Calcutta, June 1: The second decision that Jyoti Basu’s first government took when it came to power 26 years ago was to provide free education till the Higher Secondary level. But in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s New Left, the policy looks like having exhausted its life.
State CPM secretary Anil Biswas today hinted at a policy U-turn by the party in school education. “The issue of introducing tuition and other fees at the school level is under discussion in the party,” Biswas, the party’s education czar in Bengal, said. “We are trying to figure out from which class of the school system fees will be charged.”
The chief minister, it seems, has succeeded in impressing upon his party, the CPM, and a sizeable section of the ruling coalition, that fees in state and state-aided schools should be charged from Class XI.
However, signals from the CPM headquarters suggested the shaping up of a larger initiative to charge fees from Class IX — a move expected to face resistance from the front allies. “You know we always come to a conclusion after discussing issues thread-bare,” Biswas said.
Implicit in the statement was the admission that the party had already decided that what was right in 1977 could not be accepted 26 years later. The concept of free education till one passed out of school was becoming too heavy a cross for the cash-strapped government to bear, senior party leaders reasoned.
The government would, most probably, be forced to introduce tuition fees Class IX upwards, they said.
Biswas also hinted at a major change when he said the party was discussing how to accommodate teachers on contract at the school level. Contract forms are already the norm for some government-college posts and senior CPM decision-makers said teachers on contract could take up many posts in schools in a decade.
The CPM schoolteachers’ wing (the All-Bengal Teachers’ Association) accepted that the free-education-till-school decision was a concept that unified the front constituents 26 years ago, as had the decision to release all political prisoners. “But times and circumstances have changed,” ABTA leader Kshama Bhattacharya said, referring to the single-digit fees now charged.
But, in a signal that the ABTA could be caught in an embarrassing position vis-à-vis one of the cornerstones of its education policy, she said the association was yet to be informed about any discussion on tuition fees at the secondary level. “We can support such a decision at the Higher Secondary level but have not been told by our parent party of any change in lower classes,” Bhattacharya said.
Signals that the CPM’s decision could raise a storm in the front, however, started emanating when the other constituents were sounded out. CPI teachers’ unit leader Amiya Basu and RSP counterpart Nitailal Ganguly said their parties would oppose any decision to move away from the principles that had so long guided the front’s educational policies. “We will strongly oppose any deviation from our long-time policies,” they said. “Tuition fees went against the grain of essential Left Front thinking.”
“Why can’t we go for one-time levies like admission fees (or re-admission fees in one of the senior classes) or an examination fee'” a CPI teacher-leader asked.