View: Govt's plans for transforming school and higher education need more clarity
The draft policy admits many problems, suggests solutions, but is remarkably sanguine about implementation.
The draft National Education Policy (NEP) is an impressive document: substantial, well-structured, well-written. It ticks all the high-minded boxes: primacy of the government sector, especially the Union government; ‘autonomy and empowerment’ for both institutions and individual teachers; a budget of 6% of GDP, over twice the current level.
Skim-read, the report may please the jholawalas more than the babus and marketmen who control India’s education. But the latter’s discourse features no less. Here lies the problem. The document contains something of everything: it could support diametrically opposite policies.
It is also short on practical measures. It admits many problems, suggests bold solutions, but is remarkably sanguine about the long, hard road to their implementation. Even 6% of GDP will hardly suffice for funds, and most private players may disavow the principle of non-profit philanthropy. Operationally, a countrywide crash programme would be needed to recruit and train teachers and provide infrastructure.
The scale and urgency of the task are grossly underplayed. Moreover, the NEP must be read in the light of two other exercises. One is the EQUIP (Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme) programme to implement the recommendations for higher education. The other is the Union Budget. Both offer sobering clues to the likely actualisation of the NEP. Tellingly, both focus on higher education.
No scheme like EQUIP has been reported for school education, nor is any school-level programme mentioned in the Budget speech. Yet, as the NEP recognises, school education is the bedrock of any educational order. Given India-sized disparities, there is need for a drastic upgrading of the publicfunded school system. Anything less would mean gross waste of our demographic dividend.
The NEP admits this - or does it? It suggests, in an unobtrusive corner, that where full-fledged schools are financially unviable, ‘alternative models’ might be followed with ‘substantially less restrictive’ Right To Education (RTE) requirements, thereby denying children their full right to education.
Again, there are visionary plans to transform primary education by linking it to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) or anganwadi programme for 3-to-5 year olds. But the implementation is broached perfunctorily. Hard-nosed administrators can readily stonewall the idea, as they once did with the midday meal scheme.
Can’t Count on Maths
The prescriptions for higher education spring a major surprise: an unprecedented stress on the liberal arts — notionally including basic science, but markedly stressing language and culture, especially ancient Indian culture —as the bedrock of all tertiary education. There is deafening silence on science and mathematics. Maths finds mention only with respect to basic numeracy; the natural sciences are entirely ignored. Computer education in schools merits a single paragraph.
The higher education agenda also lays out specifics that utterly undermine the NEP’s abstract defence of academic freedom, as well as its call for a single regulatory body in place of the current plethora. There will be a National Higher Education Regulatory Authority alongside a Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog, plus separate bodies for accreditation, funding and monitoring of standards.
Finally, virtually all research will be approved and funded as per national needs by a National Research Foundation (NRF) — to be chaired, we learn, by the prime minister. There can be no better prescription to throw out the baby of fundamental research — not to mention her siblings of critical thinking and robust cultural inquiry — along with the bathwater of waste and irrelevance.
It is commonplace academic rationale that you cannot separate basic and applied research, or quantitative and intuitive cognition; that logic and imagination are equally vital to any intellectual exercise, in the sciences, humanities or whatever. One may add that intellectual and political imperatives seldom coincide.
We do not know what surprises EQUIP has in store. It is being finalised without any public disclosure whatsoever. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech had something about higher education, but not a word about schools. The education budget has increased by 13%, which can hardly kickstart the NEP, especially given the skewed allocations indicated below. Anganwadis get 18% more, which will not begin to address the gigantic upgradation envisaged.
Of the higher education budget, 16.7% goes to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), another 2.3% to the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs).
The other ‘institutes of excellence’ get 1% collectively, the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) a little more. That leaves under 80% (actually much less, allowing for other heads) for 500-plus other public universities and some 40,000 colleges. At .`60 crore per university, this will not make for balanced development, even adding the (invariably paltry) state budgets and corporate contributions.
We are obsessed with global rankings. In countries that dominate them, the leading institutions crown a solid pyramid of other high-to-outstanding centres. A condominium cannot rest on a raft of shanties. Education planning is like landscape gardening: the designer does not live to answer for the outcome.
Given the likely implementation of the NEP, where will Indian education be in 2030? A few institutions may improve their ranking through selective nurture. A sprinkling of others might remain globally respectable.
Private institutions will further expand, from a few outstanding ones to vastly more that are mediocre or worse.
Research standards will plummet from our already indifferent level. Regardless of the funds on offer, brilliant students will prefer, even more than now, the congenial research climate elsewhere to the ministrations of the NRF. Education for the masses, at both school and college level, will at best remain at par.
If the anganwadis change hands from Women and Child Development to Human Resources, health and nutrition levels might decline among our poorest children. (India harbours over a third of the world’s underweight children, and over half the anaemic ones.) The luckier ones will benefit by the Skill India programme to earn a humble living.
This is not a promising roadmap for overall development. The NEP offers better paths to the same destination. Let us explore them before we determine our course.
The writer is Professor emeritus, Jadavpur University, Kolkata