ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Piecing the Puzzle

Debates, Practices,and Policies of Education

Smriti Singh ( has completed her PhD in Sociology of Education from Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Routledge Handbook of Education in India: Debates, Practices, and Policies edited by Krishna Kumar, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2018; pp xiv + 302, `2,495.


“Education” in its broadest sense has been a matter of great scholastic, policy and moral interest. Despite this, a comprehensive understanding of the scope of the term “education” and its various facets is difficult to map. Education, given its relevance, dynamism,and complexities forms a subject that is both generic enough for anyone to venture a dialogue with and complex enough for anyone to completely grasp. With multiple agencies, stakeholders and institutions interpreting what constitutes education, the dialogue on education in the Indian context is fraught with challenges. Amidst the cacophony created by research findings and studies being done by universities, government agencies, non-governmental agencies, and many other stakeholders, it is difficult to make any comprehensive sense of the state of education in the country. There is a lack of consensus among, and even within these various agencies. For instance, there exists an implicit divide between departments of education (DoE) and centres for educational studies (CES) at various universities. There is little or no engagement between these two as they maintain distinct spheres of influence. As a result, there is a huge body of non-convergent research and parallel running scholarly dialogue.

With a gamut of research themes, locales and stakeholders and a number of competing world views, it is immensely difficult to produce a coherent sense of education in India. What must, therefore, be borne in mind is that compiling an edited volume on education is a challenge, in that, it needs to cover a wide ground, capture realities of diverse socio-economic contexts, all the while negotiating the different perspectives and voices to maintaining coherence and focus. To, therefore, embark on the quest to make a handbook of education is in itself an ambitious endeavour. To espouse to write a handbook of education in a context as diverse as the Indian subcontinent is a mammoth task. In this regard, Routledge Handbook of Education in India: Debates, Practices, and Policies takes on a brave challenge by deliberating over in scholarly voices situated across CES and DoE along with sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, historians, and physicists, among others.

The book, as its name suggests, seeks to cover a wide ground in one sweeping stroke. It appears to be an effort to pack too much into one book. The effort has caused it to become fragmented and incoherent. Perhaps, what is needed to capture the vastness and complexity of “Education in India” is to dedicate a series or more than one volume to this subject. A handbook of education is essential and critical in helping new generations of scholars, activists and other functionaries to make sense of the subject. Trying to bring out a compact handbook that by its own admission is not exhaustive leaves a lot to be desired.

The book delivers a macro perspective and an overview of education in India in broad brushstrokes. There are five parts/sections, each covering one theme in three or four chapters on varied subjects. The themes “logic of access,” “curriculum and teaching,” “training for professions,” “universities and society,” and “underbelly,” are not continuous and seek to cover a lot of ground. By editor’s own admission, these disparate themes are meant to be “illustrative glimpses” (p xiii). The preface delves on the kind of dilemma that the editor faced at the onset of this project, as he identified that the book could not be exhaustive and that “coverage is no substitute for analytical depth.” While the statement holds true, how one reached at a point where the two were assumed to be inversely related to one another is not clear. The editor laments about lack of scholarly attention paid to a number of critical areas of education, a claim that is hard to digest without much elaboration on what these critical areas are. The preface also highlights the constraints faced by the editor in identifying themes and selecting chapters. He suggests that the selection was constrained by a lack of contemplative literature available to the contributors and the editor. This reasoning without an explanation is far from satisfying for a reader.

Given the focus of the book on debates, practices, and policies, the absence of regional diversity in the Indian context is precarious. The significance of regional differences on a subject like education (a concurrent subject), it seems, would be imperative to understanding debates, policies, and practices. Individual chapters by Virginius Xaxa and Satish Deshpande address the regional variations and the challenges they pose to policy and debates, but a premeditated attempt at including this critical element seems missing.

Post-reform India

The preface seems to suggest that the context linking all the chapters is the “fast-paced but not necessarily planned changes introduced in the recent past” (p xiii). Yet, there is neither a consistent effort to connect the themes and chapters to these “changes of the recent past,” nor is there clarity as to what these “changes” may be. Perhaps, an engagement with what these changes mean in terms of “debates, policies and practices” in education in the context of the Indian subcontinent would have been helpful.

The introduction revisits the idea of changes in recent past, and attributes these to the ambiguous “economic reforms that have taken place since the 1990s.” The vagueness of defining the “recent changes” as “reforms post-1990s” and “new economy” does not give any more clarity about the changes in recent past or their significance with regards to education in India. The observable trend of invoking reforms post-1990s as the root explanation for studying the current scenario is misleading in the absence of clarity about its meaning and its contextual relevance. The vagueness of the terms could be, in its present usage, used to describe absolutely anything and everything happening currently. The themes and selection of chapters thus acquire a generic, ahistorical, and decontextualised rationale from being contextualised within “reforms post-1990s.”

Further highlighted is the historical context of school-, college- and university- level education without discussing the recent changes and what those changes mean in the historical context of how education has developed in India. The introduction maintains a largely frozen-in-time description of issues in education. There are also occasional-observations that abruptly emerge and lack necessary elaboration like, “China and other East Asian countries have taken education … far more seriously than India has” (p 5). There is no consistent effort at situating the gravity of post-1990s reforms to education in Indian context across chapters. The agenda set by the preface and the opening part of the introduction seems to get lost somewhere along the way.

Education and Stratification

A very important theme that emerges from the work of authors in this book is the idea of Nalini Juneja, as she looks at the urban space and the development of school education. She traces the roots of stratification in the schools system British colonial times and the development of presidency cities. Padma Sarangapani examines the school diversity (a broader term than school stratification used by Juneja) in one district of Hyderabad. She covers an array of markers to determine school diversity than a more hierarchical notion of school stratification. While Sarangapani begins by outlining the known differences between aided, government, private unaided recognised, and private unaided unrecognised schools, she broadens the lens to examine the school diversity as having grown around the class and community stratification. She examines the clientele stratification as suggestive of segregation in school selection. These terms are worth engagement as they draw attention to a curious case of school education in the Indian context. Do these concepts and terminology have larger traction in the wider educational dialogue? Will these come to redefine the ways in which the dialogue about education happens in the future? It is worth deliberating how the scholarly definition of school education has changed in recent times.

Disha Nawani looks at examinations as not being a singular objective evaluation of students’ understanding, but as a larger role that examinations and eliminations by cut-offs play in establishing order in society and maintaining them. She does this specifically in the context of assessment-related reforms initiated by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009. She argues that examinations work to control aspirations for upward social mobility and curb social dissent. She suggests that it is in this context that the non-detention of students envisioned in RTE should be seen.

Chaise LaDousa builds on 20 years’ worth of data to highlight a different kind of divide which he calls the language-medium divide as a way of understanding schooling and its effects on metalinguistic reflections among people. He highlights the use of standardised forms of language for curricular materials. He reflects on the importance English has gained over time in organising and instruction of curricular knowledge. He also highlights that the language divide is yet another dimension of understanding school segregation.

While the sorting at entry level in higher education is based on the aggregate percentage and marks in individual subjects studied at school, there is a big disconnect between what is taught at schools and what is taught in higher education. School education and higher education have come to be understood as being disjointed in the Indian context. This is an issue that requires greater engagement than it has received. Shobhit Mahajan’s chapter seeks to situate the issues faced at the level of undergraduate and postgraduate education of science and mathematics as resulting from the quality of secondary school teaching of science and mathematics. However, assertions with regard to secondary school teaching are largely conjectural. Similarly, citations supporting the majority of other relevant assertions are dated and may not reflect the current scenario.

Hari Vasudevan traces the historical trajectory of social sciences. He outlines the transition that schools underwent from social studies to social sciences. He gives a global perspective on the national dialogue on reform. Importantly, he highlights the critical link between schools, colleges and universities with regard to social science education. He notes that there is wide variance in the ways in which social sciences is taught and learnt at various levels.

Kumkum Roy engages with the constructivist approach adopted by the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005 towards theportrayal of historical events and processes. She looks at the textbooks produced in line with the suggestions in the NCF in the light of the spirit of pedagogy espoused and the disservice that examination systems do to that spirit. What appeared to be a significant point in many of these chapters was how complex and dynamic systems like education are resilient to changes, and how as any big system, mechanisms put in place for efficient functioning resist changes.

Professional Education

The idea that professional education is an isolated and specialised pursuit runs the risk of being reductive. Professional education is envisioned as one that situates itself in relation to the disciplines within the university structure, thus, separating it from apprenticeship and training. The section titled “Training for Professions” has three chapters that examine the state of engineering education, management, and teacher training. The chapter by Milind Sohoni looks at the emergence of engineering education in the United States and contrasts it with engineering education in the Indian context. He highlights that engineering education in the Indian context is directed at the acquisition of high technical qualification, not necessarily in response to the socio-economic needs of the society. He concludes by suggesting that it is for this reason graduate engineers and those completing higher education (in general) are no longer tied to a vision of “destination society,” for which the higher education was designed.

It would, perhaps, have been a more holistic analysis if one were to connect this with the kind of employment opportunities available and their impact on the way these courses are taught and learnt, which none of the three chapters on professional education do. Professional education has been discussed as divorced from the professional world. Teacher training forms a matter very different from management and engineering education. Teacher training feeds back into the system and so any discussion on teacher training, in the context of education, is best not conflated with other kinds of professional education. There is a need for greater clarity on the difference between professional education and education as a discipline in professional education.

Latika Gupta acknowledges that teacher education cannot and must not be understood as being like any other graduate or postgraduate courses. She analyses the structure of BEd curriculum and examines the ethos of a teacher training institution. She focuses on the divide between theory and practice. Pankaj Chandra looks at the growth of management education in the Indian context. He situates this in the light of the transformation of the global economy and how the world of business in the Indian context has also changed.

Higher Education

The book looks at professional education and higher education as two distinct themes. What is needed is some critical reflection on the separation of the two and from where such a distinct separation stems. Even though the number of people attaining higher education has been steadily increasing, access to it is not uniform. Higher education is as aspirational in India as elsewhere, however, as Nawani notes access to higher education is controlled as a way of controlling aspirations of the masses for upward social mobility. The section on “Universities and Society” explores the complex matter of access and choice in higher education. The entire section is more or less a reprint of a previously published version of the respective works (except Xaxa). The acknowledgement by authors is admirable. However, a reprinting of existing works with little modification, although gives the book one of its best curated sections, does not logically justify itself. That said, one must compliment the works of Chanana, Deshpande and Xaxa for capturing the contextually situated internal complexity of gendered choices, and the categorisation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and its consequences on admissions to universities.

Peter Altbach focuses on the inefficiencies built into the administrative structure of higher education. He focuses on the system whereby a number of colleges are affiliated to a fewer number of universities. What is somewhat disconcerting is that while Altbach maintains a deeply critical outlook towards state and central universities, he seems strangely uncritical of not-for-profit and private universities. He laments the reservation policy in admissions and faculty hiring without exhibiting a deeper understanding of its rationale, arguing that it hampers the quality.

Education as a discipline and field of inquiry has been expanding. There are many new issues and themes that have emerged lately seeking serious scholarly attention. A few of such themes have been included in this book too. The final part is termed “underbelly” to capture various aspects of education that lie outside the established themes. Jeffreys and Dyson look at the phenomena of educated unemployment in Meerut by examining the lives of youth. They argue that the educated unemployed youth can play a significant role as “active partners” in tackling the employment crisis.

Manabi Majumdar looks at the market for the emerging shadow education system alongside the anxious competition in the middle class to stay ahead of the masses. She looks at the extent, effectiveness and equity implications of supplementary tutoring in India. Krishna Kumar looks at an underexplored problem of political corruption in education, aided by the structural mechanism of examinations. He highlights that the manner in which the structure of examinations for intake is built, it almost presupposes corrupt political interference.

There is a rich ground to be explored not just in the context of politics and education nexus, but also the ways in which legislations and amendments surrounding education are to be understood. Mehandale’s chapter provides a glimpse into such an exploration. She dissects the RTE Act from a predominantly legal point of view. She examines the context and significance of various provisions of the act. She examines the idea of “compulsory” espoused within the act and the various reinterpretations and revisions by the governments and functionaries that were made necessary by the glitches faced during the implementation stage. She discusses the various ways in which the official agenda and peripheral agendas related to RTE are being negotiated between government, lobby groups, and stakeholders.

Nidhi Gaur’s chapter describing a village school, Anand Niketan originally started by Mahatma Gandhi and reopened by some Gandhians in 2005, provides a snippet into rural schooling. The school is based on Gandhian ideas of basic education, Nai Talim, and analyses various practices at school in the light of the various ideas of different educationists and educational theorists. The chapter though reads well, largely stands apart in the scheme of the book. It seeks to cover “rural education.” However, by covering an experimental school, it does not capture the larger reality of rural education but provides a glimpse of an alternative educational experiment.

In Conclusion

Even though some chapters stand out in terms of their methodological rigour and powerful central arguments, the overall impression of the book remains mixed. There are some secondary data based chapters that have long paragraphs and sometimes entire pages with no citations. There also are some chapters that use a list of largely dated references to make assertions about the current scenario which seems like an internal incoherence. It also drifts from the original vision of the book. While the book overall remains rather inconsistent and incoherent, a number of chapters individually are remarkable for their depth and analysis. To be fair, the book does not boast of being extensive or exhaustive, however, it oes struggle to stay cogent and focused. The themes do not logically fit together, nor do individual chapters within a theme. This volume at best provides snippets into various specific topics, some in great depth and detail. It does not give a good base for building a thematic understanding of education in the Indian context.


Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019


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