AFTER the economy and environment, the Modi government has chosen the lockdown period for making yet another major policy pronouncement: New Education Policy 2020. A draft running into 484 pages was submitted on 31 May 2019 soon after the beginning of Modi 2.0. The 484-page draft has now been compressed into a 60-page policy document which was approved by the Union Cabinet on 29 July, 2020. Yet again the government has taken advantage of the lockdown to bypass Parliament from having any say on such a major policy matter. Not only that, this is a time when the pandemic has disrupted and devastated even routine education, and students all over India are facing digital exclusion as the Government pushes for online examinations. The Government, instead of involving students and educationists in an effort to address this new and challenging crisis for education, is choosing this time to force through a policy which peddles digital models of education!
The government claims to have shaped this policy after widest consultation, even though most organisations of teachers and students never heard from the government about the feedbacks they had supplied on the draft. The RSS-affliated Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal of course welcomed the policy for having accommodated 60-70 percent of demands they had made.
The New Education policy 2020 is presented as India’s first education policy for the 21st Century aimed at “building a global best education system rooted in Indian ethos … transforming India into a global knowledge superpower.” Talking about the best global standards, the policy document makes a specific mention of America’s Ivy League universities, the name used for eight of America’s best-known private universities. And it mentions five countries to illustrate its idea of model knowledge societies of the modern era: the US, Germany, Israel, South Korea and Japan. We are of course not told what specific parameters the authors of the policy may have applied to determine these five role models of knowledge society. Of course the influence of the American education system on this new document is all too obvious, and the policy welcomes American and other foreign universities to set up branches in India.
The new education policy acknowledges the widespread problem of students dropping out of the education system and lack of universal access to quality education. It mentions several policy objectives to address this problem and even claims that two crore students would be reintegrated into the education system. But it leaves us in the dark as to how this would be achieved. Instead of offering any means of retaining students in the education system, from school onwards to college and university, it institutionalizes the dropout phenomenon by offering multiple exit routes with a certificate at each dropout point. It is those from weaker classes, castes and genders who drop out: and it is those who will continue to drop out, albeit with a certificate in hand. It is clearly those who stay the entire course and get the complete degrees who will get the best jobs; certificates will not help the dropouts get better jobs.
The policy emphasizes early childhood care and education (ECCE) and proposes to equip the Anganwadi network in this direction. We are told that an ‘excellent curricular and pedagogical framework’ for ECCE for children up to the age of 8 (including a sub framework for 0-3 year olds) will be developed by NCERT. We are also told that ‘wherever possible’ mother-tongue/home language/local language will be the medium of instruction not just till Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond. This talk of prioritising the mother tongue as medium of instruction in primary school, can only be an eyewash in the absence of any plans to ensure quality education in the mother tongue in abundance, right through to higher education. Else, those from mother tongue medium schools, are left at a disadvantage later in an ecosystem where English continues to be the doorway for opportunity and advantage. The new language policy will create a situation where mother-tongue/home language/local language medium will be seen as inferior, while English medium schooling will be reserved for the rich, and the door will be wide open for imposing Sanskrit in keeping with the Sangh agenda.
And finally, the document also makes a passing mention of putting in place suitable facilitating systems to provide ‘equitable and quality education until Grade 12 to all children up to the age of 18’. All this sounds well for a policy document on education, but it does not however spell out how the government proposes to ensure universal education up to Grade 12 (age 18). How can education be ensured as a fundamental right if it is not provided free of cost to all? The new document talks about affordable quality education for all, but once again we do not know what the government means by affordability for all and how it proposes to ensure that. The policy does not propose expansion and improvement of the government school network as the key to ensuring universal access to education. It talks about curbing commercialization, but within the framework of increased privatization. The technique is simple; it just qualifies the word private by frequently using terms like “public-spirited” private schools or “philanthropic” private schools. Who are these public-spirited philanthropists? Are they the same corporate profiteers who are preying on people’s aspirations for their children by selling education at ever steeper costs? Or Sanghi schools that promote Manusmriti? Will they who pay the piper (i.e fund education) not also call the tune (decide the agenda and priorities of education)?
It talks about increasing public expenditure on education but only to repeat for the umpteenth time since 1948 the unmet goal of spending 6% of India’s GDP on education. Only a common school system, the kind of which the Muchkund Dubey commission had recommended for Bihar in 2007 (but was dumped by the Nitish Kumar government much the same way it also dumped the report of the Land Reform Commission), forcing children from all backgrounds to attend government schools can improve the quality of government schools and promote the inclusive spirit of social equality and respect for diversity. Short of such a radical thrust, and a concrete roadmap of implementation, much of the policy objectives are bound to remain a wishful vision statement.
The substantive changes proposed in the policy revolve around a stronger focus on vocational education and the restructuring of higher education and research. The focus on vocational education is intended to produce a more skilled workforce suited to the requirements of big capital. The policy wants to expose at least half the students to vocational education, introducing it at Grade Six itself including opportunities for internship. It is not difficult to understand the implications of such early introduction of vocational training and internship. Large numbers of students from socially and economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs) will be pushed in the process away from general education to low-skilled low-paid jobs via “vocational education”, with “vocation” being code for hereditary caste-based occupations. In other words, rather than universalisation of education up to Grade 12, the new education policy may well lead us to institutionalization of teenage labour and caste-based division of labour. Thinking and intellectual development, which is the motto of education, will be reserved for the rich and the powerful, while the poor, socially deprived and the downtrodden are condemned to caste-based slavery. We may recall that the Modi regime had amended the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act to allow children under the age of 14 to work in “family based enterprises”, invoking casteist arguments of caste-based labour to justify the policy.
Apart from diversion of students through the vocational education route, the new policy announces a thorough restructuring of college education. A few years ago, Delhi University had experimented with a four year undergraduate programme which had to be withdrawn soon after its introduction in the face of massive opposition from students and teachers. The new policy reintroduces that failed FYUP idea in the form of a four-year degree course with exit options at the end of every year. The Masters degree is reduced to only one year and M. Phil courses are totally done away with. This, coupled with promotion of private universities and entry of foreign universities, will only restrict the access of common students to higher education and research. As in schooling, here too multiple exit options will only cover up and disguise the problem of the phenomenon of the socially and educationally deprived dropping out/being pushed out of college and university even after having made it in. The policy of course talks about a National Scholarship Portal and provision of 25% to 100% funding for half the students in private colleges and universities, but only the implementation of the policy will give us a real idea of these figures. There is a strong apprehension that the scholarships for Dalit and adivasi students, will be done away with, and these students will be left to fend for themselves.
Teachers play a pivotal role in the implementation of any education policy. The new policy talks about the need to attract the best and the brightest of students to the teaching profession and treating them with due respect, but is silent about the grievances among teachers about their growing job insecurity, the phenomenon of contract teaching and rampant violation of the Supreme Court mandated principle of equal pay for equal work. Another disturbing feature of the new policy is the trend of over centralization – from the formation of a National Education Commission and a National Research Foundation to the system of common assessment and entrance tests at various levels, the policy advocates extensive ‘light but tight’ central control and leaves little room for state governments despite the fact that education is in the concurrent list of the Constitution.
With an aggressive Sangh-BJP establishment at the helm of central power, such over-centralisation can only pave the way for increasing saffronisation of the entire educational sphere. Even though the NEP has mentioned constitutional values in several places along with phrases like scientific temper, critical inquiry diversity, pluralism and inclusion, we will have to remain vigilant about changes in the curriculum and about attempts to regiment research according to the ideological script of the RSS.
In the face of massive opposition to the government's earlier attempt at Hindi imposition, the NEP has chosen the roundabout way of the three language formula as a potential route for undermining the autonomy of the States to decide their own policies and forcing Hindi and Sanskrit on non-Hindi speaking states. States like Tamil Nadu must be able to retain the two-language formula according to their own conditions and requirements, and must not be forced to accept the three-language formula. No attempts must be made to weaken the linguistic character and autonomy of India's states.
Another important point on which the new policy remains conspicuously silent is caste and caste-based reservation, SEDGs being the new catchword even though the means for ensuring increased access for SEDGs remain characteristically unclear. What is clear is that the agenda of commercialisation, privatisation, and foreign universities is likely to replace public, state-funded education with elite educational enclaves (educational SEZs) minus social justice and caste-based reservation measures.
India’s existing education system does indeed need a radical overhaul. Educationists have for long pushed for replacing the current system of parallel public/private, rich/poor streams with a system of common neighbourhood school system providing free education of an equitable standard for all. They have for long pushed for the government to prioritise spending on education so that no Indian is deprived of the best school and college/university education due to a lack of money or a shortage of seats. The Modi regime’s proposed NEP is emphatically not the overhaul India’s education policy needs. Instead it is designed to exclude and close the gates of education for the vast majority of India’s poor and deprived students; weaken social justice and reservations; open the floodgates for privatised, commercialised education; and institutionalise what Dr Ambedkar called “graded inequality”. The NEP in its present form must be withdrawn and scrapped; and instead, efforts must be made to realise the Common Neighbourhood School System recommended by the Muchkund Dubey Committee, and a system of free, state funded higher education including college and university education for all. That is the educational overhaul that India needs.