How education fails the Constitution test: Review of ‘Debating Education in India’

A comprehensive examination of education in India against the backdrop of the National Education Policy 2020.

Published : Nov 02, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Teachers at a rally to demand the rollback of the NEP 2020, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on September 13.

Teachers at a rally to demand the rollback of the NEP 2020, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on September 13. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The book under review uses a wide lens drawn from a range of disciplines like history, sociology, and economics to critically examine the checkered origin and evolution of education in India against the backdrop of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.

Debating Education in India: Issues and Concerns
Edited by Maya John
Tulika Books
Pages: 300
Price: Rs.995

The introduction by Maya John traces India’s contested history of education, beginning with the pre-modern and the colonial periods. It draws attention to certain “disturbing trends” in the post-Independence years which sustained structural inequalities, that were later compounded by the rise of neoliberalism from the 1990s onwards. The first four essays in this book explore these issues in the context of school and higher education.

Jyoti Raina examines the significant shifts in successive education commission reports and policy frameworks to understand their impact in the sphere of school education in post-Independent India.

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The Kothari Commission Report 1964, Raina argues, typified “the 1960s era of redistributive policymaking for inclusive development” by promoting the idea of a common schooling system (CSS) along with provisions for uniforms, good quality textbooks, and trained teachers. In contrast, the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986 and NEP 2020, situated as they were within a neoliberal framework, moved far away from the promise of providing quality equitable education.

Pointing to the legitimisation of an non-formal schooling system to address the problems of high dropouts among schoolchildren, the entry of non-governmental organisations to universalise elementary education, and funding by global agencies, Raina underscores how such policy shifts have resulted in the abandonment of constitutional promises.

Educational apartheid against Dalits

According to Mohd. Bilal, successive educational policies and practices over the years have, in fact, enabled an “educational apartheid” against Dalits. While a sincere attempt was made by the Kothari Commission to end this apartheid through its proposal for CSS, the lack of political will prevented it from becoming a reality. Subsequent policy frameworks such as the NPE 1986 legitimised a multi-level schooling system while the Right to Education Act 2009, through its provisioning for 25 percent reservation of seats in private schools for children from economically weaker sections (EWS), rang a death knell to the idea of CSS.

The NEP 2020, Bilal opines, has furthered this “long durée” of educational apartheid through its provision for multiple exits right from Class 3, options for vocational studies, and support for privatisation of elementary education in the name of quality education.

Kumkum Roy finds the “lack of space accorded to the Constitution” within the NEP 2020 rather alarming, especially in the current context when “socioeconomic, cultural and political differences and inequalities have become sharper”. She questions the undue and singular importance accorded to Sanskrit in the NEP, the complete elision of any reference to the medieval period, as also the advocacy for the existence of a monolithic Indian knowledge system which “obliterates memories of the multiplicity and diversity of Indian traditions” and their rich, vibrant, and conflictual history.

Geetha B. Nambissan exposes the nexus between powerful global corporate houses and governmental agencies that has enabled an ever-expanding market for “edu-business” and “venture philanthropy” both in urban and peri-urban India. Nambissan questions whether such market-driven policies, which reduce education to narrow and artificially scripted learning outcomes and replace well-trained teachers with technology, can adequately address educational requirements, especially of those children who were the most affected by the pandemic. She emphasises the need to critically examine the NEP 2020’s proposition to improve government schools through public-philanthropic-partnerships (PPP).

Madhu Prasad examines how the NEP 2020 “reveals itself as a deliberate market-oriented education policy which is a manifest carrier of both historically entrenched exclusions and contemporary neoliberal inequalities”. Under such a system, Prasad points out, knowledge gets reduced to pre-determined “competencies” and “learning outcomes” to be measured by “standardised assessment mechanisms”. It thus “makes a mockery of all learning as it cultivates conformism in thought and produces persons fitted only for being cogs in the economic and technological machine”.

The push for online education

Focussing on higher education, Saumen Chattopadhyay provides a critical appraisal of key features in the NEP 2020 such as the push for online education through MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) and ABC (Academic Bank of Credits).

While he agrees that these platforms might well provide students with the opportunity to choose from a range of e-learning courses and possibly give them an edge in the job market, he points to the prospect of “weakening of teacher-student relations and therefore undermining the emotional connection between the university and the students”. This will adversely impact campus life “which, in turn, can affect the self-formation of the students and their consequent contribution to society”.

Similarly, Debaditya Bhattacharya draws attention to the NEP’s proposal for transforming the entire teaching-learning process in the higher education sector to an online mode. He admits that it has the potential to enhance enrolment exponentially, especially among first-generation learners, thereby leading to a certain democratisation of the higher education space. However, he cautions that this initial euphoria has every possibility of withering away, paving the way for “venture capitalist invasion” into the higher education sector or “leveraged buyout of the university system” whereby “technical start-ups could make use of public resources to sell their products to prospective buyers of online education”.

Bhattacharya also highlights the NEP’s “casteist bias” as reflected in its deliberate silence on the state-mandated reservation policy and the inclusion of the amorphous category of “socio-economically disadvantaged groups” (SEDG).

Rohan D’Souza focusses on the “unholy alliance” between Ed-Tech giants and the current political regime, an alliance that has the potential to reshape the institutes of higher education from sites meant for nurturing students into active and reflective political citizens into mere “student users of a platform university”, bereft of any intellectual acumen for political activism.

He notes that with the increasing push towards online education, where learning becomes a personalised and individualised experience and not a collaborative one where dialogue, debate, and dissent are an integral part of academic life, public universities are likely to undergo a complete overhaul.

“A case study conducted by L.R.S. Lakshmi among the Muslims of Lakshadweep makes a strong case for public provisioning as a viable means for providing quality equitable education.”

Anthony Joseph questions the feasibility of actualising the claim envisioned in the NEP of laying the foundation of a “New India” that would evolve into a “knowledge society” to provide inclusive and equitable quality education. Since the state is willing to renounce its role in the development sector and hand over the responsibility to private organisations, Joseph foresees a situation where education will become an instrument for “deregulated, market responsive knowledge creation”.

He makes a case for developing teacher-educators who are reflexive, because reflexive pedagogy, he says, “positions teacher-educators to collaboratively connect the dots from various teaching-learning settings to interrogate how provoked moments of disruption or clarity can fuse various interventions and lead to the mobilisation of transformative education for social justice”.

Maya John argues that in a context where most of the Indian youth, especially those from the most marginalised sections, aspire to access quality higher education as the best means for social mobility, a meaningful policy intervention should have created opportunities for “liquidation of a segmented education structure through the establishment of the common school, uniform allocation of resources which equalises the pre-existing disparity among central and regional universities and the creation of more public-funded universities with equitable funding to facilitate entry of the last person in line into the formal, regular mode of higher education”.

Instead, the NEP 2020, John writes, has paved the way for increased privatisation and greater hierarchisation in higher education through its provisioning of “multiple exit options” within school and college education and “multiple pathways” of learning (formal and non-formal modes). This, she states in the book, will only serve to reinforce the existing socio-economic inequalities in the country.

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The book also includes an interesting case study, conducted by L.R.S. Lakshmi among the Muslims (a Scheduled Tribe) of Lakshadweep. The study highlights how a well-planned investment by the Union Territory government, along with positive interventions by the Central government through policies like affirmative action, resulted in large-scale educational achievement and upliftment. The Lakshadweep islands’ proximity to Kerala, the most literate region in the country, also helped the cause. The case study makes a strong case for public provisioning as a viable means for providing quality equitable education.

Put together, the 11 essays in this volume provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the issues that plague education in India today, both in the context of school and higher education. If organised differently, these thematically distinct, though not unrelated, ideas could have provided a better reading experience.

Rupamanjari Hegde teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the views of the institution.

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