Can The New NEP Really Reform Education In India?

Finally, the New Education Policy (NEP-2020) is out, though it is somewhat surprising that it comes bang in the middle of a pandemic, and when parliament is not in session. Even though almost two lakh suggestions were received as feedback on the draft policy (DNEP-2019) not much debate about these has been seen in the public domain.

There are some unconditionally good things in the policy. Bringing in very early years of schooling into a formal ambit is a welcome proposal as are the ideas of extending mid-day meals to pre-school children and the inclusion of breakfast to the school nutrition basket. Measures such as a gender inclusion fund and special incentives such as hostels and stipends for the socio-economically disadvantaged groups are also heartening.

The idea of imparting early education in the native or mother tongue is a progressive idea but it should not become a barrier to accessing English later in school and college. Almost all of our natural and social sciences are, at higher levels, taught largely in English; it is the dominant language that provides access to the larger world, whether it be professional jobs, higher education, or research.

The policy talks of "no rigid separation" between academic, extra-curricular and vocational streams. This should not result in a situation where students end up doing a mishmash of courses which render them ineligible, or even incompetent, for admission to higher education institutions. Vocational internships will indeed lend a hands-on flavor to the education experience, but an excess of vocational courses can overwhelm the pursuit of deeper concepts and theory.

In continuity with this is the idea to banish rote learning through "experiential learning and critical thinking" as well as "multidisciplinary learning". Experiential learning, for instance, through project work requires significant financial resources for procuring project materials, and setting up tinkering labs. A pedagogy that ingrains critical thinking requires the assessment of answers to long-form questions. Such activities simply need more teachers, while the reality on the ground is that school systems face chronic and persistent teacher shortages. The bulk of schools pay salaries which are unlikely to attract too many good applicants, and most will certainly worry about the cost of acquiring the 4-year B.Ed degree for a job that may not be remunerative enough.

The policy speaks of making board examinations easier. How much easier can it get than exams - and assessments - that allow students to score 100% in all subjects! The largely multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and keyword-based evaluation of questions have degraded the quality of student assessment. In addition, severe grade inflation and unscientific moderation continue to plague many marking schemes. It is certainly hoped that the new policy will get rid of this malaise. Board exams will become "low stakes" only when two conditions are met: first, when continuous, in-school evaluation is given sufficient weight - and this needs sufficient teachers; two, when board exams become just one input among many for admission to higher education institutions. But our aspirant numbers are too large for multi-parameter admissions. Will the NEP be able to liberate us from these prisons?

The proposals for higher education have all the right keywords: undergraduate studies will be broad-based, multi-disciplinary, holistic, with flexible curricula and integrated vocational streams. It will desirably be of four years' duration with internships and research projects thrown in. We are familiar with much of these within the IIT system. A novel proposal is to allow for multiple exits, after the first year with a certificate, a diploma after the second year and a degree beyond that. Is it even possible to design a degree where each year adds independent, stand-alone value? In a job market where a full degree is sometimes of no value, certificates and diplomas will hardly have any significance.

Multi - and inter-disciplinary studies and liberal arts (including a focus on ancient knowledge) are emphasized frequently in the new policy. As is the freedom to choose any combination of subjects (e.g. Physics and Fashion Design). This kind of freedom must come with mechanisms which ensure that students do not find themselves with combinations that lead nowhere - neither higher studies nor jobs. The excitement over all this multi-disciplinarity should not make us forget that sometimes depth and specialization may be more important. At another level, liberal and interdisciplinary education brings to the table discourses which can be discomforting, such as those related to culture, identity, gender and class. The explicit commitment to a liberal education in the policy is therefore truly welcome, provided these debates are allowed to flower freely in practice. 

The proposal to build Multidisciplinary Education & Research Universities (MERUs) is extremely interesting. It will be fantastic if the government can invest in creating these high-quality institutions. The investment needed will be humongous, and so will be the strategic planning required to leapfrog to a level that has taken some of the actual Ivy League institutions more than 200 years!

Where are we going to find so many "high-quality" faculty to populate our institutions - existing and proposed? There is a terrible paucity of good applicants. The poor quality of students coming out of our undergraduate programmes make for poor researchers and even poorer faculty candidates. Many of them are pouring into the post-graduate systems for a Masters or a Doctoral degree because they are unable to find employment. The current output of "world-class" doctorates from our top tier institutions is very small.

The big ticket announcement in the policy is the formation of the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) with four verticals to look at "regulation, accreditation, funding, and standard setting". A commission of this type will exercise real autonomy free from the whims of the government of the day only if the commissioners are chosen and tenured in the manner of election commissioners - an idea that was originally mooted by the Yashpal committee.

Handing over all testing and entrance exams to a single National Testing Agency (NTA) seems like an overly centralized system. This is a one-size-fits-all approach. While elsewhere institutions are moving away from using a common aptitude test for admission to higher education institutions - they seem to work in favor of the privileged - we seem to be fascinated with this. Coaching will also surely find opportunities here.

Probably the most impactful announcement is the opening up of the higher education space to top foreign universities. How many Indians will be able to afford studying in these universities? How many foreign universities would be interested in opening up campuses in India? An "unanticipated" consequence of this move may be to drain the existing public institutions, especially the top-tier ones, of their faculty, instead of improving them through competition.

Surprisingly, the policy document makes no mention of statutory caste-based reservations, nor does it make a reference to the Right to Education (RTE) initiatives. Also missing is any reference to fundamental rights even though the setting of the proposed education ethos is presumably "modern". 

Finally, of course, is the elephant in the room - funding. Every proposal and initiative in the new policy needs money - lots of it. How much of it will come from the state and how much from philanthropists or private investors? If the state steps away, privatization of all varieties will substitute for it and corrode the notion of education being a public good. Education then might simply become unaffordable to large segments of the population. That 6% of GDP should be devoted to education has been said many times before; will it actually materialize this time around?

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

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