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India’s draft education policy isn’t a conservative conspiracy. But it may never take off

In the last five years, Narendra Modi government has walked in the opposite direction to the one recommended in this policy document.

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I started reading the draft National Education Policy, 2019 with trepidation. The document was commissioned by then-HRD minister Prakash Javadekar, after an earlier draft commissioned by Smriti Irani was rejected by the ministry. The committee was headed not by an educationist but by space scientist K. Kasturirangan. It did not have any of the familiar names I usually turn to for wisdom on education policy. And the way the report was kept under wraps since its submission in December 2018 accentuated my suspicions.

I had four major fears. One, I was concerned that an education policy under the BJP might reflect its ‘saffronisation’ agenda, or rather, crude attempts at Hinduisation and communal indoctrination of the kind advocated by Dinanath Batra. Two, I was apprehensive about a push for a full-fledged retreat of the state from the education sector and opening the floodgates to low-quality educational shops in the name of privatisation. Three, I was concerned about a narrow, utilitarian and technocratic approach to education that overlooks broader educational goals. Finally, I was anxious about possible inattention to the equity dimension of education, especially the educational disadvantage suffered by Muslims and other underprivileged groups.

Also read: Better data can improve public education in India – draft National Education Policy says it too

To my pleasant surprise, none of these fears turned out to be true on my reading of the 477-page document. So, the first good news is that the draft National Education Policy (DNEP) is not the dreaded blueprint of a conservative conspiracy. It builds on the legacy of the first two education policy documents, Yash Pal Committee report on higher education, Justice Verma Committee report on teachers’ education, the National Curriculum Framework and the National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, 2013, although it is a little shy of admitting so.

There is little here that can be called ‘saffronisation’. Yes, the references to constitutional values avoid ‘secularism’ (instead ‘diversity’ is preferred) and there are ritual references to Nalanda and Takshshila. But that is all. If anything, I was disappointed by the lack of a serious engagement with the issue of Indianisation of education.

The DNEP makes a case for extending the scope of the Right to Education from the current 6-14 years to 3-18 years of age, outlines a plan for doubling public expenditure on education and makes a strong plea against treating education as a “marketable” good.

Its advocacy of “liberal education” in multi-disciplinary institutions and integration of vocational education with the mainstream provide a counterpoint to the technocratic view of education.

Finally, the DNEP devotes an entire chapter to under-represented groups, including girls, SCs, STs, disabled and Muslims, and proposes Special Education Zone for areas with concentration of these groups.

Also read: Modi govt’s new education policy draft wants law taught in English & local languages

The second good news is that the DNEP is not just harmless, it actually offers a valuable frame to think about the challenges of school and higher education. I do not agree with everything here, but this is arguably the most comprehensive document to come out in recent times that identifies key challenges at different levels of education and offers robust suggestions. Exactly what an education policy is supposed to do.

Take school education. The DNEP identifies non-existent or poor quality of early childhood care and education as the weakest link in our school education and proposes an elaborate plan to integrate anganwadis with primary schools. It aims at achieving universal foundational literacy and numeracy by 2025. And, it proposes some innovative programmes like involving senior students as additional tutor, engaging community volunteers, especially women, in remedial learning to achieve this goal. It insists that all the teachers’ vacancies should be filled with regular appointments, not para-teachers or guest teachers, and that all teachers must undertake a proper four-year B.Ed course.

The focus on early childhood education entails a major shift from the existing school structure of 5 (primary)+3 (middle)+2 (secondary)+2 (higher secondary) to a new 4 (integrated early childhood education and lower primary)+3 (primary)+3 (middle)+4 (integrated secondary and higher secondary) framework. To facilitate this, the DNEP proposes a school complex, a cluster of schools around a higher secondary school, which allows several schools to pool in and share common resources. This comes with a shift in curricula that allows flexible course choices across conventional divisions such as arts/science, curricular/extra-curricular, vocational/academic courses. In this pedagogic spirit, like its predecessors, the DNEP suggests home language as the medium of instruction, while encouraging children to learn multiple languages, including English.

In the case of higher education too, the DNEP aptly identifies the major problems: fragmentation, too many silos, poor access to disadvantaged groups, paucity of competent teachers and administrators, lack of institutional autonomy, inattention to quality research, sub-optimal governance and poor regulation. Its advocacy of a shift from single-stream institutions to multi-disciplinary universities and colleges is a much-needed corrective. Its insistence on liberal undergraduate education with a focus on social sciences, humanities and arts is a refreshing change from the dominant mindset of the policymakers. A “light but tight” approach to regulation is also welcome provided we can translate it into reality.

Also read: India doesn’t need new education policy, but correct diagnosis of problems: Ex-IAS officer

Finally, this document offers a much-needed rethinking on the governance architecture of education. Critics have taken note mainly of the proposal to form a Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA) headed by the PM. This proposal has triggered, understandably so, concerns about state autonomy. Perhaps, it’s best to recast the RSA into a body similar to the GST Council comprising education minister from each state.

The more interesting proposals of the DNEP are at a level below the RSA. It proposes to break the monopoly of the Directorate of School Education by limiting its role to running of the government schools and hand over the regulatory functions to a new State School Regulatory Authority. The governance of higher education is to undergo a more radical restructuring. The UGC will now become a Higher Education Grants Council and would be limited to giving funds. New and independent bodies would do standard setting and curriculum designing. The task of regulation would be handed over to a National Higher Education Regulation Authority. And then, there would be a National Research Foundation to fund quality research across disciplines and streams.

These proposals deserve a serious national debate. I, for one, would have liked to see much deeper engagement with the problem of exodus from government schools. Similarly, I would have wished a detailed plan for revival of state universities and their affiliated colleges where most students study.

The policy acknowledges the problem of unequal access, but does not have much to offer on effective interventions designed to address it. Its silence on implementation of reservations is conspicuous. As is its inability to offer models of needs-based education.

So far, except for an ill-informed debate around the three-language formula that the DNEP simply reiterated, we have not had much informed discussion around the policy document. So, we cannot be sure about a possible third good news: that the Draft NEP has attracted quality deliberation.

Also read: Draft National Education Policy was not Hindi-chauvinist & Modi govt shouldn’t have caved in

And what about the fourth and the all-important good news regarding the possible implementation of this document? Sadly, this is where I am least optimistic.

In the last five years, the Modi government has walked in the opposite direction to the one recommended in this policy. Education was a low-priority for the government and received scant attention and meagre budget. The regime went out of its way to destroy whatever remained of the autonomy of the educational institutions. Liberal spaces were curbed and even mild dissent was punished. Instead of promoting a spirit of inquiry, political leaders put their ignorance and obscurantism on display.

Will the DNEP bring about a dramatic shift in the attitude of those who are to implement it? Or, should we expect business as usual, once the report is accepted and forgotten? Or, worse, would the government cherry-pick a few ideas and implement them as and when it suits its political priorities?

The real problem with DNEP is not that it is a bad document, but that it is just a document, not quite in sync with the mood of the regime that commissioned it.

The author is National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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