National education Policy 2020 is now a story where the plot has already been decided, the theme is clear, and even the pace at which incidents will happen and weave a form has been given a format. The NEP2020 isn’t any more in the ideation stage but will soon have words and sentences falling in place where the story moves ahead at a brisk pace. This story is all set to change mindsets and lives.
The new education policy lays special emphasis on both teachers as well as students and the process of transformation begins and continues with advancements in both areas. If on one hand we have the specifics of teacher training and teaching methodologies being subject to upgrades that lead to valued degrees, there are elements where salaries and increments get some attention. So far as students are concerned, the policy wishes to walk the talk about transformation of a learner into one who has an orientation towards analytical thinking and the encouragement towards skill development. Somewhere in between are intentions to continually evolve the curriculum according to contemporary needs, rigorous entrance exams and assessments that are free from any sort of biases. Factors like having classroom strengths that aren’t overwhelmingly counter-productive and the linking to regulatory bodies that do not over-step each other have the potential to convert the entire education system into one where efficacy is promoted because of creative thought processes meandering effectually.
How the opinion leaders interpret the policy
Amita Mulla Wattal, Principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, clarifies in her article ‘Own the disruption’ that ‘much of the energy that will drive the economy will be generated in the classrooms. It is clear that without a skilled workforce, no community will prosper and no industry will thrive’. Quite obviously, the stress is not so much on rote learning that has been plaguing our education system so far and the attempt is to bring in a huge amount of cerebral interactions that will have their way when the research positioning is considered. Disha Nawani, Professor and Dean, School of Education, TISS, Mumbai in her article ‘New policy old mindset’ writes that ‘the one remarkable feature which stands out is the implicit belief that teaching, caring and educating children is a highly demanding job and cannot be measured by quantitative measures alone. Therefore, even if students do badly, unwavering trust in teachers ensures that they are never in the radar of suspicion.’ Throughout the policy document, words and concepts emerge that revolve around keywords like collaborative learning, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and an independent outlook that isn’t governed by vested interests. This is, of course possible only if the coupling with digital literacy and information technology happens seamlessly. The entire process of re-engineering isn’t going to be an easy task and definitely poses challenges at all levels.
It is not surprising at all to find the industry, media, and those involved with teaching in any way have both upbeat opinions as well as rather circumspect analytical comments. Let us take the opinion of Azeez Gupta and Vishal Suri expressed in their article titled ‘NEP ignores a key aspect: The critical role of parents’ where they are apprehensive about the right degree of involvement of both parents as well as teachers. The element of involvement is subjective and thus carries with it the unsaid and undocumented role of people actively involved with the teaching process because a fair amount of unlearning of all the ways things were done in the past will be required. Their article talks about the political-economy aspects of the NEP and how this could have disruptive powers and mentions that ‘we need initiatives and technology that achieve both educational and political success’. They go on to specify that ‘technology can play a key role in bringing about this behavioural change by implementing the Aspiration, Information, & Measurement (AIM) framework’. This is actually what the present Covid conflict has already ushered in and people at the teaching and taught level have slowly become accustomed to the transformational role of the social media and other aids that depend a lot on internet. We know now that India is poised to have 820 million smartphone users by 2022 and this will include both urban as well as rural population. It is apparent now that this advance into the digital technology arena that has begun, is going to remain unstoppable even after the Covid menace has died down. However, ‘the outcomes of digital learning will be visible once a mass scale adoption happens’ mentions Gaurav Garg in another article and goes on to add that only universal accessibility and ‘an uninterrupted power supply and free internet’ reaching out to the remotest village will actually do the magic.
NEP 2020 is all about restructuring and reenergizing
There is a certain section of thinkers who believe that this policy is not going to be as revolutionary as envisaged. P Chidambaram in an article titled ‘NEP 1: Elephant in the room’ points out the flaws so far as language and school education are concerned. Calling the policy ‘mostly motherhood and apple pie’ he writes that ‘the policy of home language as the medium of instruction faces spirited opposition because (1) it goes against the prevailing view of a very large proportion of the people; (2) it cannot be implemented unless private for-profit schools are banned; and (3) the government itself is not sure whether the objective of quality education will be realized if classes beyond grade 5 or grade 8 are taught in the home/local language’. Mr Chidambram probably forgets that it is the prevailing situation that needs an overhaul and that the mis-governance of past governments has to be restructured and reenergized. The elephant, some will quip, is a figment of his mindset that needs a critical DNA infusion. Kapil Sibal, a former Union HRD Minister, writes in another article that ‘a syllabus is not important’ and that ‘textbooks limit the contours of knowledge’. The right approach, Mr Sibal, is to have a syllabus and curriculum that is continually evolving according to contemporary needs and books, including textbooks, are as much like collaborators and facilitators ‘in the child’s journey of discovery’ as teachers and parents who have an evolved involvement in education. Education, I believe, is more like a parent-teacher partnership where policies go on and create roadmaps that are not stagnant. Mr Sibal, however, does raise the issue of public investment in education and mentions that ‘expenditure on education as a percentage of the union budget has declined from 4.14 percent in 2014-15 to 3.2 percent in 2020-21. Expenditure on education by the Centre and States as a proportion of GDP is 3.1 percent in 2019-20 which remained stagnant at 2.8 percent since 2014-15’. The NEP, let me add here, does mention a rise in public investment to 6 percent of the GDP to start with… and this, I am sure, is going to be revised in subsequent budgets and as the policy actually comes in force. So yes, budgets are vital and the decision-makers need to keep on eye on this perspective because implementation of revolutionary changes cannot happen on a starving budget.
We need to understand that the NEP isn’t flung at us with magical potions flying willy-nilly between the lines but is a document that talks about the system being purged of past imperfections and injected with new energy with plausible outcomes being obvious in around twenty years. The policy mentions on page 34 that ‘this policy envisions a complete overhaul and re-energising of the higher education system…’ by 2040. Shyam Menon, in his article published a few days back, writes that ‘all HEIs will eventually become “independent self-governing institutions” (p. 49) with considerable “faculty and institutional autonomy” (p. 34), having complied with a series of regulatory exercises that are “light but tight” (pp. 34, 47) operated by a large number of private accreditors overseen by a new set of regulatory institutions at the national level. By 2035, India’s higher education system will have doubled the Gross Enrolment Ratio to 50 per cent. The doubling of enrolment will be made possible by larger student strength in each HEI, a large number of new HEIs mostly in the private sector, by a refurbished Open and Distance Learning system and through the use of technologies including online modes.’ It is obvious that the NEP isn’t a head-in-the-clouds policy but is firmly stationed to change and to accept reasonable changes.
What is the fight really against?
The real conflict is not because of all the wonderful things that the policy sets out as its target but because the process of weeding out mediocrity that has been a part of education in India. These elements of mediocrity aren’t simply a part of HEI but are there in a great measure in school system as well. If the structures and mechanisms do not change and if people and their attitude remains without the addition of unlearning and then learning a new way, the planned revolution in the ecosystem isn’t going to do much. The fight, therefore, is for a complete transformation.
It is past actions and past notions that must go. Shyam Menon is apprehensive about NEP 2020 becoming a mere ‘exercise of imposing uniformity and standardisation along a single axis of control and power, which is paradoxical given India’s size, population, diversity and constitutional federalism’ but there are others who believe that giving a quiet burial to Rashtriya Shiksha Sahyog and other parallel bodies in the states is a good omen. Arvind Panagariya, a Professor of Economics at Columbia University, believes that ‘the starting point for bringing about these changes is the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Act. The policy provides the broad contours of this act. The HRD ministry has done extensive consultation and ground work for drafting the act. Rather than drag its feet, the ministry must now get down to the task of finalizing the draft act that would empower the proposed commission to implement the changes’… and we all know that the HRD ministry is now the Ministry of Education. The signs are positive. The speed of action is perceptible. The real fight thus is with thought processes that try to create obstacles through politically motivated action plans as well as the blundering bureaucracy besides the notions of mediocrity that I have already mentioned. Trust and freedom of fearless decision-making are among the keywords that are going to matter most. The time for old slow-moving thoughts and old debilitating cultural ideas is over.
Imagine a scenario where HEIs understand their core strengths and have the freedom to choose between research and teaching, where students are free to opt for courses across a wide range, where the country is open to foreign universities, and where vocational studies make sure that students are industry-ready for jobs that really matter. To top it all, the policy has also envisaged the formation of a National Research Foundation. The future is certainly looking forward to this productive phase in Indian education where research intensive institutions co-exist without any conflict with those that are teaching intensive. Both are needed.
No, this does not mean we will have students of engineering walking out with large portfolios having watercolour paintings or that accountancy aspirants will have their manuscript of flash fiction ready to get published. This simply means that ‘access, equity, quality, affordability, accountability’ will converge harmoniously in the near future to gift the country an education system for this century. Creative education happens when students are able to think beyond traditional borders in this laterally integrated world.
A creative interpretation of NEP 2020 points to humans and technology coming together for the sake of learning, skills, flexibility, and productive thoughts where rejigs and restructuring is not going to be viewed with suspicion. This education policy has all the elements of practicality and the system is poised to be positioned to make implementation free of glitches. Surprises will certainly be there… let us hope they aren’t the ones that throw the proverbial spanner in the works.
Note: This article was first published in Education Post (September 2020)
Written on 31 August 2020