The implementation needs to be designed with care.
It is heartening to note that the country has got a new National Education Policy after a long gap of 34 years. It has created some kind of euphoria partly because it has raised the aspirations of the people and partly due to its ostentatious presentation. The NEP has, indeed, made a couple of notable structural changes. While it has attempted to address pertinent issues fairly systematically, there remains certain areas where the proposed outlines leave scope for misapprehensions.
The most laudable goal of NEP is the universalization of school education within 2030, as it corroborates with the idea of considering the entire sector as a continuum. Five years of Foundational Stage is also a significant recommendation. But there is no mention of the extension of the RTE Act to cover children up to the age of 18 years. It looks only like a pious statement in the absence of any Constitutional commitment. The issue acquires a different emphasis when a Constitutional provision is proposed to make it universal.
The NEP has also stated about restructuring of school curriculum and pedagogy covering all stages. This is the heart of school education and thus the requirement of a vibrant and an ever-evolving system. Curriculum design and transactional strategies require synergy between planners of curriculum and teacher education, which is badly lacking. In fact, the issue of teacher education, which suffers from isolation from school education, from higher education and the domains within itself needs to be addressed. If this isolation is not broken, no qualitative change can be ever imagined.
The NEP has also laid emphasis on increased flexibility and choice of subjects to study particularly in secondary school. It is a great recommendation, but there are serious issues in terms of time tabling, teacher deployment and capacity of students to make choices. Making choices requires analytical skills and decision making skills on the part of the students, which unfortunately are not entrenched in our existing curricular provisions.
The NEP appears to have dealt with the issue of language with little clarity. It mentions that three-language formula will continue to be implemented with a great flexibility and no language will be imposed on anyone. But it has not taken into account the spirit on which the three-language formula was envisioned by the Kothari Commission. The recommendation about teaching of the child in her home language/mother tongue/local language up to Grade 5 is a reasonable one. But it should have clarified at what stage the learner would switch over to the local language if her mother tongue is going to be different. It has also not mentioned anything about governing the prevailing craze for English medium schools from pre-school onwards. There appears to be a deafening silence about the promotion of national language. It has also not addressed the significance and the sensitivity involved in the promotion of Sanskrit language when it mentions that Sanskrit will be offered at all levels of school and higher education as one of the optional languages. Such a statement is not going to strengthen the teaching and learning of Sanskrit. Sanskrit language ought to be looked at from the perspective of knowledge rather than limiting it as a language of rituals and scriptures. We have not been able to demonstrate the richness of the Sanskrit language by way of extracting the vastness of knowledge embedded in it and appropriately integrating and popularizing that in different domains of knowledge.
The NEP has rightly recommended that at least 50% of learners through school and higher education system should go in for vocational programs by 2025. The NEP has not rightly reflected on the downfall of this sector which is primarily because of the lack of vertical and lateral mobility. It would require a serious exercise of aligning the school level vocational programs with university and college level programs and creating adequate infrastructure in close coordination with industry.
Examination appears to be the dominating factor in the NEP. While recommending transformation of assessment procedures for student development, the NEP mentions that students will be allowed to take board exams on up to two occasions during any given school year. It is hard to believe that such a proposal would bring about any qualitative improvement as it would undermine the significance of complementarity of different domains pursuing together. The NEP’s recommendation about the institutionalization of the National Achievement Surveys is a welcome move, provided they are used to identifying the hard spots of learning and using them for remedial measures.
The NEP has stressed that by 2030, a 4-year integrated B.Ed. degree will be the minimal qualification for a school teacher and that all such degrees would be offered by a multidisciplinary higher educational institution. This recommendation is the pivot on which depends the entire success of NEP. Transforming single faculty institutions into multi-faculty is a good idea. This is what was recommended by the Justice Verma Commission in 2012 and despite the directions of the Supreme Court nothing has happened on the ground in the last seven years. This is the most important area but has remained the weakest one. The policy seems to have reiterated the four-year program without looking into the reasons why this innovative model did not move further from the four RIEs of the NCERT in the last 55 years.
In higher education, the NEP mentions that all single stream institutions will be phased out and that there will be only three types of institutions, namely the Research Intensive Universities, Teaching Intensive Universities and Colleges with degree granting powers primarily focusing on undergraduate programs. Phasing out of single stream institutions is a welcome move. Since teaching and research have a symbiotic relationship, classification of universities does not sound well and cuts into the very concept of a university. It will also be against the concept of pluralism and societal engagements. Granting autonomy and degree awarding powers to colleges in a way would bid goodbye to the affiliating system, which is in vogue since 1857. But it is going to raise a plethora of issues pertaining to equivalence of degrees awarded by different colleges. In such a situation the degrees awarded by the colleges have to be linked with equivalence and parity, otherwise inter-colleges comparability will become a huge issue with its adverse impact on employability.
Another major recommendation is about moving towards a more liberal multidisciplinary undergraduate education, which will be of either three- or four-year duration with multiple exit options. It is a good idea as introduction of a four-year liberal education will provide students with broad knowledge of the wider world and empower them to deal with intricacies. This was also recommended by the Kothari Commission in 1966 and is in line with what is followed in the US. Increase in duration to four years for the first degree will be a worthwhile idea only if provision of infrastructure, human resource, financial requirements and curriculum updating along with quality of its transaction can be detailed and assured by both the Union and the State Governments.
The NEP has recommended that all institutions should move towards multidisciplinarity. It is a welcome move. But it will necessitate either closing down of all single faculty institutions or upgrading them into multidisciplinary institutions. This would obviously require greater amount of political will and substantial increase in earmarked resources. The idea of having a university in or near every district does not seem to be a credible recommendation as it will accelerate inbreeding, promote parochialism and cut into the concept of pluralism, which provides inherent strength to an institution of higher learning.
While suggesting the discontinuation of MPhil program, the NEP has recommended Master’s degree or a four-year Bachelor’s degree with research as the direct entry into a PhD program. Discontinuation of MPhil is certainly desirable as it has already been given up by certain institutions, but direct entry of a four-year product to research for PhD might be a risky proposition in the majority of cases. Preparing research ready graduates through a four-year program, as of now, may be true only in a handful of institutions. Therefore, to begin with, it should be attempted on a select basis in places where curricular provisions and its transaction provide for meaningful participation of every student in research. The role of Master’s degree in the new situation may be obviated only by enriching the PhD program with mandatory comprehensive course work, coupled with rigorous assessment.
The NEP has underlined the significance of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) by stating that all types of institutions could offer ODL programs, provided they are specifically accredited to do so. The intent seems to be that it will help realise the goal of 50% GER. But the biggest challenge with ODL is to address the issue of perceived notion of its disputed equivalence with the formal system. But too much of dependence on ODL to increase GER should not lead to any further dilution of standards. There has been a persistent concern to increasing access to higher education since Independence. The NEP has recommended that the GER in higher education be increased from 25.8% to 50% over the next 10 years. Achieving the goal of 50% GER is a good destination to cover and it may not be difficult to achieve if face to face is coupled with ODL. The NEP has also underscored the value of public spirited private institutions with commitment to high quality education. Promotion of private enterprise in higher education, to support the efforts of the government, is perhaps the need of the hour.
The NEP has taken note of fragmentation of higher education in the recent past in the name of domain specific universities. It has recommended that the practice of setting up such universities will be discontinued by 2030. It is a welcome move. Fragmentation of higher education must be put to rest as it has already harmed the sector a lot. Everything in this category should be under the university system.
Research seems to have caught the right attention in the NEP, whereby it has recommended the establishment of a National Research Foundation (NRF) to fund competitive peer reviewed grant proposals of all types across all disciplines. The establishment of NRF should give a fillip to enhancing funding for research. While setting up NRF, other funding agencies like DST, DBT, UGC, etc. should also continue to support research. It may also be necessary for the foundation to evolve a mechanism which should ensure that the research proposals are worthy of public funding.
The NEP also mentions that quality at an affordable cost will be made accessible to all and that 20% of all public expenditure will be committed over a 10-year period. Making quality education at an affordable cost is, indeed, a big challenge. It has been argued for over 35 years that public investment on education should be around 6% of the GDP, of which 3% should be committed on elementary education, 1.5% on secondary education and 1.5% on higher education. This was recommended by the Kothari Commission in 1966, when the size of the system was much smaller than today. The fact remains that still the public expenditure on education is hovering around the 4% mark. It requires a fresh and realistic analysis to ascertain the quantum of resources required in the actual sense. New norms need to be worked out, which should apply equally to government as well as private institutions. Appropriate measures will, however, have to be taken to ensure checks and balances on the on-going commercialization of education.
The NEP has laid emphasis on revamping the regulatory system. While in school education it has recommended distribution of work amongst several state level agencies, in higher education, it has recommended that regulation, provision of education, funding, accreditation and academic standards setting will be performed by distinct, independent and empowered bodies. It has recommended a common regulatory regime for both public and private institutions in a “light but tight” and facilitative manner. Coordination amongst multiple related agencies somehow is going to be a herculean task. The NEP has also recommended the strengthening of the CABE, which is a welcome move. Interestingly, the MHRD shall be re-designated as the Ministry of Education.
One of the serious omissions of the document is the critical analysis part of the sector. There should have been a critical commentary on each sector of education, mentioning where does it stand vis-à-vis others, what has worked and what has not worked in the past, where should it be in five years from hence and what should be the guiding principles in its forward journey. Some of the statements made on structures, curricula, pedagogies, assessment, teacher preparations raise more questions than providing plausible answers. The NEP has left many issues open to the states and institutions, which will remain dormant as ever before. Prior to reiterating the earlier recommendations, the policy should have candidly come out with the reasons for their non-implementation. The policy of endorsement and reiteration should not become a trend with the NEP formulation. It is hoped that some of the issues that have been raised may be addressed at the time of designing the implementation strategies.
Prof Ved Prakash is former Chairman, University Grants Commission.