Interview: Prof Shyam B. Menon

For the middle class and the market

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Prof. Shyam Menon. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Professor Shyam B. Menon, former Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University of Delhi.

The National Education Policy (NEP) ruffled more than a few feathers with its contentious recommendations on medium of instruction, revamp of the education system, and emphasis on rhetoric rather than detail. Frontline spoke to Prof. Shyam B. Menon, former Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University of Delhi, to understand the broader implications of the policy. He has had a distinguished career spanning more than three decades as an educationist. Excerpts from an interview:

Is the intent behind the NEP more political than pedagogical?

To answer your question, I need to first try and locate the policy in a context. In a sector like education where the bulk of the operations are within the domain of the States, a national policy should be seen for what it is: it is merely a statement of intention promulgated by the Union government. Operationalising a national policy in education is a vicarious exercise—it involves a complex process that also comprises in a big way persuading the State governments to implement the provisions of the policy.

As it stands now, it is actually even difficult to call NEP 2020 a truly “national” policy. It was never debated in and approved by Parliament. I am not sure whether it had been examined and deliberated on in the CABE [Central Advisory Board of Education] with any application of mind. Actually, it baffles me why the legitimacy of approval by Parliament was denied to this policy. This undermines both the policy and Parliament. There may not be a constitutional requirement for it. But there is definitely a set convention. It would have been easier to take the States along in the implementation of the policy, had NEP 2020 been taken through Parliament.

Every policy document has essentially two parts. The first part is the vision that sets the stage by painting the big picture as a backdrop. The second is the substantive part that sets out more specifically the intentions of the government. While setting the stage, usually some recollection of history, sometimes somewhat selective, happens. Also, as props for the stage would be a few keywords, often drawn from the Constitution, strung together and woven into the document as a background tapestry. The political messaging is located here, not just in the usage of particular keywords but also in the omission of certain others.

It appears to me that the utility of a national policy in education is primarily as a political document addressing particularly the core constituency that the dominant political formation draws support from. There are of course conflicting interests within this core constituency. I see two distinct segments that see a common cause with each other and at the same time have conflicts of interest. One, the market forces and an upwardly mobile and fiercely aspirational middle class whose fortunes are critically aligned with those of the market forces; and two, those who are ideologically oriented towards cultural nationalism. It becomes imperative for a policy not to explicitly go against the ideological segment while painting the big picture. At the same time, the specific provisions of the policy, although couched in rhetoric, will need to give scope for multiple interpretations, ensuring that in practice these will not go against the interests of the middle class and the market. Ambiguity and vagueness are thus a virtue in policy formulation.

How does the NEP fare when compared with the earlier policies on education? Does it intend to replace scientific and secular principles with traditional Indian value systems?

It is not that NEP 2020 is totally at disjunction with the earlier national policies on education. There is continuity as well as shift of emphasis. Several key concepts invoked in NEP 2020 are similar to the ones used in NPE 1968 and NPE 1986. For instance, when envisaging an educated individual, scientific temper and ethical/moral values are categories that are used by all three policies. On the other hand, when it comes to citizenship, NEP 2020 talks about “engaged, productive and contributing citizens” (p.4), while the earlier policies talked about “creating a sense of common citizenship and culture and strengthening the national integration” (NPE 1968, p.2), and “contribut(ing) to national cohesion … and independence of mind and spirit” (NPE 1986/1992, p.4). NPE 1986/1992 is explicit in its invocation of democracy, socialism and secularism (p.4), and NPE 1968 has a clear mention of “realising the ideal of a socialist pattern of society” (p.2). However, these categories are conspicuous by their absence in NEP 2020.

Does this mean that NEP 2020 has jettisoned democracy, secularism and socialism from public discourse? Perhaps not. But, it is definitely attempting to normalise a discourse that does not display these categories prominently. That is how the present is sought to be depicted as distinct and disjointed from the past. These constitute posturing, and that is presumably what the core constituency wants to see in the policy.

My sense is that NEP 2020 steers clear of being seen as tilted too much to one or the other of the two segments of the core constituency that I mentioned earlier. This tightrope walk is evident not merely in the vision or posturing part of the policy, but in its substantive part as well. The ambiguity and the reluctance to get into details are indicative of this. There is also no mention of a strategy for financing or implementing the policy, not even a strategy to arrive at strategies in various contexts (a meta-strategy if you like).

So, in response to your question, I would not say that NEP 2020, as a document per se, has the potential to replace the secular and scientific values with traditional values. It is seldom that an education policy left to itself creates major social transformations. If it could, then because of NPE 1968, we would have been a socialist society by now. Secular and scientific values are more likely to be undermined by political processes than through an education policy.

Of course, a whole lot depends on which provisions of the policy get activated, negotiated, pruned and adjusted in the process of implementation, and when and in what sequence it is likely to happen. And, more important, it depends critically on what other major political and economic disruptions are likely to unfold in the next few years in the larger arena. Anyway, it is going to be one long-drawn process and perhaps quite a messy one at that.

On medium of instruction

One of the major polarising ideas in the NEP is around the medium of instruction: “…uptil grade 5 and preferably till grade 8 and beyond will be home language/mother tongue/local language.” What might be the implications of doing away with English as a medium of instruction?

The paragraphs on Multilingualism and Power of Language make interesting reading to students of education policy. It is clear that the formulations in these paragraphs are carefully crafted, leaving enough scope for multiple interpretation and vagueness. They have inserted the phrase “wherever possible” in a few places, vesting the onus of interpreting the implications of this provision on the States and the school systems. So, I don’t see any clear position as regards English as a medium of instruction. While the policy makes postures in favour of home language or mother tongue, in the letter of the policy there is still enough ambiguity that leaves several backdoors ajar for English to sneak in.

As I said earlier, it is quite unlikely that a national policy on education in this epoch will go against the market forces and the interests of the middle class. History teaches us this very clearly. The Education Commission (1964-66) recommended the establishment of a “common school system of public education” and the “neighbourhood school” as a single site of education for both the poor and the rich, implying that there would no longer be multiple channels of education for children from varying backgrounds. However, by the time it was incorporated in NPE 1968, the term “neighbourhood school” had been dropped. At the level of political posturing there was enormous support for a common school system. All the same, a system of schools that were common for the poor and the rich could never become a reality, thanks to a powerful and determined nexus of elites—within the government, in the professions, in business—and the upwardly mobile middle class, who together quietly ensured the subversion of this policy initiative which had held enormous potential for social transformation.

Caste and reservation

Is the absence of terms caste and reservation from the NEP document a matter of worry?

NEP 2020 is reticent on the subject of equality as a guiding principle. It does not acknowledge the enormous inequality in Indian society and its historical roots, nor does it envisage education as a potential equaliser in a normative sense. It is as though the policy uncritically accepts inequality as a given.

The terms “SEDG” [socio-economically disadvantaged groups] and “under-representation” hide the structural and historical exclusion and injustice that the S.C., S.T., OBC [the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes] and women have suffered. I see this as an attempt to create and normalise a new discourse that views every social category through the empirical lens of under-representation, and does not recognise the structural dimensions and the historical roots of exclusion and marginalisation.

The social policy of reservation, however, has deeper roots and a greater political significance. It is secured in terms of constitutional provisions. So, I am not too worried that it does not find mention in NEP 2020. In fact, reservation had not been mentioned explicitly in the earlier policies as well.

What is your view on the revamping of the higher education system by the abolition of M.Phil, one-year integrated master’s degree, and options for opting out?

While envisaging structures and programmes in higher education, the default template is often natural sciences and engineering. NEP 2020 found M.Phil redundant essentially because of a lack of appreciation of how this programme plays a meaningful role in preparing researchers and practitioners in some of the best known institutions of social sciences and humanities. The nature of initiation into research is very different in these disciplines, and therefore needs a different imagination of a pre-doctoral programme.

Another problem with the discontinuation of M.Phil is that it is based on the false assumption that people pursue pre-doctoral and doctoral studies only as a requirement for an academic position. In the social sciences and humanities, there are a large number of M.Phil graduates who have got into positions in development sector, journalism, market research, corporate sector, government, etc. These are people who did not want to get into academic research through a doctoral programme, yet wanted a research orientation and deeper understanding of a specialised area, something more than what they got at the master’s level. In some universities, there are special M.Phil programmes in areas like development practice, psychotherapy and social entrepreneurship for preparing master’s degree holders to become practitioners after advanced training, internship and a dissertation. Such programmes are stacked above the master’s degree, but do not lead to a doctoral programme.

In any case, a national policy should not get into micromanagement. They should leave some of these innovative ideas to be pursued by universities which have the capacities to do so. It would have been better for the policy to stick to broad structures and talk in terms of an expansive space of choices for universities than to specify which programme is in and which is out. After all, there are regulatory bodies that the policy has envisaged for thinking in those terms.

To your general question on the revamping of higher education, I have a short answer. Flexible templates of integrated programmes with multiple exit options can be quite useful for an innovative university to build some of their academic programmes on.

Public funding

While it has progressive ideals such as universalisation of education, controlling dropouts and increasing the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), how easy will it be to implement the NEP? Given the COVID pandemic, universities have cut the salaries of teachers citing unavailability of funds. Some have even said they might not be able to pay the salaries beyond two months. Where will the funds to implement the NEP come from?

Implementing most provisions of NEP 2020 will need substantial increase in public investment in education. The policy reiterates the commitment made in the previous national policies to increase public funding on education. This is one place where NEP 2020 invokes partnership with the States. “The Centre and the States will work together to increase the public investment in education sector to reach 6 per cent of the GDP at the earliest” (p.61). But, how may this be achieved and how soon? Already there is an educational cess being levied, which now goes into the budget outlay for education. In spite of this, the public expenditure on education incurred by the Union government has been declining proportionately and in absolute terms for the past few years. Given the state of the economy, not to mention the contraction that it has suffered because of the pandemic and the lockdown, it cannot be a realistic expectation that there will be any enhancement in public spending on education for the next few years. Also, there are other competing sectors like health and defence that may receive greater priority in these difficult years.

NEP 2020 talks somewhat vaguely about public institutions mobilising funds from private philanthropic sources. While this may be helpful, this is no substitute for the grant-in-aid that supports them. It may be possible for private players to set up institutions, but the education they offer will in all likelihood be unaffordable and inaccessible to young people from the social and economic margins. The huge additional intake of students on account of the increase in GER in higher education targeted by NEP 2020 will largely become the responsibility of public institutions.

It will need substantial transfer of funds from the Centre to the States for the next five years or more in the form of grants or through Centrally sponsored schemes for the States to increase public investment in education and to begin to implement the provisions of NEP 2020. But, will the Centre be capable of and willing to do so? That is a question to which one does not have a definite answer for the present.

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