Published: 15th August 2020
Are the NEP’s ‘easy’ exit options in college just an excuse to dress up India's dire dropout rates?
These activists say the exit options for students start from school, at every level by providing an alternative, the NEP is only trying to narrow down options, push out students from the system
The New Education Policy drafting committee in its final version doesn’t fail to mention the fact that students from marginalised communities continue to be very poorly represented in our schools and colleges. They also mention the huge drop out rates in different levels of the education system. However, are its recommendations for how to keep students within the classrooms sufficient or have they just paved the way for students to find an easy but certified way out?
Many activists feel the 4-year degree course allowing students to quit in the first or second year with a certificate is only going to push more students out of the education system. They also believe that the exit options are being made available way before college, from the primary levels — through the three-language policy, the board exams for class 3, 5, 8 students and the common entrance exams. We take a look at how and if the Policy might have just made it possible to conveniently filter out the students who ‘can’t cope’.
Dr L Jawahar Nesan, the Vice Chancellor, JSS STU, Mysore tells us there are two reasons why the government believes students drop out — they are unable to ‘cope’ which means they lack basic knowledge or are not at the same standard as their peers. Secondly, the students have personal issues which could be financial, familial or social. “But who causes these situations to even occur? The government, society, the country. How is any of this, the student’s fault?” Nesan asks. “The very philosophy of education over the last 2700 years is that everyone should have access to it. Who is at fault if a student’s foundational skills are bad? If a student can’t cope, it is the responsibility of the government. Where is the government’s strategy on how to stop this?” he asks.
L Jawahar Nesan
According to latest figures, out of 100 students, only 61 ST students finish senior secondary school, the lowest among all communities. In Jharkhand, only 30 out a 100 finish school. In the General category out of a 100, 96 finish 96 finish elementary, 81 finish secondary and 74 finished senior secondary. With SC out of a 100, 92 finish elementary, 71 pass out of secondary and only 65 finish senior secondary school. In the OBC community only 73 end up finishing high school.
The NEP itself states that about 19.6 percent of students belong to the SC category at the primary level but this fraction falls to 17.3 percent at the higher secondary level. The enrollment drop outs are more severe for ST students and differently-abled children (1.1 percent to 0.25 percent) with even greater declines for female students within each of these categories. The decline in enrollment in higher education is even steeper, it states. Latest figures show almost three percent of students drop out of college.
According to the NEP, a student can leave after one year of college with a certificate and after two years with a diploma certificate. Chennai-based activist and General Secretary of the State Platform for Common School System, Prince Gajendra Babu asks if we really think that 18 and 19-year-olds can be burdened with such decisions. The activist says there are two kinds of students who enter the portals of higher education — the ones with a lot of privilege and affluence and the rest, who are usually first-generation learners or come from socially oppressed backgrounds. “We are still a country where a girl has to cycle her father hundreds of kilometres because there is no transport, a nation where students kill themselves because they don’t have gadgets to attend classes. This is a majority of our country. Now how can you expect a child at merely 17 or 18 who comes from such circumstances to decide whether they want to drop out after a year or two? Students have to fight gender, caste bias, judgements and bullying on how they dress, talk, look. College can be very lonely for these students but we encourage them to somehow cope with it and finish their degree. Now if we tell them its okay to leave after a year, what future are we giving them?” he asks.
Prince Gajendra Babu
The concept, though widely used in universities abroad, is not one that India has experienced till now. “See, if I buy a ticket to go from Mysore to Chennai, the train has to take me to Chennai. They can’t stop halfway and tell me to get off at Bangalore or say the train has broken down or that the route is blocked. My destination is Chennai, I have to get there. It’s the same here, children are coming in to get a degree, to get an education. We have to help them get there, we can’t make excuses and drop them off elsewhere. That is simply not done,” Nesan tells us.
Babu says the University and the government should help a child reach their goal. The goal they have when they enter college. “This sort of decision will majorly impact rural students. After Senthil Kumar from UoH committed suicide, his mother said she wouldn’t allow any of her other children to study because she didn’t think these spaces were safe for them. The NEP doesn’t talk about annihilation of caste or any other issues, just provides options to quit if a student is not able to cope with these issues,” Prince says. If a student leaves college within a year, they won’t be able to attempt exams like the UPSC, “They just want to push students out of higher education but now the government will say 'I didn’t push the student out, I gave them a certificate'. This is how they can bring down the drop out rates, by encouraging children to leave with a certificate. Where is the evidence to prove this works? What survey did they conduct? What research have they done?”
The NEP doesn’t discuss how to make the academic experience of the students better or to ensure their progress, the educationists say, “They are saying — if you can’t study its okay. Here’s an alternative option. They can’t just provide an alternative to education by saying here’s a certificate, or here’s a skill, go find something else to do. The government should find actual solutions to make the student want to stay on in the classroom. Not hand him an alternative.”
The activist feels that the four-year degree, though the MHRD has insisted that it is optional, could also negatively impact women. Families may not be willing to send their female children for a 4-year course worried they might get too old for marriage. He doesn’t see the point of the 4+1 year integrated course, and argues that it is not very different from the 3+2 year integrated course. “If there is any evidence to show why this is more beneficial then it's okay. But why disturb a system that is going smoothly?” he asks. These kinds of policies are written with a philosophical outlook on education but in this NEP, the government is giving directions, Prince feels. “They already have plans in place. And that is to appeal to the global market.”
Dropout rates have been a bone of contention for a long time now, “The government is forseeing dropouts. They should be figuring out how to stop the dropping out by finding out the gaps in the system. Why is it forseeing dropouts instead of preventing it from happening?” Christuraj S, an advocate and the state coordinator of Samakalvi Iyyakam asks. What the activists seem to fear more though is that the exit options for the students begin right at the beginning of their academic lives — even though here, the NEP committee doesn’t refer to it as an ‘exit’.
“Third standard - exit, Fifth standard - exit, Eighth standard - exit, Twelfth standard - exit, Entrance exam - exit. There are exits all along the way,” says Mahalakshmi Kannan, a teacher at the Tribal Residential School in Tiruvanamalai. Mahalakshmi has received widespread appreciation and awards for her efforts to fill up empty classrooms with scores of tribal children by personally going to their homes and encouraging them to return. “We are struggling with A for Apple and they want to teach these children three languages? Who are they kidding? When I asked a student few days ago what they would do if they had to learn another language, he said. ‘What? Is it Hindi? Aala vidunga (leave me alone). They are already burdened, if you increase this burden, they’d prefer to just quit altogether. Plus if you are going to test them over and over and over again, they won’t have the will to continue staying within the system,” she adds.
Chella Selvakumar and S Christuraj from Samakalvi Iyyakam
Vocational training for children is another aspect of the NEP that has left teachers, education experts and activists anxious. “How many things can a child focus on? Why should a child who is 7-10 years old have any vocational training? They have enough to study and whatever free time they have, they should be playing or doing activities like theatre, singing and dancing. This is like going back to square one. If a female student hits puberty and she’s being taught some knitting or weaving, her parents may say okay, you know how to earn a living, so just do that. ‘No need to go to school’. This is just a way of pushing them back. This is a way to strengthen social stratification, if a student learns a skill, they might say okay, we might as well drop out,” Prince feels.
Christuraj presents us this following scenario — ‘If you ask a child who isn’t performing very well, whether he would like to continue studying or pursue his father’s job, maybe say he’s a carpenter and this child has learnt carpentry in this vocational training — he’s going to choose to be a carpenter too.’ “We are going in reverse. India isn’t some greatly developed country. All this training will be taken over by corporates, and they want low-level employees. They won’t give them enough training to help them climb the ranks, they will remain at the same level. Kamaraj started midday meals because children will want to come to school, we are still at that stage. Students come to school because they are getting food and when we are still stuck here, they want to start vocation training? These children are from villages without trains, they’ve not seen aeroplanes, they have had no privilege whatsoever. And now you want to burden them with vocation training, board exam after board exam and three languages?” asks Chella Selvakumar, Secretary, Samakalvi Iyyakam.
Prema Revathi, Director, Vanavil, an alternative residential school, Nagapattinam is not really against vocational training, “We teach our children different skills. Now during the lockdown, we’ve taught them how to make baskets and show them how houses get built. I’m not against children learning how to do things, even some top international schools teach this. However, we are not like a country like say, Germany. Germany has this style of education but they are far ahead of us. We are only getting children into education now so we should be focusing on how to keep them inside the school. We have to enable them to stay in school,” she says. The Director also points out that the NEP doesn’t give proper instructions as to how the student can pursue a future in the skill, even if they want to. The ITIs we have right now don’t have enough equipment or good infrastructure. “So even if children do want to pursue a skill, what guarantee that they will have a good space to study in?” she questions.
The government’s decision to integrate single-teacher schools and schools with low strength into a school complex has also angered the activists who are now asking, what will happen to the Right to Education Act? “Students go these schools because they are in the neighbourhood and they are familiar with the space, the people and the town. Now you can’t expect a student from a remote tribal village to go to a new town, with new people and feel comfortable enough to study,” he adds.
What the activists find particularly painful is that with every draft that the MHRD released, they diligently gave feedback. Yet, they say that the final draft has remained almost the same since the first one released in 2015. Nesan says he wrote about it in his book Searching for Education and the points in his book still remain relevant because the NEP has stayed intact. Christuraj says he has not seen any changes in the last few years either. The others agree too. “I have studied in the United Kingdom, taught in the USA, read several policies. But haven’t read anything as highly detrimental as this one,” Nesan says. Several sections of society applaud the NEP for being ‘progressive like the Western countries, encouraging liberal arts and easing the intensity of exams’. But do these policies benefit the rural student as much as it would the private school going city resident? While trying to make the NEP easily palatable to the privileged, have we sabotaged the futures of the underprivileged and oppressed?