Glimmers of Hope and Reform in the National Education Policy Draft

With bold proposals like a significant increase in public expenditure on education and delegation of 'autonomy', the draft looks promising but also glosses over several pressing issues.

A first review makes for a collective sigh of relief – the draft report of the new National Education Policy 2019 is devoid of any strong saffron colouration and is instead a call for a significant restructuring of the educational system and its governance. It assigns a key role to both public and private capital in education and recommends liberal arts education as the foundation of higher education.

A competently written compendium, the 484 pages report, under the chairmanship of space scientist-administrator K. Kasturirangan, steers clear of the distortions and tall claims that the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led education reports had made.

If we ignore the report’s periodic commentary – that reifies Indian morals and values (which are assumed to be of a high order), draws on the language of economic competition, and endorses the ambitions of being a global player prepared for the fourth industrial revolution – what we have is a policy framework that has the potential to significantly restructure and reorient India’s moribund and complex education system.

The report boldly calls for re-designating the Ministry of Human Resource Development to its original name as the Ministry for Education, thereby returning the focus on education rather than a ministry that acts as a conduit for mass training of potential workers. Assuring substantial allocation of funds (to increase from the current average of 10% of total public expenditure to about 20% by 2025), the report calls for a slew of institutions to be set up (while the existing ones will continue) so as to enhance access to and governance of education.

Overhauling educational policy

These new institutions include the establishment, by an Act of Parliament, of a new National Education Commission [Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog] to be chaired by the prime minister and to be run by executive and advisory bodies that will consist of 50% of ministers and another 50% of educationists, academics and civil society members.

Under this super organisation will be a range of new institutions such as: National Research Fund, National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (and State Education Regulatory Authorities in all states), Central Education Statistics Division (under NUEPA), National Repository of Educational Data, National Testing Agency, Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation,   Multidisciplinary Education and Research Institutes or Indian Institutes of Liberal Arts, and General Education Council.

Complementing these new organisational wings are schemes and programmes such as the National Scholarship Fund, Study in India Portal (for international students), and the Global Initiative for Academic Networks. While the implications of the growth of bloated and hierarchical bureaucracy will remain, the report makes repeated assurances of ‘autonomy’ in education.

Also read: National Education Policy Draft Amended to Address ‘Imposition’ of Hindi

Qualifying that ‘autonomy’ does not refer only to “reduction of public funding” (pg 204) but to the “freedom to innovate, to compete, to co-operate, to govern more locally, to optimise resources…to break silos, and to excel…” (pg 204), and that “autonomy that will be widely granted as a result of this policy” (pg 250), the report seeks to infuse new blood and spirit into the education system.

Yet, what are the implications of having the prime minister chair the National Education Commission which is to become the apex body for all education management and fund allocation? What are the criteria, standards and processes by which members will be inducted into these new education governance institutions?

The report cautiously avoids mention of the need for ‘democracy’ within educational institutions and the recent incidences of blatant transgressions of educational rights and the rampant violations of rules and regulations of education institutional building and academic freedom in several malevolent educational institutions seem to be forgotten.

While such political oversights are the limitations of the report, the call for making ‘interconnectedness of education’  and the recognition accorded to liberal arts education which the report itself identifies as education which combines art, music, language, orality, ethical and moral reasoning, constitutional values, socio-emotional learning, and health and safety is to be appreciated and indicates that the committee has attempted to go beyond seeing education as a merely instrumentalist transaction.

At the level of school education the report makes several suggestions to address the myriad problems and challenges. These include: endorsing the Kothari Commission’s (1968) call for establishing school complexes (and which have not been implemented); the term ‘public school’ to be retained only for those institutions that receive government funds; re-organising school education to include early childhood care and learning; dismantling the numerous dubious teacher training institutes; making all BEd degrees into four-year degree programmes located with universities and multi-disciplinary colleges; and revising the Right to Education Act to further facilitate access to quality and private elementary education for economically disadvantaged groups.

Students of a school in Kolkata. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Calling for a cessation of ‘para teachers’, the report asserts the need for periodic appraisals, professional development opportunities, three-year probationary periods, and tenure-track careers for all teachers. In what will be a huge relief to many progressive educationists, the report endorses the National Curriculum Framework 2005 and its constructivist approaches and recommends that it be devolved to the states by 2020.

Also read: BJP’s Record on Education Runs Afoul of Its Own Manifesto

Paying close attention to pedagogies (probably a reflection of the inputs from the Commission’s member, Manjul Bhargava, a maverick mathematician), the report even details lessons and activities that can be made a part of the teaching-learning methods. The report rightly challenges the rigid and punitive examination system and coaching culture and calls for substantial reforms in the examination system with subject options, increased number of opportunities, and periodic ‘census examinations’ in ‘grades’ 3, 5, and 8.

What the report glosses over

Although the report makes a case for inclusive education and mentions the need to cater to girls, Muslims, urban poor, tribal, and transgender children and for the establishment of educational institutions in underserved regions (including the setting up of Special Education Zones), the challenges of instituting equal and quality education for all or ‘equality of educational opportunity’ is not addressed.

The fact that India has the world’s most differentiated school system with atleast nine types of schools (from the low-end Ashramshala to the expensive and exclusive international schools) that align with varied socio-economic classes and which defies any attempt to make education a leveller for a deeply hierarchical society is not addressed.

A superlative description of India’s languages as “…some of the most expressive and scientific in the world, and containing much of the world’s great literature’ (pg 385) sees the Commission make recommendations for the establishment of new institutions for the study of Pali, Prakrit and Persian, in addition to promoting the study of Sanskrit at multiple levels.

While the three language formula has been qualified by a quick revision (post the protests in Southern India) to indicate non-compulsion, especially in the non-Hindi belts, the promotion of other Indian languages in the Hindi belts is not adequately elaborated.

Calling to transit the higher education system into ‘world-class’ levels, the report makes the simplistic and deeply problematic (given the mass of educated unemployed and trends in new industrial and work systems) call to increase gross enrolment rates of higher education to 50% of the population by 2035.

The structural shifts that are suggested for higher education include the reorganisation of higher education institutes (HEI) into three types: (1) Research Universities (2) Teaching Universities (3) Colleges. How such a restructuring will address the current problem of the divide between research and teaching are issues that need to be resolved.

Also Read: UGC’s Planned Replacement Shows How Delusional Higher Education Policy Has Become

Citing inadequate regulation that has allowed “fake colleges to thrive while constraining excellent, innovative ones” (pg 205), the report calls for the establishment of “large multidisciplinary universities and colleges” (pg 205) with merit-based appointments and career opportunities. What this stress on ‘merit’ signifies for the reservation system is an issue that remains unaddressed.

The report also suggests the setting up of 100 and 500 fully residential universities that will draw from the heritage and glory of Nalanda and Takshashaila universities respectively, and endorses the need to fill all faculty positions in the existing colleges and universities. Open and distance education will continue to receive support and vocational education will see the induction of ‘lok vidya’ knowledge and skills.

Technical education and technology-based educational programmes will receive a big boost, while medical education will see the initiation of an exit exam at the end of the MBBS course. District hospitals are to be upgraded into becoming teaching hospitals and adult education centres revitalised across the country.

Agriculture education receives short-shrift indicating the lack of imaginaries to see the key role that India’s diverse agricultural systems can play and the possibilities that lie in fostering new forms of rural-urban and agriculture-industry linkages.

Will the largely single-party government facilitate the realisation of the report’s recommendation to make education in India vibrant or will such drastic reorganisation be the foundation for further majoritarian nationalism to make inroads into the life of the people?

We will have to await trends to assess this but the overall tone, ideas, and suggestions of the report indicate that there is scope and latitude for engaged educationists to make education in India the fount of equality of opportunities and the reassurance of a liberal and plural everyday culture.

A.R. Vasavi, a social anthropologist, is with the Punarchith Collective.