Home / Opinion / A wrong ‘guide’ to education

When I was in school, no one would want to be seen with kunjis. The word means key. These were shabbily produced books, sold as fail-proof preparation for examinations. The usual format was a series of questions, which could be expected in the examinations, along with shallow easy-to-memorize answers. The task of unthinking, rote memorization was made as easy as possible, usually covering the entire year’s syllabus in 60 pages or even more alluringly in 50 questions.

While there was competition amongst various brands of kunjis, generations swore (in undertones) by a few, which seemingly had uncanny powers to predict the questions in the most important examinations. Some publishers craving for respectability started calling these things “guides"; most didn’t care a damn and printed kunji in bold all over, calling it what it was—key to passing examinations with zero learning.

Kunjis have not gone away in the past 30 years; on the contrary, their numbers have risen exponentially. They are produced much better and they have come out of the shadows. No publisher calls them kunjis, but at the core they remain unchanged, an insidious counter force to good education, and a brazen confluence of many ills plaguing education in our society.

Last week, I saw a national newspaper with a full-page advertisement on page 1 and 2, for a certain brand of “Pass Book", one of the new euphemisms for a kunji. It boldly proclaimed that since examinations were going to make a comeback, with the New Education Policy (NEP), the only wise thing to do would be to start buying their Pass Books. My glum-faced friends who showed me the ad were convinced that the massive kunji industry had a role to play in the imminent return of examinations with the NEP, given the blow it had received with the elimination of examinations up to grade 8 by the Right to Education Act.

They were convinced about this because they knew the power this industry wielded; for example, a principal secretary of education had confessed to them that he was stymied on every progressive step by this industry and they had themselves battled situations, when state-level test papers used questions directly from these kunjis.

The kunji culture is a symptom that arises due to the disproportionate importance of examinations and the distortions that it creates in the teaching and learning process. This is just one example of the deep-seated and systemic problems of education.

The high-powered committee constituted by the government of India for making recommendations for the NEP, recently submitted its report after 18-month-long deliberations and nation-wide public consultations. Expectedly, since everyone has a strong view on education and since such a comprehensive national policy is being developed after 30 years, there has been a tide of reactions to this report. But no one has been able to fault the report on courage and calling a spade a spade.

Amongst other things, the report is unsparing on the deep damage that commercialization is causing to education on all dimensions. Let me quote from the report, and let me remind you that this is the high-powered committee of the government of India, not some acerbic journalist. It says: “The point in short is that the system is largely sick, and needs rejuvenation—the quality of education, which is critical, has been the main casualty thereby converting the sacred process of education to an unregulated commercial system." It adds later “...the harsh reality in the ground is that capitation fees, akin to rent-seeking, is rampant. The committee was informed informally that large amounts, at times unbelievably high, are the ‘going rate’ for appointment of a vice chancellor… (T)he committee also notes that investments in professional institutions frequently have the blessings or sponsorship or patronage, indeed ownership, of politicians of various hues—imagine their potential collective power and vested interests in ensuring that no reforms can be pushed through. In short, the ground reality is diametrically opposed to any notion of the ‘purity’ of education. Drastic changes are imperative to clean up the system".

The explosive growth of the kunji culture is but one part of the commercialization of Indian education. I have picked that as a dramatic example, because of the complicity of education administrators, educators, parents, students and publishers, in a practice that makes education completely hollow. This corrosive commercialization is everywhere, in the usurious practices of private schools, the nexus between administration and textbook publishers, the dysfunctional B.Ed college system and wherever you care to look. There are notable exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions. The oases of educational commitment are actually mostly at the grassroots, amongst committed teachers.

Widespread acceptance that commercialization is one of the core causes of India’s weakness in education will be a start. And then it will require a long, complex struggle to improve governance, regulation and human capacity, along with much higher public investment. We have to confront these fundamental issues, not keep tinkering at the edges. The NEP will hopefully kick-start this process.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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