The National Education Policy, 2020, is a crafty document that needs to be read between the lines.
RSS has already claimed that the document reflects 60% of its programme. However, one needs to also focus on certain core issues of knowledge, education and pedagogy that the document by default touches upon, even as we resist the discriminatory implications implicit in the policy statement. Most critiques of NEP may not have easy resolutions to contentious issues and therefore the debate on education need not be lost sight of while offering a critique of the policy suggestions in NEP.
First, the document begins by enlarging the scope of education beyond ‘cognitive capacities such as critical thinking and problem solving- but also social, ethical and emotional capacities and dispositions’. This brings in the much-needed question of life skills necessary that the modern education system needs to impart. Much of the technical knowledge and skill sets from the current education system do not adequately equip us to face everyday social, cultural, emotional and ethical issues.
Cognitive capacities are divested from normative concerns. The document touches on an important way of combining the two. This however raises the question as to whether morality can be imparted by and through state policy. Can personality buildup and emotional constructs be part of the curriculum? What are the social consequences of state-induced and policy-oriented moral precepts? Does it not lead to totalitarian, monolithic and majoritarian constructs? Though the document lays emphasis on diversity, it is clear as to how RSS visualises morals and values as part of linking ‘nation-building’ to ‘character-building’.
There is every possibility that the dominant, caste-Hindu cultural-moral worldview that the RSS vouches for would be made a part of the curriculum as the document refers to Vedas and Upanishads but not Buddhism and Charvaka. But this does not mean there is no need for including some discussion on values, ethics and emotions. They cannot be presumed to be merely of individual persuasion while cognitive capacities constitute collective and standardised knowledge.
Inclusion of focus on morality and ethics has mostly been considered by progressives as either majoritarian or as conservative because of external control it induces over individual freedoms. But moral and emotional basis of knowledge remains important for all societies and they cannot be left out of the purview of education. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, “how can a decent society do more for stability and motivation than Locke and Kant did, without becoming illiberal and dictatorial in the manner of Rousseau?”
The second key policy suggestion of the document is its emphasis on vocational education becoming a part of the curriculum. It states it would be mandatory for all children to learn vocational skills and training such as carpentry, crafts, and others that involve manual ‘labour’ ‘in order to eliminate harmful hierarchies among and silos between different areas of learning’. This again, I think, is a key issue. Including the idea of hands-on manual working skills in the policy can be potentially radical move in a society besieged by the prejudicial contradistinction between mental and manual labour. In fact, the modern caste system is reproduced more through the mental-manual than ritualistic modes. Including manual skills can be argued to lead to the dignity of labour that is missing in India, unlike Europe.
However, the mandatory provision for vocational training when read with the various options of exit that are offered in NEP, even in school education, opens the possibility of reading how the agenda of the RSS is being fulfilled not by breaking hierarchies but reinforcing them. It states, ‘in particular students would continue to have the option of exiting after Grade 10 and re-entering in the next phase to pursue vocational or any other courses available’.
By imparting vocational education and allowing children to drop out of schooling at various levels with certificates would only reproduce existing social hierarchies and opportunity structures. Instead of dignity of labour, it would reinforce caste occupations and create a pyramid-like social structure where higher education is reserved only for privileged caste Hindus and economically powerful social classes. This is part of the social imagination of the RSS that they refer to as Samarastha but it has an urge to return to the age-old system of Varna Shrama dharma with caste groups being hierarchically organised.
This, however, again opens up the larger questions. While it is well taken that opportunities for higher education should not be closed for any social group but does it also mean that everyone necessarily pursues higher education? What are the job opportunities that can be created at higher ends of society? It is known that after the 1970s the rate of displacement of labour due to primitive accumulation is higher than the jobs created through industrialisation and expansion of the service sector. How then do we re-link education and employment without reinforcing social hierarchies?
The third key aspect is that of graded autonomy. Graded autonomy includes provision for degree-granting colleges. It states, ‘HEIs delivering education of the highest quality as laid down in this policy will be incentivitised in expanding their capacity’. Here again, quality remains an important and much needed focus. However, by the suggested link between quality and incentivised funding, it could be argued that autonomy is more of a synonym for self-financing than freedom from administrative control.
Further, if quality and performance are the criteria then how do we help those regional or state universities and colleges that suffer on account of poor infrastructure? Wouldn’t it result in further punitive action against those institutions that already suffer from poor quality education, leading to more centralisation and decline in public funding of higher education? Autonomy seems to be an acronym for the privatisation of higher education, in the name of quality.
Critique of privatisation in India has often served in side-stepping the crucial debate on quality and work ethic. Indian institutions suffer on both counts. It is a fact that most institutions, including primary government schools offer poor quality education, due to not only reasons of infrastructure but also poor work ethic and commitment. Even private institutions have continued to offer poor quality education. Now how do we improve quality uniformly is a huge question that needs to be raised by those supporting public education. How do we make teachers more professional is often side-stepped by those in arguing these to be more of excuses to privatise higher education in India.
Finally, this document lays emphasis on multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary education. It states, ‘Single-stream HEIs will be phased out over time, and will move towards becoming vibrant multidisciplinary institutions or parts of vibrant multidisciplinary HEIs clusters, in order to enable and encourage high-quality multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary teaching and research across fields’. This again was an experiment awaiting higher education in India. Much of cutting-edge education and research across the globe is happening through a multidisciplinary approach. Many of such experiments for various reasons have remained non-starters in India.
Here again, given the thrust and recent experience under the current regime, multidisciplinarity has been a ruse to undermine humanities and social sciences, and encourage natural sciences. This is again for ideological reasons that RSS considers social sciences in India to not suit its frames and social composition of sciences allows its presence better in institutions of higher education. Recently, in institutions like JNU, sciences and centres for engineering and management courses were started more as a way of undermining and undercutting funding for centres of social sciences. This should not however stop us from debating other possible ways of continuing experiments in multidisciplinarity.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.