Education&Social Equity

NEP 2020: High on rhetoric

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a conclave on higher education via video conferencing in New Delhi on August 7. Photo: PTI

An anganwadi centre in Mulastanam panchayat in East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, a file photograph. The policy proposes to develop anganwadis as nodal institutions for imparting early education and care. Photo: THE HINDU Archives

At the Delhi University’s Arts Faculty, North Campus, a file photograph. Higher education institutions are to become multidisciplinary under the new education policy. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The NEP makes tall promises, but there is no clarity of vision regarding actual translation of the goals of equity into reality.

At a time when all educational institutions remained practically shut because of the still raging COVID-19 pandemic, the Union Cabinet on July 29 approved National Education Policy 2020. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that it was a long-overdue and much-awaited reform in the education sector and would transform millions of lives. “The era of knowledge, where learning, research and knowledge are important, the new policy would transform India into a new knowledge hub,” he tweeted. The draft policy, according to Ramesh Pokhriyal, Union Human Resource Development Minister, had received over 2.25 lakh suggestions after it was put in the public domain. He tweeted that the policy was “in line with” the Prime Minister’s vision of making India a global knowledge superpower.

Modi’s tweet said that the NEP was based on “pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability and accountability”. “May education brighten our nation and lead it to prosperity,” he added, like a prophet. However, a close look at the policy belies his claim.

The 66-page policy document is a slim version of the voluminous draft prepared by a committee headed by K. Kasturirangan, former chief of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The last education policy was framed in 1986 and updated in 1992. This policy was left untouched in the first tenure of the National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, though many changes were made in the school textbooks, especially history textbooks. The exercise to prepare a new policy was initiated in 2016, during Modi’s first tenure as Prime Minister. The late T.S.R. Subramaniam, who was also a former Cabinet Secretary, was made the chairperson of a “Committee for the Evolution of a New Education Policy”. The Ministry prepared an initial draft based on the committee’s report. A new committee, headed by Kasturirangan, finalised the draft in May 2019. This was placed in the public domain and inputs and suggestions were invited.

In essence, the policy is top-down in character. Its proposals range from a single regulator for higher education institutions, multiple entry and exit options in degree courses, discontinuation of M.Phil programmes, setting up of school and university complexes, multidisciplinary universities, online school and college education and common entrance examinations for universities. Any policy aimed at universal quality education must also make education affordable, but the new policy has little to say on this aspect. The policy envisions education as “a key to India’s continued ascent and leadership on the global stage”, whereas the aim of education should be promotion of critical thinking and furthering of social and economic equality. The goal of “cultural preservation”, as listed at the outset, points to the Sangh Parivar’s agenda of cultural nationalism. The underlying “politics” of the policy is apparent in the long paragraph on the glory of ancient India where everything was picture perfect and where “seamless accessible knowledge” was available to all.

A key aspect of the new policy is the disproportionate focus on “high quality” educational opportunities for the individual’s growth. It is the process by which quality education is sought to be provided that is questionable.

‘Complete reconfiguration’

On the face of it, the policy seems to have been drafted with the objective of achieving the educational goals laid down in the agenda for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. According to the policy, a “complete reconfiguration” of the education system is needed to reach these goals. It identifies multiple challenges at the global level, including the need for skilled labour, and advocates multidisciplinary institutions and courses. The policy presupposes a new “knowledge and an employment landscape” for which Indian education must prepare itself and where “how to learn” is more important than “what to learn”. The policy is replete with meaningless statements put together. For instance, education will have less content but must also promote critical thinking and help people to solve problems and be creative.

It says the gaps between objective and outcome need to be bridged with reforms, but there is no critical assessment of what leads to these gaps. The policy speaks of revising and revamping all aspects of education structure, though its key emphasis is on removing existing regulatory aspects.

The policy talks about recruiting teachers and encouraging the best and the brightest to enter education. Teachers are to be the “centre of the fundamental reforms, in the education system”, it says. The policy promises to secure teachers’ livelihoods and ensure their dignity and autonomy and at the same time make sure that there is quality control and accountability. Yet, there is no acknowledgement that thousands of teachers work in ad hoc capacity at both school and university levels, all recruited over the past several years, even in States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Notwithstanding the rhetoric on the “dignity, respect and autonomy” of teachers, this government paid scant heed to concerns raised by teachers’ associations and federations regarding the holding of examinations by September-end. The government also completely ignored the concerns that the teachers raised about the difficulties and ethical issues involved in online and open-book examinations.

The policy lists 22 apparently harmless fundamental principles. These include a focus on “extensive use of technology in teaching and learning”, a “light and tight regulatory framework”, “rootedness and pride in India and its rich diverse ancient and modern culture, knowledge systems and traditions” and “investment in a strong vibrant public education system” accompanied by encouragement of “true philanthropic, private and community participation”. The emphasis on the use of technology has led to genuine apprehensions that the government wants to push online education as a dominant method of teaching and learning. In the allusion to the rich heritage of India, the medieval period has been conspicuously omitted.

State: trimmed responsibility

The document observes that quality early childhood care and education is not available to crores of children. But nowhere does the policy recommend that it is the state’s responsibility to fulfil the mandate of quality, affordable and accessible education for all. The delivery of early childhood care envisaged in the policy is problematic. Under the policy, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) centres or anganwadis will be developed as nodal institutions for achieving universal early childhood care. The policy gives little thought to the already existing work that the ICDS is entrusted with—providing nutritious food and care to children between three and six years of age. There is no thought on the workers and helpers of these centres, who get a meagre honorarium for the crucial services that they render. There is no effort to address the proliferation of private child care centres or private schools in small towns and rural areas. In short, the vision of the new policy does not encompass a common school system where children from all social and economic backgrounds receive the same quality of education. Children attending schools in anganwadis or those attached to anganwadis are definitely at a disadvantage in comparison with privileged children in towns and cities.

The policy says that in tribal areas early childhood care and education will be introduced in “ashramshalas”, the Sanskrit term for schools and learning centres. Why tribal areas with their distinct local and cultural traditions (and tradition is a hobby horse of this government) should have schools called ashrams defies logic. But, of course, it is commensurate with the Sangh Parivar ideology.

Further, the suggestion of peer tutoring in order to meet the gaps in attaining universal literacy and numeracy in effect frees the state from any financial or other responsibility. The policy talks about achieving 100 per cent gross enrolment ratios in primary and secondary stages of schooling, but it liberalises the requirements and standards for schools. Rather than bridge the schism between economic and social classes and adopt the principle of “taking the school” to the child, the policy openly advocates non-formal systems of schooling for those who are unable to attend a “physical school”. The policy describes forms of schooling as “multiple pathways” to learning.

The policy recommends reducing the “curricular content”, a goal that all National Democratic Alliance governments pursued in varying degrees. Each subject will only have “core essentials” in order to “make space for more holistic-based, inquiry based, discovery based and analysis-based thinking”.

The policy’s latent bigotry is revealed in the section on languages. India’s languages, it says, “are among the richest, most scientific, most beautiful and most expressive in the world with a huge body of ancient as well as modern literature (prose and poetry), film and music written in these languages that help form India’s national identity and wealth”. The exclusion of the medieval period and its contributions to language, arts, music and aesthetics is clearly deliberate, as is the exclusion of Urdu from the list of classical and regional languages that the policy purports to offer as an option in schools. In the list of foreign languages, Mandarin does not feature but Russian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Korean and even Thai are included. While the policy steers clear of mentioning Hindi as one of the three languages in its proposed three-language formula for school education, the insistence on Sanskrit as one of the three languages has raised the hackles of some governments, especially of States that follow the two-language formula and States where Sanskrit is not the “base” language.

The policy has outlined big plans to revamp the curricular framework for school education prepared and designed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). In the section on curricular integration, a sub-section on “Knowledge of India” says that knowledge from ancient India and its contributions to modern India will be included in the curriculum. The policy once again leaps from ancient to modern India without any reference to the medieval period and its contribution to knowledge systems. It proposes to include a course on “Indian Knowledge Systems” that will include “tribal knowledge and indigenous and traditional ways of learning” which will be used as pedagogical tools for various subjects ranging from mathematics to engineering to linguistics, throughout the school curriculum.

On higher education, the policy begins by taking away the role that universities and university faculty have in the examination system right from the stage of framing questions for the university entrance examinations for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Aiming to reduce the burden on students, teachers and universities, the policy aims to set up a National Testing Agency (NTA) that will have a common aptitude test. It will conduct examinations for undergraduate and graduate admissions and for grant of fellowships in higher educational institutions. Universities, it says, will be free to use the NTA assessments for admissions.

Push for private/philanthropic sector

The policy makes a case for promoting education in the private sector. While it proposes a centralised examination system for admissions to undergraduate and graduate course, it is also sharply critical of the Department of School Education, which deals with governance and regulation of all schools. According to the policy, the present system has led to “conflicts of interest, excessive centralised concentration of power, inefficient management of the school system”. It says the current regulatory regime has failed to check the commercialisation of education and economic exploitation of parents and has also “inadvertently discouraged public spirited/ private philanthropic schools”. The policy says that there was “therefore far too much asymmetry between the regulatory approaches to public and private schools”. The policy lays bare its intent to “encourage the private/philanthropic school sector” to enable them to play a significant role. This is the first time that an education policy has so brazenly advocated the private school system.

Online is the way

The policy aims to make all higher educational institutions (HEIs) multidisciplinary by the year 2040 with enrolment running into thousands. Single-stream institutions will be phased out. But for enrolment to run into thousands, the gross enrolment ratio for students in secondary and higher education levels will also have to be in thousands. Perhaps realising that there was a long way to go before such a goal is reached, the policy says that “as the process would take time, HEIs will firstly plan to become multidisciplinary by 2030 and then gradually increase student strength to the desired levels”. The aim will be to increase the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from 26.3 per cent (2018) to 50 per cent by 2035. In a bid to push online teaching, higher educational institutions will be encouraged to promote open distance learning and online programmes.

The policy aims to increase online learning in school and higher education, thereby creating more categories of educational access that will not necessarily bridge the social and economic divide the policy claims to address. Instead of offering universal and undifferentiated access to education, the policy aims to create multiple streams—formal, non-formal, mainstream, alternative, online and offline education. It proposes to encourage higher educational institutions to offer freeships and to set up a “fee determining mechanism” that would enable “reasonable recovery of cost while ensuring that HEIs discharge their social obligations”.

The proposal of online training of teachers completely ignores the digital divide that exists in India, more so in the tribal and remote parts. Like health, education in India is hugely privatised. Nearly 45.2 per cent of college enrolment is in private unaided colleges, while 21.2 per cent of enrolment is in private aided colleges. More than 60 per cent of enrolment in professional courses is in aided and unaided private institutions. Earlier, public institutions used to dominate university enrolment.

In a discussion on a television channel on the National Education Policy, an academic described as a representative of the “Right” let on that the government had “committed itself to the World Trade Organisation” and that the NEP proposals were in line with that commitment. The philosophy that informs the new policy views education as a commodity rather than as a service.