It is 2022; India just celebrated its 75th Independence Day, and it is probably the worst time to be young in India.
The world at large and India, in particular, is facing a dire economic downturn. Employment opportunities are not abundant and the average young Indian stares at an uncertain future. According to the 2011 census, the median age in India was 25. It must be around 28 now, meaning that more than half the country’s population is under 30.
The older generation has labelled us an ‘aspiring’ generation but has done little to assuage our fears.
New education policy, same old mistakes
In line with the goals set by the new National Education Policy, 2020 of having a uniform criterion to evaluate students, the University Grants Commission (UGC) decided to conduct Common Universities Entrance Test (CUET) for different levels across the country. The National Testing Agency (NTA) was given the responsibility for conducting the exam.
The idea of standardised testing is not necessarily new. Our neighbour, China, has a National College Entrance Exam, which selects students for higher education institutions. This standardised exam uses questions in the multiple choice and short answer format on some common and stream-specific subjects. While the jury is still out on the advantages and limitations of standardised exams, our focus here is on the mess that the process has created.
Even at the height of the pandemic, our academic calendars functioned. We have now approached the beginning of September, and if it were not for the “one nation, one exam” idea, the admission process, in all probability, would have been completed, and classes would have begun.
Today, forget classes, we are nowhere close to starting the admission process. It appears that the implementation process was ignored as there is an apparent dissonance between the values, flexibility and imagination that the policy espouses, and actual implementation.
One of the purported aims of having the CUET is to reduce the burden on students of appearing for multiple entrance tests. However, it now seems that the remedy is worse than the disease.
The CUET UG exam saw last-minute postponement in several centres causing the subsequent exams to run behind schedule. The CUET PG entrance is scheduled to take place from September 1-11, while the schedule for the PhD entrance exam is yet to be declared. If the experience of the CUET UG was anything to go by, we can expect more logistic nightmares in the exams to follow.
The first phase of the UGC NET exam, also conducted by the NTA, was held in July, and the second was to be held in August. Just two days before the scheduled dates, phase two was cancelled. Previously, the NET exam used to be conducted twice a year, but merged cycles now appear to be the new normal.
The NTA, it appears, is already overwhelmed with responsibilities. It was perhaps not prudent to entrust it with more tasks without building capacity. The delay and the lack of timely and reliable updates about these ‘high stakes’ exams that determine the eligibility for admission, research and employment opportunities is throwing our preparations and plans into disarray.
The administrators do not seem to have taken note of this mess as UGC chairman M. Jagadesh Kumar is reported to have said that they were exploring the possibility of merging the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) UG, Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and CUET exams from 2023 onwards.
The National Education Policy, on paper, has lofty ambitions of providing high-quality education so that India becomes a ‘global knowledge superpower’. It places a premium on ‘knowledge creation and innovation’ and considers raising intellectual capital in the country as key to India becoming a world leader in the future. The aim is to incentivise quality research at home, so we do not have to depend heavily on knowledge imports. However, none of the envisioned goals match what is available on the ground.
On August 18, Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan tweeted from his official account about the grand promises of the NEP he had highlighted at a conference. If you scroll down to the comment section, what you see is a long list of students urging him to look into the various issues that took place during the JEE, NEET and CUET exams. The apparent contrast between the Twitter thread and its responses makes for a good content for the troll trope of ‘expectation versus reality’
Vibrant discussions with eminent educationists , intellectuals and industry leaders at a Round Table on ‘Future of Education 5.0’ in Kolkata.
Spoke about the immense scope of NEP 2020, making skilling more aspirational, CUET, building India as a knowledge economy et al. pic.twitter.com/tjYjm4HkvJ
— Dharmendra Pradhan (@dpradhanbjp) August 18, 2022
The newly created mess has only added to the distress aspiring research scholars were already feeling due to a shortage of opportunities and facilities in the country. A research programme is already highly demanding of one’s time and efforts. A delay in the admission process, therefore, will prove costly and further fuel apprehensions.
We can’t expect the best brains in the country to take up research as a career option or not leave for better shores if what they are offered here leaves so much to be desired. Needless to add, it is the financially and socially disadvantaged sections that will feel the pinch.
Who is looking out for students?
It has to be kept in mind that the generation that is making its way to higher education and the job market is also the generation that has borne the brunt of this unprecedented pandemic. Economists like Jean Dreze have highlighted the effect that the pandemic has had on the quality of primary education and the lack of government efforts to bring it back on track. The state of higher education is no better.
While much of the discussion centres on raising the budgetary allocation to the recommended figure of 6% of GDP, there has been far less outcry about ensuring that there is optimal utilisation of the allocated resources. The mismanagement of exams by the NTA is an outcome of this larger issue. Huge investments will only go down the drain if we don’t have a system that can ensure quality and efficiency.
What is even more perplexing is the odd silence about this issue. This country’s youth either seem unaware of what is happening or treat it as a fait accompli. Where is the engagement with the system that one expects from the youth whose future looks bleak? Student politics in the country is fragmented, and identity and local issues often dominate their agenda. However, there was a time when student politics across different universities cutting across state boundaries found common ground and were able to bring policy change. It is disconcerting that a policy that impacts more than half the population is not yet on the menu.
Political parties, too, appear to have ignored this issue. The silence from this corner, however, is hardly surprising. Devesh Kapur, during a discussion on the book Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education he co-edited with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, makes a pithy observation about how this has always been the case.
According to Kapur, every single political party, for decades, has paid little attention to higher education. As Kapur puts it, “The only thing that India really has an excess of is people and the only thing that we could really do going forward is to deeply invest and build in human capital because we don’t have a surfeit of natural resources or other forms of wealth. This is the one form of wealth creation in your own people that should be a fairly obvious thing for political parties and a broad political consensus”.
Why no political party has taken this up in spite of this issue being in the larger interest – and the only way forward – has been a puzzle that has been troubling economists and political scientists for years.
Like the pandemic, lockdowns and online classes, our generation has assumed this uncertainty to be the new normal. We are unaware that the generations before us, though exposed to limited opportunities, knew they had a place in the economy. The better off among our generation will look for opportunities outside. However, for a majority of us, this is not an option.
There have been scattered protests, and ironically in the most connected era, we have been unable to make a mark. The current silence is doing no one any good.
The envisioned goal of the NEP in higher education is to develop an ecosystem that favours ‘knowledge creation and innovation’ and thereby, leads to progress and prosperity for the individual and the nation. These intentions ring hollow when contrasted with the atmosphere of uncertainty that is clouding over the system being put in place.
That a generation that has been crushed in spirit will place no hope in democracy is a no-brainer. Speaking at the 2021 Yidan prize summit, Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee observed that education is key to democracy as “[education is fundamental to the] idea of being in a society where people can be full participants and have full access to the society’s resources and to their own possibilities.”
Going by the current state of the higher education system, it is safe to say that things are not going well. As India celebrates its 75th year of Independence, one can only hope that we act quickly to remove this noose around its neck.
Shreya K. Sugathan and Deepika M. have completed Master’s degrees in political science from the University of Hyderabad.
Featured image: Pixabay
This article was first published on The Wire.