The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Merit matters in getting into university, not into primary school

The pursuit of equality has been a major objective in planning for education in independent India. The commitment to equality of opportunity was emphasized both by the commission on university education set up under S. Radhakrishnan shortly after independence and the education commission of 1964-66 under D.S. Kothari. Both commissions, and all major policy statements thereafter, have stressed the value of making access to education open to all without consideration of caste, creed or gender. On this, there seems to be broad agreement among the different political parties as well as educationists.

The makers of modern India were well aware of the hierarchical structure of the society they had inherited at the time of Independence. They were determined to bring about a change from hierarchy to equality, and to make the change along the path of constitutional democracy. Radhakrishnan, who had been a professor at both Calcutta University and Oxford, was fully familiar with the hierarchical structure of traditional universities. He wanted the universities in independent India to be different from what they had been in the past, and said, “Education is a universal right, and not a class privilege.”

Sixty years after Independence, education is still far from being a universal right in any meaningful sense of the term. There are not only vast disparities in educational attainment between different sections of society, but also impediments to access to education at every turn. These impediments become more severe the further we move from elementary to higher education. Disparities of access and attainment are larger in India than in most other contemporary societies. This does not mean that our educational system has remained frozen in time. It has become more open than it was at the time of Independence, but most people feel that it is still not open enough.

Sixty years after Independence, the pursuit of equality through the expansion of education no longer appears to be a very simple matter. There are limits to the extent to which any educational system can by itself carry a society towards the attainment of equality. I am not saying that we have reached those limits or are even close to them in contemporary India. But there are such limits, and we would do well to recognize them and understand their implications if we are to create a better system of education in the country.

First of all, there are financial constraints. There are justifiable concerns among public-spirited Indians that the government does not put enough money into education. There is much scope for increasing government funding and, at the same time, mobilizing funds from other sources. But the financial constraint is not the only one. There are other constraints, including some that are inherent in the dynamic nature of modern systems of knowledge, that set limits to what can be done for the attainment of equality through the expansion of education.

How widely can we extend access to education after the financial constraints have been eased' The answer cannot be the same for all levels of the educational system, from elementary to higher education.The Kothari commission rightly drew attention to the linkages between the different levels of education. But it is also important to point to their different conditions of operation. We cannot, in the modern world, think of education without thinking of the institutions in and through which it is imparted. It will be a serious mistake to think that institutions for advanced study and research can be organized in the same way in which elementary, or even secondary, schools are organized. These various institutions meet different needs, and it is scarcely possible to design them all according to a single uniform plan.

I believe that access to elementary schools should be made open to all children, without consideration of caste, creed or gender. It should be made open also without consideration of merit, ability or performance. No child should be denied admission to a primary school on the ground that he is slow, or dull, or unintelligent. The question of merit should not arise where admission to primary school is concerned. Where there are children with severe disabilities or infirmities, special provisions should be made for their education at that level.

As we move along the chain from elementary to higher education, the conditions of access gradually alter. We cannot, in admissions to colleges and universities, as in admissions to elementary schools, discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or gender. But can we afford not to discriminate in terms of merit, ability and performance in admissions and appointments to institutions of advanced study and research' Here we have to bear clearly in mind the distinction between exclusion on social grounds and discrimination on academic grounds. A university that is lax or negligent about discrimination on academic grounds will sooner or later enter a descending spiral of disorder and decline; some have begun to say that this has already started in India.

Radhakrishnan, who had said that education is not a class privilege, had also said, “Intellectual work is not for all, it is only for the intellectually competent.” If our universities, which showed so much promise on the eve of Independence, now appear to be in a state of disarray, it is because they have been increasingly invaded by masses of people who have no regard for intellectual competence or aptitude for academic work. We have made short work of tests of intellectual competence in order to make peace with every kind of social and political pressure.

We cannot and should not ask for tests of intellectual competence in admissions to elementary school; but we can neglect such tests only at our peril in the entry of students into, and their passage through, a university. Until the 19th century, the universities were sleepy places where the pursuit of knowledge was conducted at a leisurely pace by small and relatively secluded bands of scholars. The universities of the 21st century are very different in their organization and orientation. They operate in a world of rapidly expanding knowledge, and the intellectual demands made on them are different. Knowledge now advances at a rapid pace and in many different directions. New concepts, methods and theories arise continuously, making old ones obsolete. If our Indian universities fail to keep pace with this rapid advance of knowledge, they will simply fall by the wayside. They will cease to serve society as important repositories of intellectual capital.

Our universities are not only contributing less and less to the advancement of learning, but they are also not socially inclusive enough. Other universities in other countries have maintained and advanced academic standards while becoming at the same time socially more and more inclusive. This has been possible wherever a broad and dependable base of primary and secondary education has been built through determined effort. No mere cosmetic changes for the satisfaction of what are now called the ‘creamy layers’ can arrest the decline that has set in among our universities. In the end, while the institutions of elementary and higher education require to be organized differently, no effective system of higher education can stand for long on an infirm base of primary and secondary education.

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