The announcements, decisions and statements made by the Education Department of the state government for the past five months were the embodiment of perplexity.

A group of school students in India wearing masks amid the coronavirus pandemicImage for representation: PTI
Coronavirus Opinion Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 14:30

The durability of endurance is quite challenging during the pandemic and we ought to sustain our social and economic lives for our mere survival. As we all enter the “new normal” of COVID-19 time, neither the government ministries nor the functionaries are endowed with clarity in their actions. The challenge of this scenario is righteously undeniable but will that be an alibi for confused messaging of the government? Particularly, the announcements, decisions and statements made by the Education Department of the Tamil Nadu government for the past five months were the embodiment of perplexity.

The anxiety of the students as well as parents were exacerbated due to the hemming and hawing of a series of announcements. It is obvious that the lockdown started in India without a clue of when it would end or when it would be normal again. At a time when the whole world was clueless over the future course of the pandemic, the School Education Department was involved in releasing inconsistent statements on final examinations.

To everyone’s shock and surprise, the ministry was adamant in announcing Class 10 board examinations for early June and the dates as well as hall tickets were released, when COVID-19 cases were increasing in the state. Parents were in panic and repeatedly requested the government to reconsider their decision.

Further announcements included releasing the timetable and the bus lists to pick and drop the children. Various forums and the public raised voices against this, questioning how children would sit for public examinations from hill stations, interior parts of the state, and on the safety measures being undertaken. The Education Department was negligent and chose to proceed with the examinations. Later due to the opposition in large numbers and realising the situation, the board exams were cancelled. This was the beginning of its contradictions, with bombshells continuing to be dropped then and there.

Soon after the board exams were cancelled, there came out another statement out of the blue. When the Education Department announced the cancellation of Class 10 board examinations, their calculation of marks was the latest addition to their chaotic moves. Different explanations were given, and as of date no one is aware of how exactly the marks were calculated.

When these two factors were running through our mind, the Education Department released the plan for pursuing the next academic year. They started with limiting the syllabus, online classes and providing books through schools. Being a state that has schools even in the interior parts, the government and the School Education Department forgot the challenges of rural students in accessing the internet. Though we talk of the digital era, we are yet to latch on to the complete techno adaptability. How are poor children who come to schools for free education and meals expected to afford a smartphone for online studies? Won’t it be an additional burden on the part of their parents, who are unemployed at this time? Isn’t it unnecessary to spend money for recharging their internet data, when they are struggling for basic needs? Can our digital India possess better internet accessibility even in small hamlets?

When all these warranted questions were raised again and again, the Education Department stated that government school classes will be taken through television and the timetable was also released. In reality, many poor families are struggling for food and shelter and it is observed that many school children started working for their family’s basic needs. Moreover, electricity and payment for cable connection are also needed to achieve this television-based classroom.

When the Centre announced the reopening of schools by October, our Education Department came out with hasty announcements. The reactions were two-fold. On one hand, people were in panic over the safety of their children, while many others took the announcements with a pinch of salt. Then there was another announcement - students from Class 9 to Class 12 could approach their teachers for clarifications of doubts in subjects during school hours. It is followed with the annexure of how to maintain social distance when they go to school. All practically impossible statements are made one by one by the department which later ended with an about-turn announcement of not reopening schools.

The story of confusion does not end here. It continues in the form of National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. When the Central government released NEP 2020 and the whole country was discussing the pros and cons, the TN government, particularly the Education Department sat tight and didn’t make any comments on it. The opposition party brought the issue to the limelight as to how the state of Tamil Nadu is going to be pulled back if NEP 2020 were to be implemented.

As soon as they got whiff of the opposition to NEP 2020, the Tamil Nadu government announced committees for both School Education and Higher Education. The irony is there is no proper school educator, the ground workers of TN school system, retired school education department officials and teachers are in the school education committee. Chancellors and Pro Chancellors of private universities along with certain Vice Chancellors and officials are part of the higher education committee. There is no representation from the proper school education sector, which is well aware of our system.

The TN Education Department has not provided any insights or comments on the NEP 2020. The NEP demands an increase in the GER in higher education from 26.3% (2018) to 50% by 2035, whereas Tamil Nadu is already at 49% according to the All India Survey on Higher Education Report 2018 - 19. Given that the state nearly reached this goal of the NEP already, doesn’t the government realize the chances of the state being pulled back due to its adoption?

The fiasco of NEET results are well-managed by the state Education Department, with them carefully articulating that government school students also cleared NEET. We have voiced from the beginning that NEET deprives rural students and first generation learners of opportunities. No student who has studied in government schools cleared the NEET examinations without taking coaching in private centers. The 7.5% horizontal reservation for government school children is still pending the Governor’s nod. There was false propaganda from the government that all the government students who cleared NEET this year will be placed in medical colleges. However, in reality only eight government school students may get a medical seat.

The idea behind giving the Institute of Eminence tag for Anna University is also suspicious. Already, Anna University is an institution of eminence which is well-maintained and developed for Tamil Nadu students. By giving IOE, there is no newness, rather the institution will come under the Centre and again our rural students will lose their opportunity to study in a world class institution. The behaviour of the Vice Chancellor is problematic. The merit-based admissions by ruling out the 69% reservation system is not healthy for a growing society. The Vice Chancellor acted in a rude way and his main intentions are to satisfy the Centre. It is the failure of the state government department to curtail such reckless behaviour of a world class university which comes under the state government.

Recently, the Secretary of the University Grants Commission has sent a letter to all the Vice Chancellors of government and private universities directing it to raise awareness about NEP 2020 among students, teachers and others. UGC is the governing body to monitor the education system and its quality of universities. Only the state government possesses the rights to interfere and suggest the administration of the state government universities. The UGC’s letter crosses state jurisdiction of state government universities, especially when the Tamil Nadu government clearly announced that they will incorporate NEP 2020 only after the suggestions given by the expert committee. The UGC letter is a ridiculous act at this juncture.

These are the observations on how the Tamil Nadu Education Department is confused both internally and externally. Isn’t it the responsibility of the state government to be more considerate and aware of the ground reality of the state instead of pleasing the Central government that does not even make any efforts at understanding the dynamics of the nation? The chaos during cancellation of all semester examinations, cancellation of arrear examinations, online end semester examinations, the results of semester examinations, the sudden exam announcements of medical university etc still make us wonder if the state government is actively working towards pulling down the GER in order to achieve the NEP goal by 2035?

The writer is a DMK MLA and a former Tamil Nadu Minister for School Education. Views expressed are the author's own.

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