New Delhi,  The wrenching dichotomy between the right of schools to formulate their criteria for nursery admissions and the Right to Education Act has set up a cliffhanger for parents. And while the Delhi high court has sought a clarification from the Centre on whether the law is applicable to children seeking nursery admissions, Union minister Shashi Tharoor made a startling claim that RTE doesn’t apply at the nursery level.

Speaking to a gathering of schoolchildren, academicians and teachers at Headlines Today’s Right to Be Heard programme, he said, “The RTE doesn’t apply to nursery admissions as the law specifies 8 years of compulsory schooling from the age of 6 to 14. And nursery kids are younger than that. As a social mechanism, a school’s admission policy has to take into account the enormous pressure of applications. The ministry can only help in encouraging a certain policy. But when children get into the 6-14 age-group, I assure nobody will be left out. Nursery admissions are a little more complicated and the ministry cannot decide.”

And while a debate raged whether admissions should be conducted on the points system or by a draw of lots, an anxious parent recounted how government notifications are discriminatory as alumni and sibling criteria carve out a big slice of nursery admissions. Tharoor said, “As a parent, I have been through the same ordeal of admitting my twin sons in the same school. The sibling criteria can help a school take a decision. In our system, ministers do not pre-empt or pre-judge court decisions. We will have to wait for the judges to decide.”

While RTE prohibits screening of children, the minister admitted “it’s a preposterous idea to interview 3-year-old kids”. But he preferred to wriggle out of the nursery admission tangle, saying “this happens because some schools are trying to find a proper way to make selections. I am not sure what the ministry can do about it. These are essentially school policies. Schools don’t have a simple way of making a choice.”

Grilled by Vasant Valley School director Arun Kapoor on the ministry’s abject failure to raise the quality of education in government schools, Tharoor accepted there should be a paradigm shift in education policy, but put the onus on state governments. “Our focus had been on inclusion and promoting equity as literacy was low. And we have frankly left behind quality. This is the new emphasis. We are preparing a national curriculum framework that will help our children compete globally. But education is in the concurrent list and states have a task cut out for themselves.”

When a NGO member displayed pictures of cattle sheds at an Agra school and the dilapidated infrastructure of government schools despite citizens paying education cess, the minister said, “Funds are being allocated in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to build classrooms, toilets and funding of midday meals. But state governments need to do more. They have a responsibility to monitor how the money is spent.”

But quality education cannot be provided without dedicated teachers. “I have gone to schools and asked how many students want to be teachers. Very few raise their hands. This is a shame for a country which had a culture of respect for teachers. Part of the problem is because the profession is not well rewarded and lacks a glamour quotient. But the recent pay revision has changed all that. Now, a DU professor makes more money than a minister,” he said.

Tharoor also promised to crack down on capitation fee in private colleges and root out fake universities. “There’s a legislation pending in Parliament, Unfair Practices Bill, which will outlaw donations and capitation fee with severe criminal penalties. But again, this is a Bill that needs to pass. We will also make accreditation mandatory for universities. We will tell them that if they don’t make the cut, then shut down. We will start taking tough measures.”

Is there a lack of political will to pass pending education Bills? Is education low on the government’s priority? “We have 11 Bills on higher education pending either in the standing committee or have been introduced, but yet to be voted. Parliament has been dysfunctional for the last couple of years. In the last session, the government listed 25 Bills, but only three were passed,” the minister of state for HRD said.

Tharoor also pitched for FDI in higher education, but said reputed universities are still waiting for the passage of the Foreign Education Providers (Regulation) Bill in parliament. “Yale was willing to come to India, but they went to Singapore. Our students are going to Qatar and Doha to study in foreign universities. And they go to Australia, where some were even beaten up. Why do they do that? This is because there’s not enough capacity in India. Harvard takes about 10-11% of those who apply, but IITs admit only 0.01% because that’s all the room they have. We are looking at a country with enormous pressure in education, but not enough institutions to cope with the demand.”

The minister, however, ended on a hopeful note, saying India today is much better than what it was a few years ago.