National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 , approved by the Union Cabinet and announced on July 31, has evoked a variety of responses. Immediately afterwards, Education Secretary Amit Khare announced speedy implementation of its provisions that would not have immediate financial implications (August 1, 2020, The Times of India ). This, in itself, raises questions. If educational institutions mobilise and/or are taken over by those who can afford to do so, the ongoing process of privatisation will probably proceed at breakneck speed. These possibilities are worrying, to say the least.
As many as a hundred recommendations are apparently in the pipeline, many of which are to be initiated/implemented within a month. Therefore, examining the provisions and implications of the policy acquires a certain urgency. Here I focus on two issues—timelines and traditions, even as there is much more that deserves, and will hopefully receive, attention.
First, Khare’s immediate timeline. This pertains primarily to higher education. Academic credit transfers are expected to be put in place by December 2020 for select institutions; multiple exit and entry points into higher education will be available from 2020-21; the four-year degree programme will be introduced by 2021 for Central universities and for others by 2022. Common entrance tests will be worked out by February-March 2021, and administered, possibly, by May 2021.
This speed does not factor in the enormous strain that most higher educational institutions have faced during the pandemic, which is by no means over. This strain has been particularly severe on the vast majority of the diverse student population that finds a space, not necessarily ideal, within public universities, both State and Central. This space will probably be transformed beyond recognition. Apart from the human cost, there are likely to be financial costs as well.
There are other far-reaching changes envisaged within a year or two. These include “The formulation of a new and comprehensive National Curricular Framework for School Education, NCFSE 2020-21” [NEP 4.30], as also a Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education [NEP 5.28]. By 2022, we may expect National Professional Standards for Teachers to be laid down [NEP 5.20] and the assessment system for schools may be transformed by the academic session of 2022-23, in accordance with the proposed NCF 2020-21 [NEP 4.39]. Thus, the next two years will see far-reaching changes in both higher education and high school education.
Subsequently, the proposed pace of change slows down a bit. Also noteworthy is the shift in priorities. So, although declared to be “the highest priority of the education system”, the target of achieving “universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school” is set for 2025 [NEP 2.2]. And it is by that year that “at least 50% of learners through the school and higher education system shall have exposure to vocational education” [NEP 16.5].
The next significant year is 2030. Interestingly, extending support for Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), which has earned considerable appreciation and applause, “must thus be achieved as soon as possible, and no later than 2030” [NEP 1.1]. That is also the year proposed to attain 100 per cent gross enrolment ratio (GER) in preschool to secondary level [NEP 3.1] and by when a new integrated B.Ed degree is expected to become the universal norm [NEP 5.23]. Also, by then we may expect at least one large multidisciplinary higher education institution (HEI) in or near every district [NEP 10.8]. Further, we learn that “Since this process will take time, all HEIs will firstly plan to become multidisciplinary by 2030, and then gradually increase student strength to the desired levels” [NEP 10.7].
The next landmark year is 2035, by when the GER in higher education, including vocational education, is expected to reach 50 per cent [NEP 10.8]. It is also the year by when affiliated colleges are to be phased out [NEP 10.12] and “all HEIs in India will aim to become independent self-governing institutions”, having Boards of Governors in place [NEP 19.2].
It is only in 2040 that we can expect “an education system…that is second to none, with equitable access to the highest-quality education for all learners regardless of social or economic background” [NEP, Introduction, page 3].
Several provisions are introduced without mentioning any time frame. Consider two examples: “All scholarships and other opportunities and schemes available to students from SEDGs [socially and economically disadvantaged groups] will be coordinated and announced by a single agency and website to ensure that all students are aware of, and may apply in a simplified manner on such a ‘single window system’, as per eligibility [NEP 6.18].… HEIs will have the flexibility to offer different designs of Master’s programmes: (a) there may be a 2-year programme with the second year devoted entirely to research for those who have completed the 3-year Bachelor’s programme; (b) for students completing a 4-year Bachelor’s programme with Research, there could be a 1-year Master’s programme; and (c) there may be an integrated 5-year Bachelor’s/Master’s programme. Undertaking a Ph.D shall require either a Master’s degree or a 4-year Bachelor’s degree with Research. The M.Phil programme shall be discontinued” [NEP 11.10].
Notice a certain brisk breathlessness in the way in which these provisions are enumerated. Some of these, such as the discontinuance of the M.Phil programme, have also been announced over the media, and one is left wondering about the proposed pace of transformation and the logic behind them.
Where do the presence/absence of timelines lead us? For one, the “flexibility” with which the timelines are drawn, or their absence, makes it difficult to track them and figure out their implications. In some cases, such as school curriculum, we are likely to see rapid changes. In other instances, such as ECCE, changes may be much slower, and again may seem to correspond with the timeline. In yet other instances, where there are no timelines, or there are relatively long timelines, we may encounter rapid implementation, even before the implications of the provisions have been absorbed, understood and responded to. This will possibly happen in the case of HEIs.
The impact is likely to be felt most sharply by those making the transition from school to HEIs in the next few years, in a situation where the pandemic and the preceding and succeeding economic downturn have destabilised the intertwined worlds of education and employment in unprecedented ways. A degree of deliberation and care would perhaps make for a far more humane response, rather than adding to the enormous stress being faced by young people by briskly announcing and implementing policies designed in a pre-pandemic situation, whose implications are uncertain in a rapidly changing, unpredictable world.
Second, one would expect that the changes in ECCE, which have been widely welcomed, would have been prioritised. But, as noted above, the priorities for implementation seem to begin midstream in the life of the learner—with the transformation of high school and HEIs targeted within the next two years. The logic behind these choices is not apparent.
Turning to and away from traditions
I would also like to draw attention to the relationship between the NEP and two different traditions—one ancient and the other modern.
First the ancient. An examination of the lists of languages mentioned in the NEP reveals the special place accorded to Sanskrit. To cite one instance: “Due to its vast and significant contributions and literature across genres and subjects, its cultural significance, and its scientific nature… Sanskrit will be mainstreamed with strong offerings in school—including as one of the language options in the three-language formula—as well as in higher education…. Sanskrit teachers in large numbers will be professionalised across the country in mission mode through the offering of 4-year integrated multidisciplinary B.Ed. dual degrees in education and Sanskrit.”[NEP 22. 15]
There is also a recurrent claim about the 64 arts mentioned in Sanskrit literary traditions as somehow providing the roots of a liberal education [for example, NEP 11.1]: “… among these 64 ‘arts’ were not only subjects, such as singing and painting, but also ‘scientific’ fields, such as chemistry and mathematics, ‘vocational’ fields such as carpentry and clothes-making, ‘professional’ fields, such as medicine and engineering, as well as ‘soft skills’ such as communication, discussion, and debate.” The very idea that all branches of creative human endeavour, including mathematics, science, vocational subjects, professional subjects and soft skills, should be considered “arts” has distinctly Indian origins. This notion of a “knowledge of many arts” or what in modern times is often called the “liberal arts” (that is, a liberal notion of the arts) must be brought back to Indian education, as it is exactly the kind of education that will be required for the 21st century.
We have now become accustomed to claims that are reiterated time and again acquiring a certain currency, so it may be useful to revisit this list of 64 from the Kamasutra (1.3.15): “Singing, playing musical instruments, dancing, painting, cutting leaves into shapes, making lines on the floor with rice powder and flowers, arranging flowers, colouring the teeth, clothes and limbs, making jewelled floors, preparing beds, making music on the rims of glasses of water, playing water sports, unusual techniques, making garlands and stringing necklaces, making diadems and headbands, making costumes, making earrings, mixing perfumes, putting on jewellery, doing conjuring tricks, practising sorcery, sleight of hand, preparing various forms of vegetables, soups and other things to eat, preparing wines, fruit juices and other things to drink, needlework, weaving, playing the lute and the drum, telling jokes and riddles, completing words, reciting difficult words, reading aloud, staging plays and dialogues, completing verses, making things out of cloth, wood and cane, woodworking, carpentry, architecture, the ability to test gold and silver, metallurgy, knowledge of the colour and form of jewels, skill at nurturing trees, knowledge of ram-fights, cock fights, and quail fights, teaching parrots and mynah birds to talk, skill at rubbing, massaging and hairdressing, the ability to speak in sign language, understanding languages made to seem foreign, knowledge of local dialects, skill at making flower carts, knowledge of omens, alphabets for use in making magical diagrams, alphabets for memorising, group recitation, improvising poetry, dictionaries and thesauruses, knowledge of metre, literary work, the art of impersonation, the art of using cloths for disguise, special forms of gambling, the game of dice, children’s games, etiquette, the science of strategy and the cultivation of athletic skills.”
I leave it to the reader to decide whether this assortment of skills can be described as liberal arts and if this is what needs to be imparted to learners in the 21st century.
This turning to the past is accompanied by a tendency to turn away from more recent traditions, such as those enshrined in the Constitution, including the directive principles and the fundamental rights, on which the NEP maintains a studied silence. That both teachers and the taught should ideally be aware of these seems to be either taken for granted or ignored. As is well known, there have been robust discussions and debates around fundamental rights, and these are the cornerstone of the Constitution. They include guarantees of equality, freedom of expression, freedom from exploitation, freedom of religious belief and practice, and the rights to education as well as constitutional remedies. Knowledge and access to these is by no means automatic, and for future genera tions for whom critical thinking may be crucial for survival, awareness of these rights acquires a special importance.
Socially and economically disadvantaged groups
Within educational policy, moreover, the National Policy on Education 1986, along with the Programme of Action (POA) 1992, could have laid the foundation for a different tradition, even as, like all policy documents, these may seem dated. One of the salient features of these documents was detailed discussion on what NEP 2020 classifies as the SEDGs.
In the 1986/1992 set of documents, it was recognised that if implemented with sensitivity, vigour and persistence, the proposals contained in the POA regarding reorientation of the whole system to promote women’s equality, special provisions for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, other educationally disadvantaged sections, minorities, and the physically and mentally handicapped, and for the areas that need special attention will enable the educational system to move towards the democratic and socialist ideals enshrined in the Constitution [Introduction, paragraph 7].
Further, the document contained special sections outlining the perceived needs and possible policy measures for each of these categories [pages 101-106 for women and women’s studies; pages 106-109 for S.C./ S.T. and other backward sections; pages 109-116 for minorities’ education and pages 116-23 for “education of the handicapped”].
In contrast to these detailed provisions, these categories, now grouped together as SEDGs, receive cursory attention in NEP 2020. Interestingly, section 6.2 of the NEP has been expanded by adding clauses 6.2.1 to 6.2.6 to “include” women, S. Cs, S.Ts, Other Backward Classes, minorities and children with special needs. While this seems an afterthought—forethought would certainly have been preferable—it opens a tiny window for thinking about the implications of the policy for all these groups.
It is also worth looking at the context in which NPE 1986/ POA 1992 discussed the issue of ECCE. The first paragraph in the section reads: “1. Some of the significant parameters of the quality of life of any nation are the infant mortality rate, incidence of malnutrition, the morbidity picture and the literacy rates. The infant mortality rate today stands at 104 (1984). The rural-urban IMR differential is striking, being 113 and 66.”
I searched for some mention of the skewed sex ratio in several parts of the country, revealed in census after census, which could have informed and animated the present policy, but, unfortunately, found none.
And where are the Chinese?
Finally, it is curious that the NEP chooses to ignore the Chinese completely, in contexts where one would expect them to feature. For instance, we are told: “In addition to high quality offerings in Indian languages and English, foreign languages, such as Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, will also be offered at the secondary level, for students to learn about the cultures of the world and to enrich their global knowledge and mobility according to their own interests and aspirations” [NEP 4.20].
The Chinese are also, curiously, absent from statements such as the following: “Indeed, some of the most prosperous civilisations (such as India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece) to the modern era (such as the United States, Germany, Israel, South Korea, and Japan), were/are strong knowledge societies that attained intellectual and material wealth in large part through celebrated and fundamental contributions to new knowledge in the realm of science as well as art, language, and culture that enhanced and uplifted not only their own civilisations but others around the globe” [NEP 17.1].
An educational policy that ignores the past, present and future of our largest neighbour will deny learners of the 21st century access to crucial resources. One wonders what Kautilya would have thought of such a policy.
Kumkum Roy is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.