NEP's Focus on Broadening School Education Should Be Lauded

However, for the move to truly work, corresponding changes will have to be made in the higher education system too.

The National Education Policy (NEP) envisages much-needed systematic change in the education ecosystem, and promises to overhaul the existing rigid ‘educational’ matrix to include multi-disciplinary learning and academic freedom. This article will focus on two specific regulatory changes envisaged, and implementational changes required to fulfil the vision and objectives of the NEP at the high school and university level.

Firstly, the NEP states that there will be no hard separation among ‘curricular’, ‘extracurricular’ or ‘co-curricular’ subjects. The NEP allows students to select a varied combination of subjects to graduate with, without restricting them to singular streams – science, humanities or commerce – and adds subjects such as physical education, arts and crafts and vocational skills to the school curriculum. However, the objective of this change will not be achieved unless there is a corresponding change in how courses are structured at the university level.

Secondly, the NEP relaxes, yet retains, the ubiquitous institution of board examinations. Having an application-based approach to subjects, flexibility in format, possibility of multiple attempts and varied combinations of subjects promises to bring the system closer to the practical reality of the generation.

Simultaneously, the NEP envisages a common aptitude test (CAT) and specialised common subject exams for admissions to higher education institutions. The CAT will test conceptual understanding and the ability to apply knowledge. The NEP further contemplates that CAT will “eliminate the need for taking coaching for these exams”. However, further clarity is required on how the CAT will be implemented. Further, corresponding change is needed in admissions processes at universities as well.

Need for structural change at the university level

The effect of the NEP allowing students to choose from a variety of subjects without restricting them to specific ‘streams’  bring about much needed systematic change that could lead to significant positive results, including fostering of a multi-disciplinary perspective in education from the standpoint of students and schooling institutions.

In years to come, being a graduate in a singularly oriented ‘stream’ may not be enough to provide the formative support required for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, and the NEP recognises that at the school level. The NEP also recognises the harmful impact of hierarchies associated with the ‘stream’ psychology. In other words, it encapsulates the possibility of fostering a change in conceptions and connotations associated with students opting for specific subjects. It also encourages respect for ‘training in skills’ and not just the ‘study of subjects’.

However, for the NEP’s vision to attain fruition by inculcating a systemic change in conception, universities and higher educational institutions need to align their admission criteria and offerings with the NEP’s objectives over time. For instance, the concept of offering ‘majors’ and ‘minors’ could be popularised. A major is the field in which a student focuses during the course of their degree. A minor is a secondary concentration of courses that may or may not complement the major.

Also read: The National Education Policy Has a Grand Vision but Can’t See Its Own Feet

This would allow students to further explore the subjects they might have found interesting at the school level and may inspire them to consider phenomenon around them with new dimensions. A further way in which universities could implement the NEP’s objectives could be by encouraging rewards and credits for activities that are presently considered as ‘extra-curricular’.

As schools pass on the baton to universities, universities could, in turn, collaborate with various NGOs or public departments such as gram parishads, panchayats, public schools, anganwadis, utility departments etc. to understand where assistance is required and encourage students to undertake apprenticeships for long durations in these bodies towards the end of their degree programmes. This will offer the exposure required to contemplate improvements in society, for the generation that is to inherit it. This will further drive the social change envisaged.

Need for further clarity on the CAT and contemplated change in university admissions

The NEP contemplates greater flexibility and relaxation in board examinations, complemented with the CAT. Whilst promising, this change in the structure and format of board examinations along with the introduction of CAT could mean a higher burden for students, who are already bogged down by school examinations and specialised entrance examinations.

The mindset of the Indian parent and student today is to prepare as much as possible for every eventuality. As such, a student aiming for entrance into IIT will also work towards scoring a good grade in preparatory school examinations and board examinations as a ‘back up’. Now, this student will also have to prepare for the CAT as part of the ‘back up’ agenda, which may or may not correspond to subjects studied in school.

Unless there is clarity on what students should expect in CAT examinations and whether this training will be provided by schools, the CAT could become a bane as opposed to the boon it was contemplated to be. In the US, several universities have declined to accept standardised test scores for admission, stating that these tests do not reflect the true potential of a student.

An article from 2019 stated that one-on-one tutoring sessions from Princeton Review for the SATs run as high as $2,600 for 10 hours of private instruction. As such, better scores may reflect privilege rather than merit. The CAT will have to adapt its questions and criteria to ensure an equal opportunity for all students to score well in it. Otherwise, it may recede to becoming another test to disadvantage certain groups.

Also read: What the New Education Policy Will Mean for Universities in India

Even if the introduction of CAT results in a positive change at the school level and eases the burden on students, the real impact of this change will only be visible if there is a ripple effect at the university level. Over time, universities should commence undertaking a holistic approach to admissions. Universities should take a cue from the NEC to introduce the culture of having ‘statements of purpose’ or ‘explaining limiting circumstances’ in their application forms.

This results in an admissions representative paying greater heed to an application they would otherwise discount merely on account of a 0.05% score difference, and could eventually result in admitting a student for the potential they have, interest in that specific subject or university and despite that limiting circumstance. Whilst this change may take years and significant increase in staffing at universities to be implemented, it is worth considering to transform the Indian education system into a network of holistically-aligned institutions, in the long run.

Overall, the NEP sets the foundation for a learning system that values a wide array of skills, focussing on application-based growth and multi-disciplinary thought. The NEP brings hope that in future generations, there will be respect for all forms of work and India will truly move towards appreciation for various skills.

Raveena Sethia is an associate with the Competition Law Practice at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. Shreeyash Uday Lalit is a practising lawyer in the Supreme Court of India and Delhi high court. Both authors completed their LLMs from the University of Cambridge in 2018.