Madhav Chavan on challenges to education in Covid-19, and doable solutions

College education, he argues, needs a fundamental overhaul | Illustration: Binay Sinha
There’s nothing conventional about Madhav Chavan. I expect the founder of one of the country’s largest NGOs, Pratham, which focuses on providing quality education to the underprivileged, to rant about how the Covid-19 crisis has disrupted teaching across the country, how it has hurt students who lack access to online learning, how this would widen the gap between rich and poor kids…

Instead, he laughs and tells me about a video of a seven- or eight-year-old boy who is trying to recite the table of nine and has clearly forgotten bits of it. At the end of the short clip, the boy grins, waves his hands and says: “Lockdown mein sab kuch bhool gaya (I’ve forgotten everything during the lockdown)!” After our chat, he forwards the video to me and I see why he’s enchanted.

Chavan, for one, doesn’t think heavens are falling because we cannot reach the 260 million-odd children in India’s jungle of K-12 education. Undoubtedly, kids are falling behind but it is nothing that cannot be fixed through a few catch-up months. He argues that high-quality universal education isn’t delivered in India at the best of times, let alone during such stressed days.

“The world has seen many similar upheavals like the World Wars, plagues and so on that have disrupted traditional education in the past, and it’s not as if generations have lost out altogether,” he says with all the wisdom of his 66 years. The bigger worry may be students who slip out of India’s school net altogether, which is likely to happen.

Chavan and I are meeting over coffee around 10.30 in the morning a day after the New Education Policy (NEP) has been unveiled — after a gap of 34 years. The timing is coincidental since we have been planning this chat for a while now. He’s drinking something out of a large cup and I’m sticking with plain water.

Doing a bit of math, he tells me that at best 40 per cent of India’s students can hope to receive some kind of education through their phones or whatever devices may be available to them, but are they really that interested or eager to learn? He doesn’t think so. The textbooks are dull and unimaginative, and a lot of learning is forced down children’s throats.

That’s why, soon after the lockdown began, Pratham launched “Thodi Si Masti, Thodi Si Padhai (some fun, some studies)”. He says that children are well aware of the stress all around at a time like this: they can see their parents are troubled, someone has lost a job, someone is struggling to make ends meet. In this environment, to expect children to master their tables and decode fractions is pushing the envelope beyond all logic. That was the larger thinking behind the exercise.

States, he says, have tried radio, television, and even SMS and WhatsApp, with varying degrees of success, but the reach is mostly limited. He says he knows of many parents in Mumbai who have great internet connectivity and wonderful devices, but are constrained for space at home. “So, expecting peace and quiet and great learning to take place is unrealistic even with all resources available,” he argues. That’s why everyone should have a realistic view of what can be managed. A three-month catch up to “stabilise” student’s minds and re-attune them to regular studies should do the trick once school reopens.

Our conversation turns to the NEP. We both rue the fact that the policy has failed to tackle the biggest elephant in the room: ending the hypocrisy, or what he calls the black market in the education sector. We all know schools make more money than most businesses. One would think the new policy would end this hypocrisy, but Indians, it appears, must remain hypocrites for now. He’d have liked the sector to be declared an industry and governed by all rules that govern profit-making businesses. He is happy to see the announcement on making the dreaded board exams “low stake” although he feels it’s not amply clear how this will be done.

It’s when we talk about higher education that he upends the very structure on which college education stands, and bowls his next googly. I thank Lord Ram, Allah, Jesus and any other god I can muster — lest someone think I’m not secular enough —  that the Fathers and Brothers on the governing board of St Stephen’s College are not present on our Zoom chat. Else, I’d be dealing with several grown men on the floor in a swoon.

College education, he argues, needs a fundamental overhaul. Why should public colleges be private clubs with seats reserved? Why shouldn’t a St Stephen’s, for instance, run several large learning centres across the city (and indeed many cities) where lectures are delivered by their professors through the year and then have examinations — again many times a year — at these centres? Anyone who registers for the course can take it and clear the exam whenever he or she feels ready for it. A degree is awarded when you have cleared the required number of courses. After all, universities and colleges are primarily government funded. Why shouldn’t the learning they have to offer be available to anyone interested? I envision several university heads and the University Grants Commission chairman lying in a faint on the ground as he elaborates.

He moves on to private universities. If a private college has a popular professor, he can charge as he likes for his course and lecture in a similar learning centre freely accessible to all — or even online. If there are students who cannot afford the professor’s charges, that’s where NGOs and foundations like his can step in to fund a student. This way, the country can deliver high-quality college education to many more without all the pains associated with making it into the “right” college.

The implications of all he’s said boggle my mind. Jai Shree Ram, Inshallah and Amen, I say to myself, as we sign off. May more of India’s educationists be moulded in the Chavan clay and we resolve some of our mammoth learning challenges by some mad, unconventional but workable model.

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