THE REALITY MIRROR
By Bikash Sarmah
The word ‘education’ does not jerk the politician to action in this country. This is a general perception, but not without reason. Hardly does one see any politician delve into issues educatiol at public meetings and rallies, nor does he have time to sit with intellectuals to discuss what matters on earth when it comes to such a game-changer as education. And modern education in the digital age? Well, perhaps its time has not come, so would argue the politician more into things that are politically expedient. His universe consists mostly of vote-catching enterprises at their innovative best.
Assam Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma sends out the impression that he is different. Whether he is indeed so, we do not know. But there is a growing perception in the State that things are better than in the past. The minister seems to be pro-active in matters related to education. But what merely seems to be, has to be actualized. Here hangs a tale.
Let us first visit the education component of the Governor’s Address to the Assam Assembly on the first day of its budget session last Tuesday. The section begins with “My government accords top priority to the education sector, including elementary, secondary, higher and technical education” and then talks of the provision of “a scooty each to the top 1,000 girl students who had scored top marks in the HSSLC Examition, 2017”. The problem begins right here. The “top priority” accorded to the education sector by the so-called progressive government of Sarbanda Sonowal has a disconcerting mismatch in the modern world of education – as it is in advanced countries where education is a different game altogether – with that cute “scooty”, the proud owner of which is the girl among those lucky “top 1,000 girl students”. These girls “had scored top marks”, we are told.
That is fine. But there are two questions. One is: What does a scooty have to do with education? One can understand freebies like laptops for bright students, even as there are more progressive ways of encouraging academically bright students. But the scooty is beyond comprehension. Its votary might say the scooty eases her commutation to her school or college. But anyway she has been commuting all these years and performing well to be among those fortute “top 1,000 girl students”. This sparkling scooty could well be replaced by at least a dozen books of worth – books both general and specialized, both fiction and non-fiction, books on the ture of our society and economy now, books on globalization and digitization; one of such books could be Imagining India by ndan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys and one of the country’s best known knowledge generators. I, having studied educatiol issues both academically and jourlistically for the past decade, have the strong belief that for Assam to mutate into a knowledge society, an out-of-box thinking is imperative, beyond the stereotype and gimmickry of the day. Books, a good library, regular classes, total detachment from politics (sorry AASU!), sincere and dedicated teachers who are well trained as well, IT infrastructure of the kind the 21st-century world is introduced to in advanced societies, and a few other such educatiol stuff are what that scooty owner really needs. Ask her.
The other question is more basic. This pertains to the very fact of education as we know here. What do these examitions really test? Mere cramming ability or depth of knowledge? Mere vomiting of old-fashioned, outdated notes dictated by teachers (who are eminent for lack of innovation but who are more interested in what the latest pay commission has to offer, and of course in enhanced pension benefits too), or creativity? What? Remember, these so-called toppers are not topping the cake of knowledge that matters in today’s world, nor have they been prompted to tread the path of knowledge generation by virtue of their solid knowledge accumulation and its improvisation. Our examition system is not about any test of ingenuity. It is rather the other way round: the more a student is origil in his thinking, the more he is dissuaded from his creative enterprises because the more challenging he becomes to his teachers who are mostly into the business of grooming rote learners, parroters if one may use the word. This I can say with confidence, given my own experience as a mathematics honours student at Cotton College, an applied mathematics student at Gauhati University, and then a PhD student in fluid dymics that I left after about six months of initiation due to utter frustration with the system of mathematics education at the higher level. One shudders to think of the state of mathematics education affairs in government-run schools in rural areas then!
The point is actually simple: the examition system in vogue is neither valid nor reliable. It is not valid because, essentially, the means of testing a student are not valid as compared to the modern and really valid examition systems in vogue in the West, or for that matter even in neighbouring Chi, let alone Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong in the Asian region to which we belong. Hong Kong, mind you, is not just about fashion; it is about education too as Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is among the top 50 universities in the whole world as per QS World Universities Rankings 2018. Indian universities are not even within the top 100. Assam’s universities stand nowhere. Yes, nowhere, practically. You cannot have an annual examition that will test all of what one has learnt and on the basis of which you declare so-called toppers or rank holders in schools. And our examition system is not reliable because it fails the test of reliability as it fails to effect an accurate assessment of the level of cognition a student has achieved after education has been imparted to him.
Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma, your task is cut out then. A thorough study and alysis of the examition systems, both at school and college levels (university included), of advanced countries, notably the US and the UK in the West and Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia, should inform you of the imperatives and paradigms that can be replicated here with help from experts in the field – and lesser is the bureaucracy in the educatiol scheme of things, better it is for the cause of education here. We need educationists of proven track record to salvage education in the State. We need to hear what they have to say. We need to test their suggestions based on a modern and pragmatic outlook on education in the 21st-century world.
As for higher education, the mere memorandum of understanding with AISECT Group of Universities to set up CV Raman University in the State will not do. We need to go beyond. The foremost task is a proper surgery of Gauhati University (GU), otherwise the State’s intellectual pride and the first to come up in the entire northeastern region. Check out where GU stands in the list of 350 universities from 25 countries in Asia as prepared by Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2018. Even Tezpur University – a central university, unlike GU which is a State university – stands at 100, which is poor. But perhaps that is not such bad news given that even a giant like the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore – the topper in India in the Times list – is ranked 29th in Asia, topped by the tiol University of Singapore. What makes this Singapore institution so stupendous? Excellent, meaningful (mind the emphasis on this word) teaching methodologies and absolute focus on research of the origil kind, not the kind of PhDs we generally see here that are earned merely to go for shopping in the job market. GU must subject itself to a genuine test of research inclitions and activities of the ingenious kind; the PhDs it is producing must match the ones churned out in the likes of that Singapore hub of quality and meaningful higher education. Pay commissions will come and go, research cannot wait. As simple as that.
At the end of the day, the synopsis is: We Must Evolve Educatiolly and Get Edu-fashioble in That Sense. Are we interested? Are you, Mr Minister?
(The writer is the Editor of The Sentinel and may be reached at email@example.com)