If West Bengal is to play a leading role in the country, it has to mobilize its traditional resources. Education has been a traditional resource of the state. There was a time when many institutions of higher education in the state counted among the best in the country. To tap this resource is all the more important in view of the importance that knowledge has assumed today. Knowledge plays a significant economic role globally in what has been characterized as post-industrial society. In spite of traditional strengths in many academic disciplines, West Bengal has not been able to take functional advantage of these. The role of education has to be seen in this light, quite apart from its conventionally understood important humanistic role in character formation and in bringing about an enlightened and just society.
In this article that draws from a March 2012 Bengal Initiative paper, Focus on Education in West Bengal, by myself and Krishna Bose, I wish to argue that there is an urgent need to focus on education in West Bengal. Five points need to be kept in mind to make the right move in this direction.
First, it is important to ensure that all efforts are made to run existing institutions better, making a proper utilization of resources. Along with these efforts, it is also important to ensure that new institutions are created in a cost-effective manner in response to new challenges. By striking a creative balance between the better running of existing institutions and responding to new challenges, it will be possible to utilize resources judiciously in order to secure an appropriate place for the state in the changing world.
Second, while it is important to have the right vision, it will be wrong to overlook petty details. Such details cease to be petty once they add up and derail well-meaning plans. There is a tendency to consider them unimportant. This is a mistake, for when much is wrong with what is happening it cannot be assumed that the ‘system’ is in place or the personnel are motivated and disciplined. Can one deny that a major problem in our primary schools is the missing teacher? It is well known, moreover, that girl students are handicapped by the absence of toilets in schools. Can the problem of toilets be ignored as a petty detail?
Third, a major problem is the problem of violence in educational institutions. Though violence is associated with political rivalry, it is not confined to it. This problem needs to be addressed seriously. We need to identify areas of violence, such as admissions, which is a major concern, and find ways of handling violent occurrences in their different contexts. A disturbing trend is the deterioration in the teacher and student relationship. Have teachers failed their students? Or is this deterioration a reflection of moral poverty in society? No positive purpose is served by politicizing educational institutions. The harmful effect of this is clear to all. This problem cannot be solved unless all political parties resolve to keep factional politics out of educational institutions.
Fourth, the practice of private coaching has assumed a sinister form at all levels. This widespread practice operates like a parallel system. A psychology of dependence on private coaching has developed among students that needs to be removed. Much can be achieved by colleges instituting tutorial systems and also by monitoring attendance more closely. A campaign needs to be carried out to draw the attention of authorities and the general public to the harmful effect of private coaching.
Fifth, a persistent problem that our students face is that of unemployment. This is related to the deterioration in the industrial sector, and can be addressed by making education relevant to employment. It would involve identifying areas that offer employment opportunities and developing active interaction with industry. There is also no reason why a bold vision cannot be developed in which West Bengal is seen as a place where students acquire the kind of quality education that opens doors for employment all over the country and indeed the world. This will mean that employment prospects are not seen as being confined to the state. Positioning West Bengal as a state that has its strength in education and developing it as an educational hub will reverse the process of our students going out to other states for education. Our aim should be to attract students from outside, and this can be done if we are serious in our efforts.
A landmark development in education has been the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, providing for free and compulsory education for every child in age groups from six to 14 in a neighbourhood school. Although the act is in force, the vision of free and compulsory education for all children until 14 has not been translated into reality. It hardly needs to be emphasized that the neglect in this respect does not serve the purpose of securing a just social order or of achieving economic development.
The challenge before the state is to ensure decent education for all children living here. There is a need not only to mobilize greater resources for this purpose but also to utilize these resources in a more efficient manner. Indeed, a comparative look at West Bengal and Kerala shows that Kerala has been able to utilize its resources much better than Bengal. The Kerala model of education — of choice and competition — is noteworthy, and so is Kerala’s educational performance. The Kerala model needs to be examined more closely to determine whether certain positive features can be incorporated here.
There is also a need to look closely at the vocational training that is oriented to the job market. The need for strengthening job-oriented courses through vocational training cannot be emphasized enough. This field provides scope for innovative thinking so that informal ways of training are not overlooked.
As far as higher education is considered, the time has come to say with some boldness that entry into institutions of higher education should be restricted to those who have the desire and the ability to pursue such studies. Strong will is required to restrict entry to higher education to only those who deserve it. It serves no purpose to fill our classrooms with students who come to higher education for want of anything better to do.
Much harm has been done in this state by failing to see the distinction between academic excellence and social elitism. Higher education is by definition a project in the pursuit of academic excellence. We need to raise standards, not to lower them. Social elitism arises in part when students with resources have access to higher education which is denied to those students who do not have such resources. It is possible to think of students with academic merit coming from both affluent and poor backgrounds. The first step in the service of merit will be to ensure that meritorious students who come from a poor background are not denied access to higher education because of financial constraints. This can be done by providing for adequate financial support in the form of scholarships, grants and loans. By strengthening quality primary education and making it available to all and by reforming secondary education, we broaden the base of building meritorious students for higher education. No effort to achieve excellence in higher education can be fully successful unless the base is made strong.
In short, given the right vision and the will to implement it, it is possible to regain the lost glory of the state in the field of education. The question is: Will it be done?