An overview of some of the possible lacunae of the Draft National Education Policy.
The Draft National Education Policy (NEP) document, released soon after the new government was formed, has been a matter of much discussion and debate across the country. The document is an amalgamation of disjoint ideas which are neither concretised nor fleshed out, and the policy comes across as “hanging in the air” and not grounded in Indian reality. The main thrust of the policy is towards centralization, major restructuring of the school and higher educational systems, and drawing upon ancient Indian traditions to provide directions for the future. If one reads between the lines, one realizes that the NEP document is actually geared towards facilitating the acceleration and legitimisation of the process of privatization of education. This will further marginalise the weaker sections of society and delink them from mainstream educational processes. Not engaging seriously with the existing educational structures and not paying attention to previous educational policies are other lacunae in this policy. The policy attempts to invent a new educational system without setting out to reform the existing one, which is projected to be a positive aspect of the policy, but is in fact is its most problematic feature.
The policy advocates starting formal schooling at the age of three. This is exactly what is happening in the private school system today, where students are being taught the alphabet and counting at the age of three. Several studies indicate that burdening children at the primary school level actually encourages rote learning and suppresses their creativity. The document advocates a three-language scheme where children will simultaneously learn three languages with equal ease. In theory it may be possible to learn three languages simultaneously, however in a country where children struggle to learn even one language properly, how will introducing two more languages in the very beginning help? On a another note, the NEP document proposes introducing the semester system in schools, while we are still facing difficulties with the semester system in colleges, where its management has become a major challenge. This document does not even attempt to engage with the problems of the semester system or anticipate the hurdles in switching from the annual to the semester system for schools.
There is a great deal of emphasis in the NEP document on teaching the classical Indian languages, namely Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali and Persian, in schools. Currently, the major problem we are facing is in developing the regional languages and in generating educational material for technical subjects in the regional languages: a momentum that we lost about twenty years ago. Instead of bringing that process back on-track, the policy talks about teaching classical Indian languages which are rarely used or spoken by people. Along a similar thread, the NEP document talks about reviving the glorious traditions of the ancient Indian educational system (specifically referencing the universities of Takshashila and Nalanda), but only talks about certain aspects of those traditions, glossing over the fact that inclusivity was not part of the education system in olden times. In fact, the need of the hour is to introspect and embark upon a critical appraisal of these traditions, however the NEP document does not go beyond their glorification, and it is not clear how those ideas will guide us into the future.
The NEP policy envisages a major restructuring of higher educational systems: it talks about setting up new institutions and universities with a large number of on-campus students, dismantling the mechanism of affiliation of colleges with universities and instead making them autonomous bodies, winding up of technical training institutions such as medical and engineering colleges and integrating them with these large enrollment-based universities. All these ideas do not seem to have a clearly thought out implementation plan. Currently, these motifs are represented in the private sector universities and this policy document seems to be encouraging these trends in a subtle fashion. In fact it is interesting that the policy talks about treating the public and private sectors at par – we have seen the disastrous effect of the government’s enfranchisement of the private sector in the domain of public health, and the same disaster seems to be hinted at in this policy about education.
The policy advocates encouraging religious organizations to patronise education in the manner they deem fit and is instead silent on issues of secular community participation in the running of educational institutions. The document also goes into specific details of what the structure of the Board of Governors for private institutions should be, and promotes the view that private owners should be free to appoint the governing body, giving them an unwarranted free hand. Education has been deliberately placed in the concurrent Central and State list to accommodate specific regional needs. The centralized control of all aspects of the education sector by the proposed Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog headed by the prime minister, is therefore impractical.
On the positive side, entry and exit at different levels and in different ways in the school as well the higher education system will help students remain engaged with the education process; for the first time a policy document explicitly states that primary school teacher salaries should be on par with teachers at the middle and senior school levels; there is an emphasis on a broad-based liberal arts undergraduate education, where technical subject streams are not completely separated from the humanities and social science; the setting up of a National Research Foundation to oversee and fund research for all fields of science, technology, social sciences, arts and humanities in colleges and Universities is a welcome move; effectively using technology for education is a much-needed reform and is brought up in the policy. However, how to implement these ingredients has not been spelt out more clearly.
Integrating education with development and models of development is very important, and hence the earlier educational policies were closely linked with development issues. However, in this document the connection with development is missing. This policy outlines a simplistic measure of increasing enrollment in higher education institutes to 50% by 2035! Given the already high rate of educated unemployed in the country, where will these graduates get absorbed? Indian society is divided into different vertical segments in income groups, castes, urban and rural communities, and horizontally we have a variety of languages and cultures. We need to address these societal divisions and contextualise education. The required emphasis on fostering critical and analytical aspects at all educational levels, is missing from this policy document.
At the end, I would like to add that this draft policy should be widely discussed across the country. The government should now spend enough time and engage with educationists and citizens’ groups and hold wide-ranging discussions to undertake a critical appraisal of the policy document.
Arvind is a Professor of Physics and the Director (Officiating) of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. He is also on the Editorial Board of Dialogue.
This article first appeared in “The Tribune” on July 12, 2019.
The other articles in this series can be found here.