De-committee-ifying Education

There is lots of talk about de-commodifying education. I would like to talk about de-committifiying education. Or at least, giving a new terms of reference to committees. Perhaps the standard Yes Ministeresque response to this post, would be to set up a committee to study the proposal to de-committify, but I am hoping someone will listen.

With all this time, money and effort being spent in constituting and executing committees that produce voluminous and sometimes erudite reports on education, the time is perhaps ripe to argue for a more transparent, open and accountable system of committees. This starts from the point where the need for a committee arises, and does not stop past the report of the committee.

What would good committees look like? And how would they really help Indian Education?

Firstly, committees should be sparingly conceived of. There could be a cumulative body of work that exists that could be leveraged or there could be efficient use of relevant existing resources to answer questions (e.g. leverage crowdsourcing, national level databases etc). There is going to be fantastic national network of more than 30,000 colleges and over 600 universities (500 more universities and 30,000 colleges more will spring up soon), connected through the National Knowledge Network, which I am sure can be leveraged beautifully at very little, if any, cost for most of the work of a regular committee in background research, data collection and fact-finding. They should also be conceived sparingly because they entail cost and time of expensive resources (our experts), which could perhaps be spent much better elsewhere.

Secondly, committees must have members that have proven their credentials at making committees work, apart from their regular expertise. If Valdis Krebs was to do a social network analysis of the members who constituted committees in India over the past 20 years, I am pretty sure it would emerge to a be a densely packed network with very few outliers, indicating that neither do new people get in to committee work, nor is it representative in the face of a growing external network of stakeholders. There must be a way to engage with newer and diverse ideas, otherwise each committee ends up reproducing their un-knowledge for years at a stretch.

Thirdly, committees must execute their tasks with details on:

  1. How much my (taxpayer) money was spent – honoraria, travel costs, administrative etc.?
  2. How was the committee work planned and organized?
  3. How much time was spent by each member on the committee work?
  4. Did the committee operate in a participatory manner – what did they do to engage stakeholders?
  5. Did the committee make their deliberations open?
  6. Did the committee members record differences of opinion? Were there reasons recorded for not publishing an opinion or point of view in the final report?

Fourthly, the final report should have gone through a formal quality assurance process as well. A minor side-effect of these reports is that people like me read what they produce and actually spend endless hours analyzing them. Was the report concise? Did it address the brief/mission? Did it provide practical suggestions or accurate analyses? Are the recommendations feasible to implement? Was the report made public for opinion to be accepted from reviewers?

Fifthly, if it is an action oriented report, were the actions and recommendations carried through by the initiating body? If not, why not? If it is a research and information oriented report, did its data make its way a publicly accessible database?

Sixthly, what did the committee do to validate the report on an annual or periodic basis? Data changes and so do other things that affect the content of a report from the time of its issue.

If I was the government, I would perhaps suggest setting up a Committee to Review Committees that would result in the formation of a National Mission for Reviewing and Managing Education Committees. Or suggest that a new breed of committees be created that will cure the ills of the existing ones. But, I am assuredly not. My only point is that committees, task forces, focus groups et al are important. They are required. Time and money should be spent on them.

However, if we do not make them accountable, open and transparent, they are at best instruments of the state or predilections of the educationist voyeur. That is a cross that the Indian Education system should not be made to wear.

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