Interview: Prof Krishna Kumar

Prof. Krishna Kumar: ‘NEP 2020 offers more of the same remedy’

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Professor Krishna Kumar, former Director of NCERT. Photo: R. Ravindran

Interview with Professor Krishna Kumar, former director, National Council of Educational Research and Training.

After being in the pipeline for many years, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is finally here at a time when educational institutions are shut for the foreseeable future owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Does the NEP match up to the demands of the times or does it threaten to entrench the age-old hierarchies of caste and other inequities? Professor Krishna Kumar, who served as the Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) from 2004 to 2010 and who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2011, spoke to Frontline on some of these issues.

Excerpts from the interview:

Coming as it does during the pandemic, the NEP does not fully acknowledge the COVID-19 situation. How feasible would it be to implement such a document now?

It is astonishing that the ground realities created by COVID-19 find no significant acknowledgement in the NEP, although the word “pandemic” is used a few times in passing. Several international organisations concerned with children and education have issued elaborate advisories. They have asked member states to recognise the problems that education systems will have to face in the coming years. These are not merely financial, but finances to redesign institutions will also constitute a major challenge.

The document talks about the familiar 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) being spent on education. If the GDP itself contracts, an increased educational spending may not be substantial enough to compensate for the losses that have already been incurred. Consider just one example. We have no estimates at the moment as to how the closure of cooked mid-day meals has affected children’s nutrition levels over the recent months. Grain and money have been used to substitute cooked meals. Any estimation must take into account the impact of prolonged hunger on children’s health in different age-bands of infancy and early childhood.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had specific impacts on later stages of childhood, such as adolescence, that no one can claim to grasp today. It is related to the economic conditions their parents are facing. A recent study of artisans indicates how severe their losses are and how much support they will require if crafts as a source of livelihood are to survive the COVID-19 crisis. For their children, too, the crisis could have irreversible consequences.

What will happen to Right to Education (RTE) Act and all the progress that was made under it? The NEP offers a new structure for children from ages three to six. How feasible is this structure?

This is a serious concern. The document does not seem to recognise the shift that RTE, its enactment as law, signified. When it was promulgated a decade ago, complying with its demanding norms and applying them to the burgeoning private sector were major tasks for Central and State governments. Many States had a seven-year [school] cycle, involving a four-year primary stage. It took considerable effort to persuade these States to move to an eight-year cycle with a five-year primary stage. The financial implications of this move are still waiting to be addressed.

The RTE Act basically envisaged the acceptance of an elementary stage, grounded in sound psychological and pedagogic imperatives. Progress towards this systemic adjustment will now be hampered by the introduction of yet another structure that the NEP proposes, clubbing the first two years of primary schooling with three years of nursery. This clubbing will encourage people to formalise the nursery period, which is unfortunate for children. This has already been happening on a large scale.

There are infrastructural issues too. The NEP mentions anganwadis and nurseries in the same breath. Anganwadis represent a childcare system. Their workers have been struggling for recognition, dignity and reasonable emoluments. The NEP does not clarify whether the new 5+3 structure will bring in new salary scales. Apart from anganwadis, there are lakhs of privately run nurseries where unrecognised teachers work in exploitative conditions. The NEP says a curriculum will be drafted for the new composite stage, but a curriculum alone cannot deal with the anomalies this step entails.

Apart from this, the NEP attempts to revive the pre-RTE era parlance of non-formal instruction which featured the involvement of local community volunteers to help children. In the background of this revival, quality becomes a matter of judging by outcomes of a curtailed curriculum. This outcome-driven strategy needs to be read against a scenario formed by curricular minimalism which hits the poorest sections hardest. Financially, too, there was pressure to reduce the curriculum mechanically; now it has got into a policy document in the form of emphasis on old basics like literacy and numeracy. The RTE had kindled the hope that norm-governed schooling with a comprehensive child-centred curriculum would be made available to all children. The NEP does not want us to sustain that hope.

The RTE is facing another challenge today. Millions of children have gone back to villages this summer with their parents. They have been studying in far-off cities in different linguistic regions. Back in their villages, they might remain out of school unless proactive measures are taken to enrol them in local schools, with specific measures taken to address their linguistic needs. Since their parents are struggling for a livelihood, these children are exposed to the danger of joining the child labour market. It is disappointing that the NEP does not address their particular vulnerability. The financial problems of implementing RTE have been growing over the years, especially in the northern belt. With the difficulties that low-fee private schools are facing because parents are unable to pay on account of job loss, the RTE’s hope is getting thinner. I expected the NEP to address this.

Vocational education

In a departure from the current practice where vocational education begins at Class 11, the NEP proposes the inculcation of vocational education from Class 6 onwards.

RTE laid down eight years of compulsory schooling for all, with a comprehensive curriculum that includes science, health and arts education, apart from language and math. The NEP talks about an exposure to skill-centric experience, starting with the upper primary level. The integration of productive skills in the academic curriculum is hardly a new idea. By delaying the introduction of vocational learning, the Kothari Commission and other older policy documents attempted to give sufficient time to children from all social strata to attain an all-round academic exposure.

This was deemed important in a social set-up where hierarchies rooted in a knowledge versus skill binary are very sharp and deeply entrenched in the caste system. Reluctance to acknowledge the role of caste does not help. Letting vocational opportunities be introduced from Class 6 runs the risk of resuscitating entrenched hierarchies, especially at a time when unemployment might be high, traditional livelihoods are under severe strain and the mindless adoption of new technologies is deskilling people.

In general, does the NEP fulfil the expectations it created through the long period of its gestation?

Documents of educational policy are usually difficult to decipher, and this is no exception. I can empathise with those involved in the exercise of formulating a policy in our times. They had to balance so many contradictory demands and trends. Since the early 1990s, educational planners have been in a dilemma. Economic policy demanded opening up education to private investment while social policy demanded that emphasis on equity and social justice should continue. This is not a simple binary and its implications differ according to region and stage. Over the years, the education bazaar has become increasingly cluttered. In higher education, tools like accreditation and licensing were applied, but these tools could hardly cope with the scale and diversity of the market. The NEP negotiates the task of balancing between public funding and private investment with the customary instruments of generalised hope and distant time horizons. The text carries many signs of an overconscious attempt to balance the awareness of a slippery reality and the necessity to sustain the hope of radical reforms.

For handling the tension between Centre-State orbits, the NEP presses old remedies into service. One is the three-language formula. Since the time it was first proposed, its meaning has remained ambiguous. Within the Kothari Commission report, its deceptive attraction was duly indicated. Yet another instrument to keep systemic functioning in order has been the good old examination system controlled by boards, one at the Centre (in addition to a private one) and one in each State. Board exams handle and hide social disparities (between the clientele of State boards and the restricted all-India clientele of the Central board) by upholding the regime of merit. This arrangement has discouraged significant curricular pedagogic reforms. Failure rates have been high in many States. Shortly before the NEP’s public arrival, syllabus cuts were announced as a special measure for the COVID-19 situation. Now the NEP also indicates curricular shrinking in the name of efficiency. These ideas are not compatible with concern for quality.

The abolition of M.Phil, multiple exit points for certificate, diploma and degree courses and the one-year integrated Masters programmes are being hailed as innovative steps. The document emphasises controlling dropouts. But would such a system not encourage more dropouts?

One does not expect a macro policy to come down hard on a specific degree course. The case of M.Phil is a bit surprising, given the NEP’s fondness for flexibility, choice and exits. The M.Phil course suited students who could not commit themselves to the length of a doctoral programme. Why it has been axed is puzzling.

Barring this exception where an alternative degree is being banned, the NEP shows its preference for a United States-type self-tailored academic trajectory. Elements of this shift from the old British-type frozen degree programmes to a U.S. model have been gathering favour over the recent years. Experience shows that this transplanting has not proved easy or fertile. Even the semester system has not enhanced academic rigour, mainly because the exam pattern has remained unreformed and the infrastructure has not expanded. The four-year B.A. programme at Delhi University proved a failure. The NEP wants to make it the norm. Let us see where it finally germinates.

A host of new frameworks and bodies have been envisaged in the policy, such as Special Education Zones; School Quality Assessment and Accreditation Framework; Performance Assessment, Review and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development (PARAKH); and National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education (NCPFECCE). How would they integrate with the existing system?

These kinds of remedial regulatory measures have been in fashion for some time. They illustrate the scale of the problem our [educational] system is facing. Its historically shaped character continues to exert resistance and one expects national policies to recognise it. Since its birth in the 19th century, the system evolved in response to provincial diversity and demands. Later a Central layer was put in place. Mitigating the friction between the two has constituted the core policy space.

With the entry of commercial players, regulation replaced administrative control as the preferred instrument for maintenance of standards. The question is not how centralised the regulatory mechanism may be; more important is the question whether it works. From capitation fee to single entrance tests, so many issues have demonstrated the vulnerability of regulatory mechanisms, not to mention the endemic corruption that the judiciary has noted with distress several times in professional education. The NEP offers more of the same remedy, indicating that the box has no innovations for now.

Foreign universities are going to be allowed now—which is surprising, given the avowed preference for indigenous resources—and they will pose another challenge for regulation. I suppose a basic division of labour has been accepted: social justice is for the public system to handle, while its private counterpart handles the interface with economy and industry.

In higher education, the focus is more on regulation by a centralised board of governors more accountable to the Central government than to the autonomous university system. While the NEP talks about teachers, it does not address their precarious conditions.

Yes, these difficulties are there, partly because no recovery plan is offered. The system has been functioning with a range of tacit policies. Vacancies in the higher education system became endemic more than two decades ago. The Fifth and Sixth Pay Commissions were anticipated to bring in a reduction in staff size, but the speed and extent of the growth of ad hoc appointments proved remarkable, destroying countless careers and pushing a vast talented pool of young people away from teaching. I had expected the NEP to present a recovery plan, but all it offers is a time-bound recruitment promise.

Disseminative use of technology may further deplete real academic strength. Few private institutions adhere to salary norms, and public institutions have learnt to function with chronic shortages. Both teaching and research have suffered though the inner reality remains invisible to the world outside.