The Indian Constitution views education as essential for development, national integration, and strengthening of democracy, and therefore, lists it as a public good. While primary and secondary education provide the foundation, it is higher education that empowers the nation for creation of new knowledge and is the backbone for maintaining standards of education across disciplines both at school and higher levels. It also empowers individuals and readies them for better prospects.
In 2005, India offered higher education sector under the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Offering higher education under tradable services was a major policy shift. As derivatives, several Educational Bills were pushed during United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II to put higher education on the “reform” trajectory as per the needs of the WTO terms. These were, however, shelved after Standing Committees of Rajya Sabha received negative feedback from stakeholders.
The Modi-II Government pushed National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020), bypassing the Parliament. While the entire country, and the education sector in particular, was struggling with unforeseen situations created by COVID-19 and schools and higher education institutions were closed, on 29 July 2020, the Cabinet passed the 66-page NEP 2020 document. This should not be understood as the beginning of a restructuring but merely as a public declaration of various reforms which had been put in place through NITI Aayog recommendations in the preceding years. One such recommendation, for example, is “financial autonomy” to Higher Educational Institutions (HIEs). In 2016, Arun Jaitley, the then Finance Minister, declared the creation of the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) in his budget speech and on 20 March 2018, 60 HIEs were granted autonomy. These included 52 Universities: 5 central universities, 21 state universities, 24 deemed universities, and 2 private universities.
To understand the 66-page NEP 2020 document, it is important to read it along with the Draft National Education Policy 2019 prepared by the Kasturirangan Committee and in the context of our experiences of the last nearly 10 years.
NEP 2020 and Constitutional Values
The very fact that the Modi Government bypassed the Parliament completely and has used existing structures, like the University Grants Commission (UGC), to implement NEP 2020 shows a total disregard for Constitutional processes and the federal character of the State. It should also be seen as an acknowledgement by the Government of the fact that the policy does not respond well to the ground realities and needs of Indian educational system. Failing majority in Rajya Sabha, the Government felt it safer to bypass the route of discussion and debate.
The policy document is written with the aim of creating confusion and illusions – while it recognizes several shortcomings of the current educational systems, the recommendations lack the intent to address the issues and will actually deepen existing inequalities. For example, in the preamble it says “The new education policy must provide to all students, irrespective of their place of residence, a quality education system, with particular focus on historically marginalized, disadvantaged, and underrepresented groups”. The policy, however, proposes merger of schools without substantiating it with data or case studies to infer that merger will not marginalize education of socially disadvantageous sections, especially, that of girls. What will happen if a government school is closed? Will that create a vacancy to be filled by a private school? Yet another example is centralised examinations for admissions at every entry point in the educational system. Centralised examinations will lead to deepening of the existing divide and be a boon to the coaching mafia.
The existing school educational system is extremely graded. The disparity in the teaching-learning environment and opportunities goes against the idea of equity. The Kothari Commission (and the National Policy of Education, 1968) had given a vision of a Common School System (CSS) for “equalization of educational opportunities”. The National Policy of Education, 1986 reiterated its importance:
The Constitution embodies the principles on which the National System of Education is conceived of. The concept of a National System of Education implies that, up to a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex have access to education of a comparable quality... Effective measures will be taken in the direction of the Common School System recommended in the 1968 policy (MHRD. 1998, p. 5).
Existence of graded hierarchies in the school education does not find any mention in the NEP 2020 nor does the Common School System. The policy talks about affordable education instead of education as a right. What has come as a shocker is the fact that the 66-page NEP 2020 document does not mention Right To Education (RTE) at all.
Another major shift is in the structure of school education – it replaces 10+2 system (covering ages 6 to 18) with 5+3+3+4 (covering ages 3 to 18). It claims that addition of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) from age 3 is “aimed at promoting better overall learning, development, and well-being”. This expansion, however, ignores ground realities. Public-funded school systems are operating with overburdened infrastructure and supply side shortcomings like lack of teachers and grants. Further, the early childhood care anganwadi system neither has this mandate nor the professional training.
This structural change also suggests that there would be competitive tests in 3rd, 5th and 8th standards. The RTE, on the other hand, had categorically banned centralized tests as these are prepared far from the reality of the child’s education. Any centralized tests at these levels will also lead to an increase in the drop-out rates.
Yet another structural change is early vocationalisation starting from class six (earlier, vocational education was offered to students of classes 9 to 12). It is feared that an early introduction of vocational training will push students to courses related with caste-based occupations, furthering the dropout rates.
While the policy lays emphasis on outcome, it does not acknowledge that outcome cannot be achieved without requisite inputs and puts no responsibility on the Government to improve health of the system through requisite grants. The policy document makes statements without creating a blue-print of how the gaps between reality and envisaged changes will be bridged.
Recommendations for higher education make some fundamental shifts relative to earlier policies: (i) for increasing Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) it seeks refuge in shifting regular courses into semi-regular by allowing students to complete their degrees through online courses from repositories created for the purpose, thus reducing the need for creating more universities and colleges and to employ teaching and non-teaching staff; (ii) replacing grants to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) for expansion with loans through Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA), to be returned in due time by the institute by incorporating it into student fees and thus shifting the burden of maintenance of public funded HEIs on students and parents; (iii) forcing centralized examinations to be conducted by National Testing Agency (NTA) at every stage of entry, thus feeding massively into the coaching business; (iv) changing the existing structure of education of 3 years of UG + 2 years of PG to 4 +1 and (v) by changing the structures of governances, removing teachers’ and students’ representations in apex bodies and allowing Board of Governors to decide courses to be offered, fees, salaries of employees and their rights and thus leading to corporatization.
The policy envisages a three-tier system: (i) research universities, (ii) teaching universities and (iii) colleges. The DNEP 2019 recommends that by 2032, the system of affiliating universities and affiliated colleges and research institutions will be phased out.
Without presenting a feasibility study, the policy says that each HEI will be expanded to host 5,000 -15,000 students, while the number of institutions will be decreased from 40,800 to 15,000 (p. 203, DNEP 2019). The policy does not analyse the increase in the expenditure towards education of students if the number of institutions decrease, nor does it worry about who shall be left behind.
Similarly, in shifting from 3-year to 4-year UG programme with multiple entry exit system (MEES), the policy document does not discuss questions of affordability and accessibility. Lakhs of students complete a degree in 3-years before joining the job market. The way things are, with FYUP in place the market will treat even a 3-years graduate student as a drop-out and devalue them. MEES will institutionalise drop-outs. This will hit women students as well as others from marginalized and underprivileged sections.
Similarly, in scrapping the M.Phil. degree, which was a shorter research degree taken after the masters, the policy does not worry about denying the research opportunity to students from disadvantaged sections.
The policy recommendations will lead to acute commercialization and centralization. Both at the level of school education and high education, the curriculum framework and coursework are being dictated centrally, barely giving any right to states to determine their education policy. Centralized entrance exams are yet another controlling point both in terms of syllabi and stratification. In a very systematic way, the course work for public funded schools and universities is being diluted and students time is being fragmented into meaningless smaller modules in the name of Skill Enhancement and Value Addition.
This is the first education policy which is aimed at dismantling the public-funded education system and pushing the burden of maintaining these units to students and parents. Fee hike of the public units will have avalanche effect on the fees of the private. The policy, while tom-tomming multidisciplinarity or pushing expansion by adding three years of schooling and undergraduate programmes, fails to assess if this transition is feasible. Central Universities of repute and IITs are being pushed to take loans.
In the name of restructuring and new content creation, the NDA government is pushing its agenda of saffronisation. Workshops on Indian Knowledge System conducted by the UGC and Universities unmask the intent of converting public funded universities into RSS recruiting zones. Pracharaks are being invited to deliver talks which are extremely unscientific and against the Constitution’s assertion that all are equal. Same is the situation with funding of research. Decay of public funded modern institutions of learning into Gaushalas is worrisome. If this trend is allowed, we will lose generations of students who will fail to compete and we would have created an India far distant from the dreams of the Ambedkar, Phule and Tagore.
In 1968, the Kothari Commission had recommended an expenditure of 6% of GDP towards education. The truth remains that the expenditure has largely hovered around 4.3% of GDP and has only decreased several times in last 9 years. It is unfortunate that ignoring the fact that we are a young country with close to 50% population below the age of 25, the education policy framed after several decades stays with the same target.
NEP 2020 has to be rejected as it cannot lead to an egalitarian society and a strong nation. It is a weapon to deepen the existing disparities.
* This is article is part of a series that examines the political, economic and social conditions of India during the Modi led BJP regime.