Javadekar talks about his current job. He was named HRD minister on July 5, 2016, following his predecessor Smriti Irani’s alleged fallout with Prime Minister’s Office on some policy issues. Understandably, he wants to talk about what he has done in the ministry, not what she did. Before that we want to know something about his earlier job in the Ministry of Environment and Forest. During the United Progressive Alliance regime, it was known as the home of the ‘Jayanthi tax’. “Did you find any evidence of the tax in the files?” we ask curiously. “An audit will have to be done. The tax seems to have been a function of the time taken by the ministry to clear files,” he says, adding that the previous minister had herself said that all clearances were given on the instructions of the (now) Congress president Rahul Gandhi. It is intriguing that the National Democratic Alliance government is yet to complete an enquiry into the ‘tax’.
For obvious reasons, he wants to talk about his current charge. A decision to allow state governments to detain students in class 5 and 8 if they fail examinations requires an amendment in the Right to Education Act. Javadekar explains the rationale: That automatic promotions lower standards of learning and the recommendation to scrap this policy was made by the Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE). He has also introduced a system by which learning outcomes can be assessed. Training of school teachers is being enhanced so that the accent is on quality. And work is on to rationalise the school syllabus so that the child has the opportunity to take up some form of physical education: A game, athletics or exercise. “We have received around 37,000 suggestions from parents and other stakeholders regarding syllabus reduction,” he says.
Javadekar concedes that India lacks innovation in the realm of higher education. “We have created six research parks in six IITs in four years, besides creating incubation centres and the Atal Innovation Mission. We have also held student hackathons where students were asked to come up with solutions. We have enhanced the scholarship amount under the Prime Minister Research fellowship to stop brain drain,” he says, adding “we don’t innovate because we can’t retain our best talent.” A Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA), which would provide loans to institutes such as IITs and NIITs for research-related work has been created.
But the BJP in its manifesto had promised that “public spending on education would be raised to 6 per cent of the GDP, and involving the private sector would further enhance this.” The NDA government’s expenditure on education in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 was 2.8 per cent, 3.1 per cent and 3.2 per cent respectively, of the gross domestic product (GDP). It is almost on par with what the UPA spent on education. The Centre’s expenditure on education in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and 2013-14 was 3.2 per cent, 3.1 per cent and 3.1 per cent, respectively, of the GDP. What did he propose to do about the lack of funding?
But Javadekar puts to skilful use, his training as a BJP spokesperson (which is what he was, before the NDA came to power). He says his government has allotted 70 per cent more funds to education in absolute terms than the UPA over the past four years. He says the expenditure incurred by the state governments on education should also be taken into account while calculating the total spend as a percentage of the GDP. “The expenditure by all stakeholders should be 6 per cent. The government has already reached from 4.2 per cent to 4.7 per cent of GDP in the past four years,” he reasons.
He also tries to allay fears that the number of Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe seats in universities would be reduced. The University Grant Commission (UGC) has issued a circular that all SC/ST vacancies in an institute would be calculated department wise, against the prevalent practice where the SC/ST were calculated against the total number of vacancies in the institute. Critics feared that this would reduce SC/ST seats in the colleges. Javadekar cites the Allahabad High Court judgement as the motivation for the order but adds that the government doesn’t agree with it. “We have filed a special review petition in the Supreme Court opposing the Allahabad High Court judgment. The hearing is in July,” he says.
Dessert is served. But we have more questions. Why is the autonomy of colleges and universities being undermined? Centrally funded institutions are being told they would have to raise resources themselves if they want to start new courses. Wasn’t this equivalent to privatisation of education?
He is forthright. “This is communist propaganda,” he declares. I blink. “The recent decision means these universities will remain within the ambit of the UGC, but will have the freedom to start new courses, off campus centres, skill development courses, set their own syllabus, research parks, hire foreign faculty, enroll foreign students, give incentive based emoluments to the faculty, enter into academic collaborations, run open distance learning programmes and any other new academic programmes…” He pauses. But won’t this mean funding for new courses will have to be raised by the institutions themselves? Which in turn means the students will have to pay — which means quality higher education will become unaffordable?
Apparently not. These institutions will be graded and funding, if required, will be provided on the basis of the grading. “We are not thrusting autonomy on anyone,” Javadekar says, somewhat exasperated. HEFA will provide funds.
He is keen to go on, but for a change, I put a stop to the conversation. The sun is blazing outside. “Drop in again,” says Prachi, as I leave.