If the Narendra Modi government wants India to have a thriving and sustainable economic growth trajectory – a.k.a $5-trillion economy by 2024 – then it must strive to build a knowledge economy. This calls for detailed steps and policies that create synergy between the knowledge systems and the world around us. And the government must create the building blocks in 2020.
Why is this so vital for India? Many economic thinkers and experts have emphasised the importance of a nation’s educational institutions in its economic well-being. As recently as in 2015, Harvard intellectual and political scientist Joseph Nye, in his book, Is the American Century Over?, wrote that one of the chief reasons why India is not likely to pose an economic challenge to the US is because none of its universities is doing well.
All other education-related events this year, with the possible exception of some quasi-political occurrences on campuses in the past few weeks, are easily overshadowed by the big bang release in May of the draft of the National Education Policy (NEP). The reverberations it set off have not yet subsided. (A Google search using the keywords ‘New Education Policy 2019’ yields 6,72,00,00,000 results.)
But the ensuing public platform discussions on the draft NEP have failed to build a coherent path for the education policy in India, missing several key points that should have been at the centre of all such debates on the document.
The draft NEP document, released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), is a welcome step for several reasons. For instance, it has brought national attention to several matters related to education across almost all fields of concern.
All that the policy needs now is greater clarity on how it would be implemented. And this must be the focus of the Narendra Modi government in 2020.
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Focus still on West
As history shows, Harvard University became what it is today when, in 1870, the local government relinquished its control and the university began to be managed by elements of civil society and its alumni. There is perhaps something to be acknowledged here. The discussions on the NEP would certainly have been enriched if these lessons from history had been incorporated.
The discussions have so far not looked at the justification and need for an education policy of such dimensions. A national policy of this kind is generally associated with a socialist or even a communist regime. So, this education policy document seems a little out of step with a government that leans to the Right. It is also a bit ironical that the draft NEP document is replete with citations of the practices and traditions of the outstanding higher education institutions of the West. Neither the draft NEP nor the ensuing national debate has considered the fact that the famed Ivy League institutions of the United States have not come about through any national policy or nationally driven platform.
The discussions also lack a clear vision for the future, which can help outline the real and current challenges of India. The policy document should have presented in clear terms the role of educational institutions for the decades to come and how they could make a significant difference in achieving these objectives.
Good practices and Malaviya’s vision
There are other higher education matters closely related to the NEP that gained significant momentum and attention in 2019. The proposed setting up of the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) and the Higher Education Regulatory Authority (HERA), together with the draft NEP, shall have an enormous bearing on the direction that India’s higher education shall take in the years to come.
On paper, these seem like welcome steps. The one thing that bothers me is the term ‘Regulatory Authority’. I wish the Modi government had come up with a more welcoming nomenclature to project HERA as an enabling platform meant to foster good practices rather than penalise the bad ones. Of course, this does not imply that bad practices should be allowed. But the emphasis could have been on encouraging good practices so that educational institutions would perceive them as a platform that encourages institutional well-being. Past experience suggests that many of our ‘regulatory’ institutions in the realm of education have been rather counterproductive by being almost always in a mood to penalise.
It was a little over a hundred years ago that Madan Mohan Malaviya set up Banaras Hindu University (BHU). The greatness of his vision has stood the test of time. Any policy document could learn much from this vision. On the contrary, the recent disturbances in BHU’s Department of Sanskrit related to the appointment of a Muslim professor are certainly not in keeping with the Mahamana’s vision.
Other institutions of repute like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) witnessed disturbing scenes on their campuses following student unrest for reasons varying from hostel fee hike to the amendment of the Citizenship Act (CAA).
A balance needs to be drawn between permitting such protests and the role of student leaders and university administrators in ensuring that these remain absolutely non-violent in nature. In my opinion, university administrators can and do play a key role by being well-oriented in handling such situations. However, when they are lax, things can and do go wrong.
The NEP should, therefore, also incorporate the need for a professional approach in managing educational institutions by university administrators. I have yet to see a professional approach in the search processes that identify potential vice-chancellors. Most of the time, a short advertisement appears, which stipulates some very technical and mandatory requirements that do not serve any real purpose. These technical bars do not discourage too many and almost every time, several hundred applicants make the first cut.
Break the glass ceiling
The one thing that Indian universities and institutions of higher education need to overcome is their chronic inability to break through the glass ceiling of a respectable global ranking above the barrier of 200. A policy and a sustained professional approach on the part of our universities to overcome this is clearly the need of the hour. In this context, it is certainly interesting to note that after the initial hiccups in previous years, a number of institutions of eminence have been identified this year. Hopefully, these institutions shall take advantage of their eligibility to obtain greater support from the Modi government and raise their standards to global levels of eminence.
But it’s not that all is not well in the education sector. Many good things keep happening without drawing much attention. For instance, I was recently at the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research in Pune, Maharashtra, to attend a national conference on the role of technology and innovative teaching practices in improving the standards of mathematics education in our schools and colleges. This conference is an annual event hosted each year by different institutions.
The effort at organising this event regularly is led selflessly by a dedicated and senior colleague from IIT Bombay. I was delighted to see teachers from all over India participating in the event. The other delightful aspect was that this year, the conference was jointly funded by a central government agency and a private university from Maharashtra. It augurs well for the country’s education system in New Year 2020.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.
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