A hornet’s nest was stirred by the Union finance secretary soon after the Budget presentation. He was asked why education allocations are not keeping pace with aspirations in an interview with a print daily.
In his view, as the child population is shrinking, India has an adequate number of teachers, and the focus needs to be better deployment; and while there are enough universities, it is their depoliticisation that will help.
Those comments met with trenchant criticism, and unusually not only from the left.
A constitutional challenge
Debates on education are polarising and in India, ever-ongoing. In the noise, initiatives with long-term structural implications often remain under the radar.
At present, the Madras High Court is hearing a constitutional challenge to the division of powers between the Centre and states in the thorny area of education. The writ petition is asking for a return to the pre-1976 position, when education was exclusively in the domain of the states.
The flash point was the New Education Policy, 2020, which provided an expanded role for the Centre as gatekeeper and assessor-in-chief through a slew of new command and control mechanisms — particularly in higher education.
As the petitioner points out, “NEP 2020 completely takes away the autonomy of the States in the subject of education … Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) … is proposed to have four verticals: National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC), Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC) and the General Education Council (GEC), which will control and regulate the entire higher education in the country, including crucial aspects such as funding, regulation and accreditation of institutions”.
Unsaid in the petition was the concern that the role of buffer, helping keep an arm’s-length distance between the state and institutions of higher learning, is being done away with.
The constitutional challenge was long in the making. Since the 1968 national policy on education, and the acceptance of a three-language formula, the anxiety of the southern states has only grown. And much of the friction has coalesced around access to higher education for the most marginalised.
The 2018 NEET debacle
Tamil Nadu has been one state where there are quality higher education options in the local language. This has meant a higher proportion of students who opt for Tamil while taking nationwide entrance tests.
Of the about 1,50,000 students nationwide who opted for a regional language to give the NEET-UG examination in 2018, nearly 24,000 or close to one in six had opted to give it in Tamil. This was the year when an NGO found 49 translation mistakes in the Tamil question paper: one example, Cheetah became Seetha.
The year 2018 was also when students from Tamil Nadu had to travel to other states to give the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test, with, in at least one case, tragic consequences. While a child was giving the test in neighbouring Kerala, his father waiting outside the examination hall had a cardiac arrest.
Education has this habit of never being far from the headlines and with the future of thousands at stake, it is always a political issue. When the mistakes in translation were pointed out in Parliament, the then Union HRD minister said they would ask the state government to recommend “good” translators, making it clear that this problem had landed on the wrong desk.
The logjam got so bad that the ruling party’s newspaper, Nammadhu Amma, took to poetry to vent: “If you gave me some more time, I could study your lessons. Whatever I have learnt for years together, I will discard it entirely and I will study your lessons as I have no other go. All that is not possible. More than an insult to God, it will become an insult to the Supreme Court.”
The reference to the Supreme Court was telling. The CBSE had released the list of students who had qualified for counselling, even while a writ petition on the conduct of the exam had been admitted by the Madras High Court.
Emotions in the state had risen so high that the Madras High Court ordered that all students who opted for Tamil language were to be given an additional 196 marks. The total was only 720. And this ruling applied to all students, including those who had not attempted the questions with the translation errors.
Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court had to intervene and bring in some realism. For the High Court order had meant that for instance, one student who got 21 marks out of 720, with the booster, reached 217 marks, while another who got 92 marks, with revision, reached 288.
Implementing unity in diversity
While correctives were put in place, the issue of access through entrance exams — which tend to favour those with more financial resources and the ability to take a gap year and get coaching — has remained unresolved.
A diverse student body — that brings together young people from different parts of the country to a new place, where they make friends, develop bonds that last a lifetime, learn to negotiate differences (those who’ve been on mess committees have many, many stories to share), learn lessons in implementing India’s unity in diversity, etc — pay dividends in the long-term. Efforts to build on this model should only be welcomed. The question is, how.
Over the years, the number of students opting for a regional language in centralised examinations is only growing and there are efforts being made to provide textbooks and other higher education learning materials in all official Indian languages.
These are good initiatives. However, they do not address the larger question of providing a level playing field and facilitating access to those most disadvantaged.
As 2026 comes closer, the Madras High Court’s decision, on whether education should be returned to the state list, will be keenly awaited.
(The author lives in a village in south India, and looks at the rest of India and the world from that perspective. She has been a journalist, a development worker, and a writer and podcaster over the years. She is the author of ‘Growing Up And Away, Narratives of Indian Childhoods’. Email: email@example.com. These are the personal views of the author)