Dr Khalid Khan
The long-awaited National Education Policy (NEP-2020) has recently been published by the MHRD. This is the first education policy of the 21st century in India. The previous education policy 1986 and its revised version 1992 had set forth the fundamental of educational policies in the changed economic scenario after the new economic policy. This document is published in a changed condition. The major change happened in two fronts. First, the disposition towards education has drastically changed in the last three decades. Indian economy was a closed economy prior to the new liberalised economic policy of 1991. The Kothari commission and the first National Education Policy emphasised on the proactive role of the government in providing education and public nature of education. Inculcating constitutional ethos was also underscored in the Kothari Commission. However, the policies underwent considerable shift after the new economic reform of 1991. Soon after the announcement of new economic policy, Punnayya Committee was set up to examine the financing of higher education. It highlighted the need to review and restructure the norms for financing the education sector. The tilt towards increasing the share of private sector is visible from the document. It emphasised on mobilisation of funds from alternative sources by universities. This was followed by a series of committee and commissions stressing the significance of private sector in providing education in general and higher education in particular. The extreme position is evident from the Birla Ambani Committee Report which regarded higher education as a profitable investment opportunity. Second, the political situation has changed during the last three decades. Rise of BJP was accompanied by reinterpretation of the constitutional ethos. Constitutional understanding of secularism focuses on equal treatment of all religions. So far policies have not been inclined towards any religious philosophy. However, the last two decades have witnessed clear thrust on ancient Brahmanical tradition in the policy circles also. This is a shift from the constitutional commitment on secularism. Conventionally, any policy document did not endorse the ethos of any particular religion due to commitment of maintaining equal distance from every religion. The NEP 2020 document tilts in favour of Brahmanical tradition at the cost of constitutional vision of secularism, though every religion has due claims and share in India’s heritage. The Buddhists and Jains are major claimants of ancient India, but this is ignored. Islamic tradition has its own contribution of more than a millennium to India’s cultural milieu. It contributed profoundly in the development India’s medieval heritage but this tradition gets no mention in the NEP. Sikh tradition is another important stakeholder of medieval India which deserves equal recognition, particularly from the viewpoint of constitutional urge for equality. The role of Christianity is very important in building the foundations of modern India. The contribution of missionaries in education should also be acknowledged. The document has opened a Pandoras box by exclusively endorsing the ancient Brahmanical tradition. The matter of fact is that the overrated focus on ancient Brahmanical tradition unambiguously shows the departure from the constitutional tradition of embracing diversities and cultural and religious heritage of India.
It is to be noted that Indian secularism provides special concession to religious and cultural minorities in educational institutes run by minorities. So, special spaces were provided for religious minorities to avoid the onslaught of majoritarianism. Despite the discrepancy of secularism in theory and practice, the consensus of equal respect for every religion existed on a normative ground for five decades since independence. The tilt towards majority religion starts from the rise of BJP to the national level in 1999. The last six year has witnessed culmination of this process. The recommendations of NEP-2020 are refection of this changed political scenario.
The preference given to Sanskrit language over other languages is also evident in the report. It is not that other classical languages are not mentioned in the report. The report recognises the significance of classical languages, namely, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, etc. It also talks about preserving Pali, Prakrit and Persian literature. But the way Sanskrit language is glorified over other languages shows the ideological vantage point of the report. Sanskrit is the only classical language getting specific policy towards preservation. The document states that it will be offered at all levels of education. It opines that the heritage of Sanskrit literature is greater than Greek and Latin taken together. It should also be noted that Arabic is not mentioned in any category of these languages. Arabic is an important language for studying the history of medieval India. This language is offered as an option in many universities and colleges particularly those dominated by Muslims. This omission of Arabic is also tantamount to the ideological shift.
The omission of Urdu language from the report is a major shift with regard to the language policy. The mention of Schedule-8 language is the only way through which Urdu got recognition in the document. However, it is a major shift vis-à-vis Urdu when compared with the Kothari Commission. The Kothari Commission recognises the significant role of Urdu as a language spoken by many. It is to be noted that the omission or referring it to the Schedule-8 language itself falls short of the remarkable contribution of Urdu in this sub-continent. Urdu is not merely another language but it is deeply ingrained in Indian culture. In fact, Hindi itself is incomplete without acknowledging the contributions of Urdu to its development. On the top of this, Urdu is not a regional language it is as national as Hindi itself. The fact, Urdu is a claimant of national character and inevitable twin of Hindi is also recognised by the Kothari Commission which is the foundation of all education policies in independent India. Kothari Commission Report acknowledges the significance of Urdu as follows;
“Though Urdu is not a regional language in the ordinary sense of the word, it has an all-India significance since it is spoken by certain sections of the people in different parts of the country. Due encouragement must be given to it at all stages not only because of this peculiar character but also because of its close links with the official language, Hindi”.
The enrolment rate at elementary school level has reached 99 percent, thus, achieving universal access to school at least in terms of enrolment. The universalisation of school education is a long missed goal of education policy. The universal participation includes both retention and learning outcome. The scenario at school level is disappointing on both the fronts. A large number of the students drops out before joining secondary and higher education. The attendance rate is 99.2 percent at primary level, 92.8 percent at elementary level but it reduces to 80 percent at secondary level and 56 percent at senior secondary level. Eventually only 24.5 percent population in the age group 18 to 23 years reaches higher education. Thus, a large number of students are dropped out from secondary onwards. Specifically, the dropout rate is 4 percent at elementary level but it increases to 17 percent at secondary level. The NEP-2020 rightly acknowledges this fact. But the social factors leading to the dropout must be taken into account. The rate is higher among the underprivileged groups such as SC and ST- 24.7 percent and 19.4 percent respectively. The share rate is higher among Muslims, SC and ST than other groups. It is higher in rural areas than that of urban areas. The constraints at family level such as financial constraints, early job, early marriages and domestic responsibilities are the major factors behind dropout.
Students continuing education also face challenges in the form of low learning outcome. Low learning outcome and cognitive skills also lead to lack of interest in education and thus dropout. The survey conducted by ASER and NCERT provides evidences of low learning outcome and cognitive skills among students at school level. The situation is more alarming for the students coming from underprivileged background. Low score obtained in Mathematics provides evidences of the difficulties students face with numbers.
Further, discrimination on the ground of caste, religion and gender also results in low learning outcome and eventual dropout. There is a need of addressing cultural factors also. Very often, caste and religion-based bias and stereotype operating at school level also develop apathy among students from the underprivileged groups. Though the NEP-2020 document seeks to remove stereotypes from curriculum but it does not mention the group specific character of these stereotypes which result in discrimination. It would be interesting to see how curriculum is modified in the future on the pretext of removing stereotype. This concern is alarming due to the controversies happening in the past couple of decades in the name of curriculum change. The recent distortion in history curriculum, particularly medieval period, has also been done in the name of removing stereotype.
As far as higher education is concerned, the NEP-2020 has set ambitious target of increasing GER to 50 percent by 2035. The current enrolment in higher education is around 3.5 crores which has to be increased by another 3.5 crores to meet this target in the next fifteen years. This is a welcoming recommendation if the targetted expansion proves to be equitable and results in decent employment for graduates who are higher-educated. In fact, higher education is an essential precondition for reaping the benefit of demographic dividend from the young population. The expansion of higher education contributes to the economic development if it is supported by the favourable performance of the macroeconomic indicators. The period during 2004 and 2014 witnessed the GDP growth rate above 8 percent. This period is also accompanied with the expansion of higher education. The attendance rate in higher education increased from 13 percent to 24 percent during 2007 and 2014. The high economic growth very often creates higher demand for educated youths and thus improves employment opportunities for them. This signal from the labour market plays an important role in the increased demand for higher education.
However, the current scenario is not welcoming from the viewpoint of employment opportunities for the educated youths. The unemployment rate is higher among the higher-educated graduates than the overall unemployment rate. The ongoing economic crisis and pessimism in the labour market is the sole reason for this. The recent GDP figure shows that India’s growth story is on the verge of closing. The latest prediction by IMF reveals that the Indian economy would contract by 10.3% in 2020-21. If policy makers fail to recover the economy soon, the pessimism would engulf labour market as well as higher education. In such a scenario the target of expanding higher education through increasing seats – by 3.5 crore- may not be realised.
Privatisation of education at both school and higher education is an important issue. Now, self finance private institutions constitute 27 percent of the total attendance at elementary level, 24 percent at secondary and senior secondary level and 24 percent in higher education. It is to be noted that the share of private sector is increasing over the time. The NEP 2020 is the first policy document by central government which formally recognises the role of private sector in the expansion of education. Now, policies will be equally implemented in both types of educational institutions. The document also targets to curb commercialisation of education. Regulating the fee structure is one of the ways discussed by the document to curb commercialisation. Conventionally, higher education has been regarded as a public good. The policy towards regulating fee in private institution also means formal acceptance of the role of private sector at par with the government. This is tantamount to accepting the private nature of higher education which is a departure from the conventional understanding of higher education as a good i.e. public good. However, increasing role of private sector may have adverse impact on the students coming from the underprivileged background even when fee is charged within a defined limit. This may result in disparity in the quality of education due to the fee based unequal quality of education provided to the students.
It is to be noted that the goal of achieving 50 percent GER by 2035 may also be translated to new market for private sector in higher education. This is because the government spending on higher education is unlikely to increase commensurately. The commitment of increasing expenditure to 6 percent of the GDP from the current 4 percent is a welcoming move but this may fall short of the increased investment required for higher education. Thus, the private sector may extract super normal profit from this increased demand, if realised.
The NEP-2020 targets establishing branches of 100 world class universities in India. This is a modified version of the recommendation on National Knowledge Commission (NKC). The NKC – constituted in 2005- also recommended creating world class universities by improving the standards of Indian universities while NEP-2020 recommends inviting world class universities to India. This may adversely affect higher education in India due to increase in import of higher education services. Bettering the quality of Indian universities might improve India’s export possibilities by attracting foreign students. Further, world class universities in India will function as private universities resulting in manifold increase in the cost burden on students. This will exclude students from the underprivileged backgrounds. It is also highly likely that dualism in higher education will evolve with privileged students joining world class universities and underprivileged groups getting ghettoised in outcompeted Indian universities.
Moreover, the right-wing tilt of the NEP-2020 is evident from the policy recommendations on governance also. It envisages establishing Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) as a single overarching umbrella body for the entire higher education, excluding medical and legal education. It is justified in terms of removing fragmentation in higher education. However, the existing diversity in nodal commission is based on the diverse nature of different disciplines. For example, UGC focuses on governance and financing of universities, ICSSR is confined to the research in social sciences; ICMR covers research on medical sciences. Bringing all activities under a single umbrella body simply shows the concentration of power in a single body, thus, a move towards centralisation. Power sharing is an important arrangement of any democratic country. The focus should be on decentralisation of governance to different bodies based on specialisation.
In conclusion, it is to be said that the report unambiguously shows India’s changing political climate. The underlying implication of many recommendations of this policy – though the document does not specifically mention these- negates the diversity and glorifies ancient Brahmanical heritage only. The recommendations on financing clearly reveal the plan towards increasing the role of private sector in higher education.