Saturday, July 21, 2012


…has the ring of an effective and memorable slogan. Whatever be the merit of the proposal (“one country one test”) this slogan refers to, it is a bad slogan, an irresponsible slogan; what is worse, it is potentially a dangerous slogan. I do not know for certain where this slogan originated – hopefully not in the concerned ministry of the government of India! - but very soon it became part of the Common Entrance Test (CET) discourse. Now, effective slogans tend to have a long life, which is said of a bad idea too. After some time, the context of such a slogan is forgotten, and users of the language start playing with it (not at all unexpected; linguists have told us that language use is characteristically creative) and new phrases, new slogans come into being. Suppose someday the language users substitute “test” by “language” – “one country one language”. Would it not be an entirely unacceptable slogan, as unacceptable as the idea it embodies?  

Much has been written about the advantages of a common admission test for engineering and medical undergraduate students in our country; it seems to be a reasonably good proposal in principle. One only hopes that there will be a careful review of it after about, say, five years of its implementation for possible remedial action or even some thorough overhauling, should that be felt necessary. The government’s proposal (based on the recommendations of a committee of a few academic administrators and bureaucrats) of taking into consideration the marks at the relevant school examination in some form for this test, is again, by no means unjustifiable in principle. However, during the first few years of the implementation of this proposal, careful annual monitoring is a must.

The professed intention behind the latter is to ensure that students do not neglect their school test and the expensive private tutorial system is discouraged which puts those who can afford it in a position of undue advantage, which is certainly unacceptable. Therefore the government is justified to take corrective steps in this regard. But the question is, are the proposals mentioned above the right solution, is it likely to be effective? We are quite skeptical. Our apprehension is that if anything, it will strengthen the tutorial system, which will now extend the domain of its operation right down to class X and even class IX. This apprehension is not hypothetical; a tutorial institute has already made an announcement precisely to this effect. There is very good ground for apprehension that the proposal would have precisely the opposite effect; instead of solving the problem, it will aggravate it.

Addressing a problem of school education at the stage of admission to the technical institutions is really dealing with it at the surface-most level. Most optimistically speaking, this approach can lead to very little, if at all. Tutorial system is nothing new; private tuition has always been there at the school level; it is just that it has now been organized almost as an industry with big money coming into it. Private coaching has been extended to the college level and even the post-graduate level in some states and that it has reached a pandemic stage and for all practical purposes has become a system of parallel education, sustained in part by the better among the school teachers, who neglect work at the school where they are employed. This is one of the factors that has contributed to the near collapse of the school, especially the public school, system. This has resulted in the exclusion of the poor and the lower middle class from reasonably good school education.

Only an incorrigible optimist or a thoroughly insensitive and irresponsible person would assert that the process of privatization of education can be reversed or considerably weakened in our country now. Today just as “bazaar notes” cannot be wished away, private coaching cannot be wished away too. And just as bazaar notes can be fought best by better quality bazaar notes, private tutorial institutes can be fought by public tutorial institutes of comparable quality. This is not even a new idea. Even in the sixties, provision for special coaching was made available in one or two government colleges in Odisha to some of those interested in preparing for the central services examinations (IAS, etc.). The coaching was not very successful partly because the teaching in the colleges was very good and the best faculty did not want to teach in the coaching classes as it was considered improper for them those days. Things have changed.

In the mid-eighties, the central government arranged for free special coaching for nine months for some selected SC/ST candidates for admission to the IITs and some other centrally-funded engineering colleges. Called the “Preparatory Course”, it comprised Mathematics, Physics Chemistry and English, and was offered at some of the IITs and was taught by the faculty of those IITs. This facility still exists. This is an excellent central government initiative and an excellent model for public tutorial schools. If the government really wants to help those who want to go for technical education and cannot afford coaching in private tutorial institutes – the poor and the lower middle class – one of the things it should do is multiply the Preparatory course model.

And it should not be very difficult since it is a proposal for extending an already existing facility. To start with, all those institutions (IITs, NITs, IIITs, etc.) that are and will become part of CET, must create this facility, and run it with as much seriousness as with which it is being done now in the IITs. This will make a huge difference to many students who cannot afford private coaching, and let it be noted that they will get much better training in these public coaching centres than in many expensive private coaching centres. Symbolic initiatives may have a place in the public sphere, but there is no alternative to meaningful initiatives that make a difference to the lives of the people.