Who ate his homework?

The HRD ministry's 100-day plan has provoked the academic community out of its stupor. Many of the proposals on connectivity, infrastructure, upgrading curriculum, independent regulation, etc are unexceptionable. But the frenzy of proposals raises questions about the clarity over what is being proposed. The revolutionary fervour on display is indeed admirable. But more needs to be done to assure us that this is a revolution that understands the conditions under which it can be successful. Otherwise the revolution may turn more into a slash and burn exercise.

Let's take some examples. Kapil Sibal's concern for the trauma students face is heartfelt, and the debate he has generated over pedagogy and exams is long overdue. But what are the conditions under which this trauma can be overcome? Is it primarily because of 10th standard exams? An honest answer will involve a number of facets. First, the reason for trauma is that in a competitive system every marginal mark matters. It does not matter what kind of exam system you have, the fact is that with mass education competition will be intense. And it is competition that is the root source of trauma. In fact, we should not be under any illusion that a meritocratic society under conditions of mass competition will be intensely traumatic as in China or Singapore. This competition can be mitigated by getting the distribution of quality institutions right, but only to a degree.

Second, the minister seems to be giving contradictory signals. The idea of a single national exam, that then becomes the basis for admission, will be even more trauma inducing for the following reason. One of the weaknesses of the Indian system is that our admissions criteria are focused on a single measure. Whether it is percentage or percentile, national tests or differentiated exams, numbers or grades, is not the issue. The issue is whether we can allow multiple criteria to be used in admission: track record over a long period, essays, references, interviews, etc. The real source of strength of the US system is that it allows for multiple criteria of assessment, often completely at the educators' discretion. So your fate does not hang on just one shot. But such a multiple, sensitive system requires one thing we do not allow: educators to exercise judgment and discretion. Sibal's proposals, on the face of it, seem to increase the stakes in exams, not reduce them. The only way they can be genuinely reduced is by broad-based assessments. But our system does not have structures of trust to allow this to happen. If Sibal can push this, he will create a genuine revolution; not another counterfeit centralisation.

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