With the NEP's Focus on 'Autonomy', Are We Ushering in a Spirit of Academic Capitalism?

Commentators see the National Education Policy 2020's emphasis on choice, modularity and autonomy as disquieting because they see it as pushing the education system into a neoliberal governance mode.

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In a perspicacious commentary on the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP), social scientist Satish Deshpande noted that multiple exit options “will certainly help in renaming drop-outs as certificate or diploma-holders. But they cannot ensure that these credentials will bring significant benefits for holders.”

He further noted that in the current system, “The indivisibility of the degree provided an incentive for students and families to try hard to complete their degrees.” Deshpande’s criticism is spot on. To push his arguments to the next stage, we can examine how the flexibility offered to the student is in fact illusory and mired in a whole set of troubling issues. 

The rise of creativity

‘Creativity’ and ‘innovation’ in terms of study, personality development and institutional mechanisms are the operative words in the NEP, occurring on practically all pages of the document. A few samples:

“quality higher education must aim to develop good, thoughtful, well-rounded, and creative individuals…”

“It must enable an individual to study one or more specialized areas of interest at a deep level, and also develop character, ethical and Constitutional values, intellectual curiosity, scientific temper, creativity, spirit of service, and 21st century capabilities across a range of disciplines”

“…well-rounded across disciplines including artistic, creative, and analytic subjects”

“Imaginative and flexible curricular structures will enable creative combinations of disciplines for study… “

Then there is the emphasis on ‘mobility’:

“provide greater mobility to students in India who may wish to visit, study at, transfer credits to, or carry out research at institutions abroad, and vice versa…”

“[Currently, there is] a complete lack of vertical mobility for students from the vocational education stream …”

“The credit-based Framework will also facilitate mobility across ‘general’ and vocational education.”

Thus, mobility, choice, autonomy and creativity are to become the keywords for the next generation of students and for educational administrators. In and of themselves, of course, no one disputes their idealism. However, these concepts are also loaded with other value-systems in our contemporary era. 

Also read: The NEP Goes Against the Existing Constitutional Mandate of the RTE

Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in their The New Spirit of Capitalism (2018) note that autonomy, self-realisation, mobility and individual responsibility have been substituted for stability, the consistency of socio-economic and welfare structures and organised planning. Everything finally devolves on to the individual, in terms of planning, growth, choices, skill-sets and development, since there are to be no more supportive structures (including, one adds, fellowships, whose delayed payments have been in the news recently).

In order to fulfil one’s aspirations, one works even harder, since the responsibility is solely one’s own. It is in this context that one worries away at the emphasis on student choices, autonomy, creativity and responsibility.

Boltanski and Chiapello, studying management discourses of the 1990s, note that the workers are treated as being ‘more skilled, more flexible, more inventive and more autonomous’.

More worryingly, they note that in stressing versatility, job flexibility and the ability to learn and adapt to new duties rather than possession of occupation and established qualifications, while also stressing the capacity for engagement, communication and relational qualities, neo-management looks to what are increasingly called ‘life skills’, as opposed to knowledge.

Neoliberal flexibility

The IIT Bombay Liberal Arts program under its Centre for Liberal Education invites you, on its opening page, to ‘choose your own path to arts, sciences, or engineering’. The IIT Madras MA program speaks of itself as serving ‘the goal of providing people with the freedom to make their lives better’. IIT Guwahati makes a slight shift when it says of its Master of Liberal Arts: ‘this programme will enable students to make informed judgments and choices, but always with awareness and a sense of the ethical implications of those choices’.

About its MA programmes, the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, writes:

“We follow a modular approach – what is popularly known as ‘the cafeteria system’ – students can choose from a variety of courses offered in different areas, such as literature, linguistics, and language education and opt for a programme that best suits their goals and interests.” 

For commentators, this emphasis on choice, modularity and autonomy is disquieting because they see this as pushing the education system into a neoliberal governance mode.

As Jakob Claus, Thomas Meckel and Farina Pätz put it in their essay on ‘Academic Capitalism’: “This responsibility is part of forming one’s adaptive and active personality. Creating and managing one’s curriculum in this respect is an exercise in interacting with as well as shaping and being shaped by changing environments and projects.”

For Claus et al, this so-called flexibility is in fact disguised social control. Reading the Liberal Arts programs in Europe via Gilles Deleuze, they note that, “The personalised freedom given to Liberal Arts students is accompanied by constant self-reflection and supervision structures.”

It is this strange mix of heightened control, expanded monitoring and presumed freedom that they draw attention to: “The potential student for the above mentioned Liberal Arts programs recognises flexibility, creativity, responsibility, freedom and self-reflection as a matrix of contemporary values within the new spirit of capitalism.”

Claus et al see the projection of creativity and freedom as actually enabling and amplifying supervision and monitoring by the institutions (since neoliberal societies shift the mode of social control away from the state to organisations).

Also read: The Liberal Arts in the Age of Illiberalism

One turns here to the NEP document which, as noted elsewhere, speaks of autonomy and greater regulation of institutions, often in the same breath.  About assessment, the NEP is categorical: “HEIs shall also move away from high-stakes examinations towards more continuous and comprehensive evaluation.”

This seems to indicate greater and not lesser monitoring and supervision. Later, in an interesting passage about student activities that would ostensibly produce all-round development, the document says:

“all HEIs will have mechanisms and opportunities for funding of topic-centred clubs and activities organised by students with the help of faculty and other experts as needed, such as clubs and events dedicated to science, mathematics, poetry, language, literature, debate, music, sports, etc. Over time, such activities could be incorporated into the curriculum once appropriate faculty expertise and campus student demand is developed. Faculty will have the capacity and training to be able to approach students not just as teachers, but also as mentors and guides. “

One notes that the those deemed extra-curricular hobbies and ‘fun-and-games’ are to be incorporated into the curriculum with accompanying faculty expertise. Would this be freedom or supervision of even sports and cultural activities?

The two samples seem to imply the validity of the Claus et al’s argument about greater monitoring that lies underneath illusions of student choices and presumed freedoms.

Toward a pedagogy of the anxious? 

The NEP does offer much to think about. As it moves into the implementation phase, we need also to think through the implications of some of the proposed changes.

As the policy makes choice and autonomy the centrepiece of student subjectivity, it overlaps with the neoliberal emphasis on responsibilisation. Individual decisions – course, instructor, program, institution – will determine the kind of success and subjectivity that emerges at the end of the process. As a supposed response to our over-regulated institutions, the policy treats the institution as a space of possibility and potential: you must choose your possibility to fulfil your potential. 

In such a context of responsibilization and autonomy, we can think of a series of questions:

Are the students’ states of vulnerability being prised wide open when neoliberal restructuring offers freedom of exit options and freedom to choose any combination of courses without core disciplinary training in the guise of multi- and interdisciplinarity?

What forms of market-ready skills and abilities accrue to a student who chooses any and every mix of courses simply because she can, and exits with a diploma?

Will the versatility and creativity be at the cost of stable pedagogic systems, supportive nets (financial and other) and disciplinary strengths?

Are our institutions and their apparatuses structured to enable self-realisation, efficiency, rational choices and self-management, or would they induce, when student vulnerabilities are exposed to slowed-down job markets, lost disciplinary cohesion and so-called flexibility, greater anxieties?

Do such multiple choices lead to fulfilment or fragmentation of disciplines and of the self – as critics have noted about neoliberal subjectivity (see Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism) – in the guise of choice and autonomy? 

These questions index what Noah de Lissavoy in Capitalism, Pedagogy and the Politics of Being has called ‘the pedagogy of the anxious’ – it is this pedagogy that we have to account for now.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.