NEP 2020

Education at the mercy of the market

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Children who missed online classes owing to a lack of Internet facilities listen to pre-recorded lessons over loudspeakers in Dandwal village in Maharashtra on July 23. Photo: REUTERS

At a newly renovated classroom in a school run by the Delhi government in August 2019. The Delhi government’s substantial allocation to education made such facelifts possible. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

NEP 2020 greatly increases the scope of private participation in education, ignores the country’s pluralistic traditions, and furthers the neoliberal agenda of designing a profit-oriented system that serves corporate interests.

It is an intriguing but by now a hardly surprising fact that on June 24, the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry finalised a loan with the World Bank as the culmination of a process allowing for its third and final intervention (the earlier ones were the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) 1993-2002 and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) since 2002) in determining the structure, content and governance of the entire system of school education from pre-nursery to Class 12 through its Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States (STARS) programme. Barely one month later, on July 30,  HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal revealed through a PowerPoint presentation at a press conference in New Delhi that the Central Cabinet had “passed” for immediate implementation the long-delayed New Education Policy (NEP 2020).

Both events occurred under conditions of the still surging coronavirus pandemic across the nation. The long lockdown, which even now continues intermittently in affected States, districts, cities, towns and urban localities, has brought the economy to a halt.

Lakhs of migrant workers, deprived of even the barest incomes, returned to their hometowns and villages in the most atrocious conditions. Schools, colleges and universities have been closed since March and examinations have either not been held or are being held or threatened to be held online, creating confusion and panic among the majority of students in the universities. The last thing one would have expected was that the Cabinet would pass the NEP without presenting and debating it  in Parliament at a time when the people are concerned only with getting their lives back on track and coping with the  unprecedented health and economic crisis. If the Prime Minister has little more than Atmanirbharta to offer the people under these circumstances, surely the NEP 2020 could have waited.

Reforms during pandemic

However,  the Government of India (GOI) has been utilising the COVID-19 crisis to great advantage by passing several of its “reform” programmes without observing democratic niceties or permitting any democratic resistance.  It has allowed doing away with protective labour laws and collective bargaining, disinvesting the public sector including the Railways, privatising the electricity sector, reorganising banks, and clearing environmentally sensitive projects at break-neck speed. So why should the education system be spared?

The NEP 2020 states that its priority, like that of the World Bank,  is ensuring that quality education be made accessible to all children from pre-nursery to Class 12. So we would be justified in assuming then that the World Bank must be providing a hefty grant or at least a loan to the GOI to assist in realising this laudable goal. However, the finalised loan constitutes a mere 1.4 per cent of the total investment required for the SSA of which the STARS programme is a part. The Central and the State/Union Territories governments would be  contributing the remaining 98.6 per cent.%! Yet, the STARS programme will focus on the “whole school approach” and teacher education in the SSA in the selected “high performance States” of Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan and the “learning States” of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha. It will,  thereby, allow the World Bank to acquire an overarching role in:

    • influencing the teaching-learning content, practices and outcomes of the entire system of school education from ECCE onwards;

    • training and  monitoring faculty for implementing it;

    • setting up “merit-based” learning assessment systems to measure achievement based on the above; and

    • formulating and implementing governance reforms to cover, on the one hand, the training of educational officials and, on the other, function as an extensive outreach to train parents to participate in implementing the programme.

This raises the next obvious question. Is the World Bank an international educational institution? If not, then why is it being asked to design such a comprehensive programme for quality school education in India? Further, what has been the experience of the bank’s  earlier interventions in India’s school education system?

The World Bank as an international financial institution creates, regulates and safeguards markets for advancing the interests of international finance capital. It is neither equipped nor concerned with the educational rights and pedagogical concerns of providing quality education to the majority of India’s children who are deprived of the benefits of such education.

From the 1980s onwards, the World Bank has concentrated, particularly in the former colonial countries, on persuading governments to withdraw public resources from education and encourage the entry of private investors and a variety “non-state actors”. As the NEP 2020 itself advocates, this omnibus term may include multi-national corporations and corporate investors, NGOs, civil society/charitable/religious organisations and even “volunteers”. Under the garb of the new nomenclature of being “philanthropic” rather than merely “private” partners, the NEP promotes and commends their initiatives and role in sharing resources as well as in synergising the interaction between the public system and private agencies. “To further enhance cooperation and positive synergy among schools, including between public and private schools, the twinning/pairing of one public school with one private school will be adopted across the country, so that such paired schools may meet/interact with each other, learn from each other, and also share resources, if possible. Best practices of private schools will be documented, shared, and institutionalised in public schools, and vice versa, where possible" (NEP, 7.10).

However, it has become more than evident that with the collaboration of these “players”, governments can neither be held effectively accountable nor remain responsible for the state of the education system. The experience of the DPEP, designed and sponsored by the World Bank, should have made this clear already. Implemented in 18 States and almost half of India’s districts, it incorporated “low-cost” solutions in government schools to fill the need for greater accessibility and quality. The rapid deterioration of state-funded primary schools (Classes I-V) and the loss of credibility among those who depended most on the system, the Scheduled Castes(S.Cs), Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Muslims and other impoverished sections, resulted in the privatisation and commercialisation of school education, with the mushrooming of low-budget fee-charging private schools at a faster pace than ever since Independence.

This damaging experience was systematically ignored and the bank’s intervention in the SSA from 2002 onwards only carried it further. The Right to Education  Act, 2009, which legislated an “at least 25 per cent” quota for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) in admissions to private schools functioned as a “Trojan Horse” that set up privately funded school education as a “desireable” option and failed to emphasise its inherently defective pedagogical character, which fused quality in education with the capacity to pay. Yet, the third intervention has now been transacted with the World Bank.

Exclusion of the marginalised

Therefore, the  present government’s claim to have embarked on a path-breaking direction 34 years after the 1986-92 New Education Policy, is in fact entirely misplaced. It is  advancing the same strategy as previous governments which followed the perspective and approach of the World Bank model after the adoption of the neoliberal reforms policy in 1991. Public-private partnership (PPP) strategies, which lie at the core of the World Bank’s approach, do not provide better quality education. They increase the exclusion of the deprived and the marginalised, exploit a highly discriminatory multi-track system of education which is promoted by the play of market forces and divert from the constitutional goal of establishing a nation-wide system of quality education for all.

Although the NEP states that “the aim of the public school system will be to impart the highest quality education so that it becomes the most attractive option for parents from all walks of life for educating their children," (NEP, 8.9) and the present document opens with the assertion that "substantial investment in a strong, vibrant public education system as well as the encouragement and facilitation of true philanthropic private and community participation" will determine government  policy, the hackneyed solutions offered in the NEP 2020 belie the claim:

    • “To facilitate learning for all students, with special emphasis on socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs), the scope of school education will be broadened to facilitate multiple pathways to learning involving both formal and non-formal education modes. Open and Distance Learning (ODL) programmes offered by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and State Open Schools will be expanded and strengthened for meeting the learning needs of young people in India who are not able to attend a physical school. NIOS and State Open Schools will offer the following programmes in addition to the present programmes: A, B and C levels that are equivalent to Grades 3, 5, and 8 of the formal school system; secondary education programmes that are equivalent to Grades 10 and 12; vocational education courses/programmes; and adult literacy and life-enrichment programmes. States will be encouraged to develop these offerings in regional languages by establishing new/strengthening existing State Institutes of Open Schooling (SIOS)” (NEP, 3.5).

    •  “...various successful policies and schemes such as targeted scholarships, conditional cash transfers to incentivise parents to send their children to school, providing bicycles for transport, etc., that have significantly increased participation of SEDGs in the schooling system in certain areas...must be significantly strengthened across the country”  (NEP, 6.4).

    • “To make it easier for both governments as well as non-governmental philanthropic organisations to build schools, to encourage local variations on account of culture, geography, and demographics, and to allow alternative models of education, the requirements for schools will be made less restrictive. The focus will be to have less emphasis on input and greater emphasis on output potential concerning desired learning outcomes” (NEP, 3.6).

Does the much-needed inclusion of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme as an integral part of the school system offer any new directions? For universal access to ECCE, we are offered the old idea of “strengthening” anganwadi centres and equipping them with high-quality infrastructure, play equipment, and well-trained anganwadi workers/teachers. State governments would be responsible for training those educated upto 10+2 for six months while those with “lower” educational levels would receive training for one year. Anganwadis would be fully integrated with school complexes (NEP, 1.5.). Again, there is nothing new here, for they would continue to remain under several Ministries (Education; Women & Child Development; Health) as at present. Their separate functions are still not conceived of as integral parts of a significant and cohesive stage of the education system.

An unexamined proposal for establishing ashramshalas and “alternative schooling” for tribal areas earmarks them for “targeted attention”. The plan for “Special Educational Zones”, mentioned here only once but not elaborated, is confusing. Are these zones with large populations of the “underrepresented” (a euphemism for the deprived/marginalised) sections going to be merely separated from the rest of the system or will they receive special attention and support?

Serving corporate interests

The World Bank’s strategy since 1994 has been based on the promotion of:  i) a model of knowledge adjusted to the requirements of corporate  job markets; and ii) a market model of education delivery that involves the privatisation, commercialisation and corporatisation of education.

The latter model places the entire burden of education on the individual family and fee-paying parents or students. They are the  “consumers” who make it profitable for the investor/provider to enter the education market. PPP strategies encourage the transition to a “market” where edu-businesses strengthen their hold over public assets through government reimbursement and voucher schemes.

Governments indirectly further the process by starving and dismantling state-funded education systems through budgetary fund cuts and the subsequent “rationalisation”  proposals for the merger/closure of the crisis-ridden schools. NEP 2020 repeatedly endorses these strategies, which will continue to lead to a  massive exclusion from education of Bahujans, who constitute almost 85 per cent of the population. These strategies leave neither access nor agency for the SCs/ STs/ OBCs/ Muslims/ Denotified Tribes and girls, transgenders and the disabled within these already disempowered categories. The proposed creation of “Inclusion Funds” for them will neither change the commercialised character of the system nor even provide meaningful relief to individual recipients. 

The NEP 2020 also shares the main features of the World Bank approach to the model of knowledge. It approves of and promotes a perspective that is detrimental to establishing an equitable system of quality education in India as the contemporary “merchandisation” of education not only requires it to conform more closely to the needs of the job market but also to initiate its own transformation into a new and highly lucrative market.

Knowledge as a resource for critically comprehending the contemporary world, societies and value systems is now treated as being “too heavy” for current teaching-learning methodologies and curricula to handle. The “skills approach”, a functional assembly of performance-oriented qualities that signal their own desired level of achievement,  now defines the basic unit, module, topic of learning.

The “learning outcome”," too, is predetermined. The teaching-learning process is reduced to acquiring procedural competencies which can be “appropriately” graded for different levels. NEP 2020 is firmly committed to  classroom transactions shifting “towards competency-based learning and education. The assessment tools (including assessment “as”, “of”, and “for” learning) will also be aligned with the learning outcomes" (NEP, 4.6). The proposal for multiple exit and entry points from pre-nursery to Class 12, which begins early with the re-introduction of examinations at Classes 3, 5 and 8, is based on the identification of skill levels. “Specific sets of skills and values across domains will be identified for integration and incorporation at each stage of learning, from pre-school to higher education” (NEP, 4.4).

However, depriving students of the “content” of formal learning which not only develops fundamental disciplines, critical thinking and the creativity to innovate but also to  conceptualise opposition to social injustices and forms of discrimination, makes a mockery of all learning as it cultivates conformism in thought and produces persons fit only for being cogs in the economic and technological machine.

Regulatory centralisation

Approaching the  section on Higher Education, where regulatory centralizstion as achieved through the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), has been a long-standing demand of private investors, and the loss of democratic freedoms and academic autonomy with supreme authority being granted to Boards of Governors of institutions that must compulsorily become autonomous, is a painful and largely meaningless exercise. A regime which neither countenances nor respects the right of scholars to freedom of thought and expression can hardly expect to have its “official” policy statements taken seriously. When poets, academicians, public intellectuals and students, irrespective of their age, gender and physical condition, are incarcerated  on trumped-up and heinous charges of sedition and being a threat to “national security”, when universities are vandalised and scholars brutally beaten not only by the storm-troopers of the regime but also by the security forces, what else is left to be said about the government’s attitude towards higher education.

‘Idea of India’

The “vision” of NEP 2020 is “to instill among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds, as well as to develop knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions that support responsible commitment to human rights, sustainable development and living, and global well-being, thereby reflecting a truly global citizen." To this end,  the entire “curriculum and pedagogy, from the foundational stage onwards, will be redesigned to be strongly rooted in the Indian and local context and order to ensure that education is maximally relatable, relevant, interesting, and effective for our students” (NEP, 4.29).

In fact such exhortations are repeatedly invoked throughout the policy document, but the “idea of India” and the Indianess that is endorsed appear to be quite distinct from what we usually associate with the plurality and diversity of India. Being open to absorbing and negotiating with philosophical, religious, cultural and technological knowledge from other parts of the world was what India was once identified with. 

However, NEP 2020 states that the “Knowledge of India will include knowledge from ancient India and its contributions to modern India and its successes and challenges, and a clear sense of India’s future aspirations....”(NEP, 4.27). Completely missing from this leap across centuries are the changing experiences of numerous tribal communities; the powerful anti-caste cultural ideologies, monotheistic movements and  cults; the philosophical contestations within the various sects of what  later came to be referred to as Hinduism.  The political, cultural and technological impact of the exposure to central Asia, the arrival of Islam and the richness and complexity of its intellectual, cultural and sociological consequences which surround us in our daily lives are also absent. Equally surprising is the neglect of the period of colonial domination and the decades-long struggle of the Indian people, united through this struggle into a ‘nation’, surviving the tragedy of the Partition, and emerging out of the experience as an independent constitutional republic.

“India” is far greater, far more expansive, far richer in detail and far deeper in its experience of inequality and oppression than NEP 2020’s clumsy attempt to confine it to “Sanskrit knowledge systems" (NEP, 4.17), theory and literature. However much one may value the classical character of this tradition and its persistence over time, the failure (and it is an enormous failure)  to recognise the worth of the totality of our sub-continental history, culture and lived experience, immeasurably diminishes the very idea of “India”. An education policy that is unable to reflect this sweep of history does itself and the youth of India a grave injustice.

Madhu Prasad is with the All India Forum for the Right to Education.

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