disruption of the academic calendar in different universities, including in NEHU. The expectation that the centralized exams such as the CUET or the CUCET would enable the students of the northeast to get into premier universities in mainland India did not materialize in practice. Contrarily, it was reported that the number of students from the northeast securing admission in JNU and Delhi University has reduced considerably, as the students from the northeast failed to score well in the national level tests. There was resentment even in NEHU when many locals failed to score well in the CUCET exams, which compelled the university to have a re-look at the admission policy.

The central government contends that the national entrance tests that it introduced for admission as part of the NEP 2020 would ensure a level-playing field in the country, which has so many education boards and universities. It is also argued that the tests would help the students to get into premier universities and colleges without writing multiple entrance tests. This logic did not find many takers in Meghalaya. Most students and parents remained cynical about such claims. They brought pressure on the state government to seek exemption from the CUET. However, some people in the state, mostly the families, which are better educated and are reasonably rich, contend that their children should go out and learn to compete with others. Limited employment opportunities in the region also compel the aspiring millennials to look for jobs outside the region. These sections view national level exams such as CUET and CUCET as necessary and beneficial for their growth.

At another end of the spectrum, we also come across a large section of the locals hailing from poor and middle-class families who cannot afford to study outside the region. They have had their studies under the local state boards, in ordinary schools and colleges with limited infrastructure and under not so qualified teachers. Their knowledge of computers and their access to the internet is limited. They have no idea how they could crack the aptitude and general awareness tests. Such sections seek admission in the colleges and universities within the state / region. These groups of less privileged students see little gain from CUET or CUCET exams. They view the nationwide entrance exams useless, burdensome and even harmful to their interests. Naturally, the parents and the organizations representing these less fortunate students in the states remain averse to national level tests for admission to the colleges and universities.   

Although everyone in Meghalaya acknowledges the importance of higher education, there is no unanimity in how to address the problems of education. Some assume that education standards in the state improve if we implement the NEP 2020. Hence, they go all out to support everything that the policy prescribes–be that CUET/CUCET, four-year degree, online education through MOOCS, introduction of vocational education, or the so-called Entry and Exit options. They are actively working in the university, colleges and the government, pushing the NEP 2020 agenda. But there is also a cynical section which sees little possibility of implementing the reforms. They ask if ‘geographical terrain, hilly terrain, far-flung location, limited digital connectivity and infrastructure’ are obstacles to holding the CUET, won’t they also become impediments to introduction and effective implementation of other components of the NEP 2020? For strategic reasons, they may remain silent. But they evince no interest in the proposed reforms, as they believe that ultimately the much trumpeted reforms end up as old wine in a new bottle.   

I find both these approaches problematic–while one is elitist, the other one defeatist. The elitist approach does not look at the ground realities and gets excited about everything marketed as reforms. They want to push the reforms, intending to please someone at the top of the social hierarchy. It matters little to them whether the reforms work for the benefit of the majority or not. They never ask how the colleges in remote Garo Hills can take advantage of MOOC courses; how the colleges which barely have four teachers in each subject can run fifteen courses; what benefits the people get out of the Exit and Entry options, and why the students who have no interest in teaching and research should be forced to waste time on research. In a simplistic way, they argue why we cannot implement the reforms when the colleges in other parts of India can implement them. It does not occur to them that the educational situation in Meghalaya is nowhere comparable to what it is in states like Delhi? Take, for example, the number of teachers in degree colleges. The leading colleges in Delhi have an average of 10 to 15 teachers in the Political Science department. But in Meghalaya, even well-known colleges like St. Anthony, Edmunds, Synod, St. Mary’s and Don Bosco have an average of only four to five teachers in the department. The situation in the suburban colleges is still worse. There, the teachers are engaged to teach not only degree classes but also the classes for higher secondary courses. In Garo Hills, we find it difficult to find qualified teachers capable of teaching certain subjects. What will happen if we, in the name of the NEP 2020, force them to teach 15 core papers? Can the teachers do justice to the papers and do the students benefit from classes, if the teachers themselves are incompetent and overburdened?

Should these practical difficulties make us pessimistic and force us to seek reprieve in protectionist policies? No, that is not a solution. Our students have potentiality and they can also compete, provided we create the environment. The problem with us is that we put the cart before the horse; we aspire to fly high when the base itself is not yet stable. If the policy makers want to implement educational reforms in higher education, they should first start with the basics. To improve the quality of higher secondary education, one should work to bring the MBOSE syllabus on par with the national standards; familiarize the students with computers, aptitude and reasoning tests right at the school level, and build necessary educational infrastructure. Before compelling the UG colleges to enforce the 2020 curriculum, the university should ask the state government and the college managements to recruit more qualified teachers. Series of workshops, consultations and refresher courses should precede any revision or implementation of the new curriculum.

Educational reforms cannot be left to the university and the colleges. The state has the responsibility to oversee whether the proposed reforms are beneficial. Most colleges in the state neither have idea nor resources to provide vocational courses. The state government should take the lead in coming out with appropriate courses, which may be of some help in securing jobs. It is the duty of the state to ensure that the local students who are competent and have the aspiration to study in higher educational institutions outside the northeast don’t become the victims of greedy private coaching centres. There should be subsidized coaching facilities within the state for the students to prepare for such national level exams. Meeting these pre-requirements is essential before we talk of implementing the NEP 2020. Can we expect that the proposed Education Commission that the state government is planning to set up to look into these essential pre-requirements required for improving the quality and reach of higher education in the state?   

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