India’s new education minister jumps on problems

Exam dates and national policy addressed in first week 

July 13, 2021
Source: Ministry of Education of India
Dharmendra Pradhan

Dharmendra Pradhan, who was appointed as the head of India’s newly combined Ministry of Education and Skill Development last week, wasted no time in addressing Covid-related delays to exams and the National Education Policy (NEP).

He spent his first weekend on the job meeting with officials to review the ambitious NEP blueprint, which although it was unveiled in 2020 its implementation has been stalled by the pandemic. The plan could double the size of the higher education sector and open avenues to internationalisation. 

“We discussed the way forward for ensuring a bright future for the [300 million] students across the country and in achieving the objectives of the New Education Policy in a time-bound manner,” he said after the meeting.

At a follow-up meeting with ministers of state on 13 July, he also reviewed the ministry’s digital education plans, which he said would be “strengthened and institutionalised”.

On his Twitter account, he emphasised digitisation and job-friendly skills as focus points, calling the education system a “laboratory of 21st-century India”.

He also moved quickly to announce a 12 September date for the National Eligibility Entrance Test for Undergraduates, after much uncertainty about the medical entrance test. The number of cities with testing centres will be increased from 155 to 198. There will also be strict time slots, contactless registration, socially distanced seating and free masks – a noteworthy point given that the government was blamed for allowing unmasked mass events that sparked the country’s latest deadly Covid wave.

The next rounds of the Joint Entrance Examination, the main engineering test, will go ahead in July and August. And a decision will be made on the Central Universities Common Entrance Test soon.

An Indian higher education expert told Times Higher Education that it was politically expedient for Mr Pradhan to address admissions before the start of the 2021-22 academic year, in a country where a young person’s destiny can be determined by formal assessments.

“You can gauge the importance given by the government to these examinations,” he said, adding that about 1.3 million candidates sit the medical test alone. “These candidates and their parents – also for other exams – could influence society’s political views.

“It is not surprising that the government is very cautious in dealing with this matter.”

Over the past few months, there has been growing student anxiety over taking face-to-face tests in high-risk areas.

Pradeep Taneja, a fellow at the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, told THE that “I believe the concerns of the Indian students who are worried about sitting in-person exams are justified. India is still reporting more than 40,000 cases of Covid-19 a day and, while the vaccination rate has picked up, the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated is still relatively small.

“Having said that, I think the students would also be worried about the fairness of alternative arrangements if the regular and highly competitive entrance exams for admission to professional courses can’t be held because of the pandemic.”

Mr Pradhan took office during a major reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet.

The previous education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”, resigned last week, citing health issues after he had contracted Covid-19. He was appointed in 2019 to what was then the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which was renamed the Ministry of Education in 2020.

The ministry’s structure shifted again this month to include the portfolio of skill development and entrepreneurship. “Having a single minister would lead to better coordination among different ministries and departments,” the sector expert said.

Mr Pradhan has his work cut out for him. Among many problems facing Indian HE, one in three of the country’s elite “central universities” still lacks a permanent vice-chancellor. 

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