Editorial: What is New in the NEP?

We Must Debate Low Quality of Learning and Neglect of the Poor

A new education policy has been long overdue. Since the last policy came out in 1986, India has changed as an aspirational society, an emerging global economy and as a country with half its population under 25 years of age. It was keenly awaited from the BJP-led NDA government whose vision of education has been a subject of heated political debates.

NEP’s release in July 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, passed off almost as a non-event. Unfortunately, it did not get the deserving attention even from the Opposition. Parliament had no time to hold rigorous debates due to the truncated monsoon session of just 18 days in which 25 important Bills were rushed amid stormy boycotts. The Question Hour was eliminated in both Houses while the Zero Hour, in which urgent public matters such as this are raised, was curtailed by half.

This issue of your journal covers NEP’s aims and targets along with the gaps left uncovered, particularly against India’s recurring challenges. We at Common Cause believe that social policies are the most important part of governance and they must be discussed and contested appropriately. All successful societies try to find ways to improve things for citizens but mere improvement cannot be the objective of a social policy: It has to look into the future generations and prepare them with knowledge, foresight and skills to deal with impending challenges. We have to move towards a ‘learning society’ where all citizens are enabled to get the education or training necessary to work, or to pursue their interests.

How Far Have We Travelled?

India’s literacy rate has grown from around 18 per cent in 1951 to over 74 per cent in 2011. By 2010, over 96 per cent of India’s children in the 6-14 year age group were enrolled in schools, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) but India’s dropout rate remains unacceptably high. (The NEP document recognises that retaining children in schools is one of our biggest challenges.) India’s high proportion of enrolments drops sharply for children above 15 years of age and worse for girls. The richest young women in India have already achieved full literacy, but if the present trend continues, the poorest are projected to do so only by 2080, according to the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011.

India’s real problem lies in the neglect of the poorer children and its persistent low quality of education. For years, ASER surveys have been warning us of very low teaching-learning outcomes. The progress is more in terms of enrolments, construction of buildings, appointments of teachers, utilisation of grants etc. but not in terms of the quality of education. Sadly, the gap between better and worse performing states is huge, and widening. Niti Aayog’s School Education Quality Index shows that the composite scores of the best performing states like Kerala (77.6) and Tamil Nadu (63.16) are more than twice as good as the worst performing states like Jharkhand (28.4), Bihar (30) and UP (32.8).

At this rate, the poorly performing states may take decades before they catch up with the rest. Meanwhile, some better performing states like Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Maharashtra have slipped on vital outcome-based indicators. It is official that almost five crore children in elementary school do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills. This points to a severe learning crisis right from the foundational stage. The trend is loaded against girls as parents prefer to send boys to the more expensive private schools, according to ASER 2019. All this, combined with limited capacities, inefficiencies, and very high levels of vacancies, leaves much to be desired.

Transformational or More of the Same?

The new policy aims to curtail dropout rates, redesign curriculum to include early care and education, launch targeted schemes for disadvantaged groups, and increase enrolments in higher education. By all means, a noble mission, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For instance, it recommends that the public spending on education be raised to six per cent of the country’s GDP. But the earlier two NEPs, in 1968 and 1986, also promised exactly the same percentage of national income for investment on education, of course, without fulfilling it. It remains to be seen if the dubious trend will be broken this time.

The most commendable part of NEP is its emphasis on mother tongue which could make early education more engaging, particularly for the disadvantaged children. It is well-known that language of instruction is the key to communication and comprehension in the classroom and it reduces dropout rates. “Instruction through a language that learners do not speak…is analogous to holding learners under water without teaching them how to swim,” says a UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (2004) titled “The Importance of Mother Tongue-Based Schooling for Education Quality.” NEP promotes multilingualism and offers a three-language formula with a rider that no language will be imposed on any state.

The NEP starts with pre-school education at the Anganwadis and goes up to higher education and research while replacing the existing 10+2+3 system with 5+3+3+4. It seeks to hold examinations in grades 3, 5 and 8 and improve test material, scores and teachers’ training. It will replace multiple regulators like the UGC, AICTE and NCTE with one Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) to govern all institutions of higher education with the same set of norms and standards. It is to be seen if the new structure will actually change or only rejig the old system just as it renames the HRD Ministry back to the Ministry of Education.

The biggest criticism of the new policy is that it promotes private at the cost of the public sector at all levels of education. It singles out ‘private philanthropies’ along with ‘voluntary community’ without defining them or fixing norms of transparency and accountability for them. It also leaves ambiguity in the role of the state governments which have a pivotal role in delivering education as a service to the citizens. For instance, there is no clarity on the state government’s directorates of education vis a vis the new regulators or on the implementation of the Right to Education Act.

While many critics see ideas like Indian ethos, culture or knowledge systems as euphemism for political agenda, it must be said that NEP talks about virtually everything right from scientific temper to fitness and from arts and sports to creativity, technology and gender sensitivity. If there is one thing missing in a flood of politically correct expressions, it is a roadmap. For instance, technology is a central feature of the policy but it fails to effectively address the country’s digital divide which is evident in the times of Corona pandemic. We hope there will be scope for more deliberations, and course correction.

The issue covers all these questions and much more. Like always, your feedback will be vital for us.

Vipul Mudgal


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July September 2020