Since the recent release of the National Education Policy or NEP 2020 by the Government of India, there has been a rush of commentary analyzing different aspects of it, and rightly so. It is an important document, one with potentially vast implications for an entire generation of Indians if not more. What I’ll try and attempt here, is take a look at a whole host of nuances that this document brings to the fore as far as education in India is concerned. I’ll also try and place it in perspective with the two NEPs that have preceded it, and the evolution that we’ve come to witness.
The NEP is a rather comprehensive guideline, a vision document if you may. It is not a law; the government will be setting up numerous subject-wise committees with members from different ministries at the central and the state level to come up with implementation plans for every aspect of the policy.
Quoting from a story in the Indian Express, “The need for a policy was first felt in 1964 when Congress MP Siddheshwar Prasad criticized the then government for lacking a vision and philosophy for education. The same year, a 17-member Education Commission, headed by then UGC Chairperson D S Kothari, was constituted to draft a national and coordinated policy on education. Based on the suggestions of this Commission, Parliament passed the first education policy in 1968.”
India has had three NEPs till date – 1968, 1986 and 1992 (which essentially was an amendment to the 1986 NEP). This is the fourth one and the government has set a target of the year 2040 to implement all aspects of the policy in its entirety.
The most interesting and in my view under-discussed aspects of NEP, which I believe to be of immense consequence and worthy of our mind-space, are as follows –
1. Breakfast in schools –
The policy move with massive implications, yet also the one with near-zero recognition. For millions and millions of the most vulnerable school-going children in India, the mid-day meals provided to them in their schools are often the only stable source of nourishment for them, that too at such an early, formative age. If, as the policy states, we provide them breakfast as well, right in their schools, the multiplier effects it’ll have for us as a society in terms of nutrition, health etc. cannot be overstated. At a relatively low investment, this will possibly have other spinoffs as well, like increasing enrolment and decreasing drop-offs, depending on how the final implementation of the policy is.
2. In comes quality now
The draft of the current NEP itself mentions how the previous NEPs focused majorly on ensuring access, and the more quantitative aspects of the sector more broadly. This was provided with a fillip by the RTE legislation early on in this century as well. The latest document envisions building upon the progress made, and focus a whole lot more on the qualitative aspects of education in India.
I have two sub-points to make here – Have we really succeeded fully in our effort of ensuring all children in India are attending schools? A 2018 study estimated more than 56 million children were out of school in India — more than double that of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, combined. The lockdown and its impact on the economy has only worsened this.
Secondly, did we really have to make a trade-off, a choice if you may, between quantity and quality, putting it crudely, while framing policies for education? I’d love to know your thoughts on this!
3. What about dropouts?
According to data as provided by the government in the Parliament, India currently has a dropout rate of around 19%. However, as with most other metrices, India houses a vast variety of qualitative realities amongst its different states – right from a 33% dropout rate in Assam to the 3.4% in Jammu and Kashmir. We’re managing to get a lot of children into schools, but then a huge number of them drop out of it. This is a gap which needs to be bridged to the extent we can, and urgently so. Why I mention this is because of this graphic which caught my eye –
Graphic Credits: PRS Legislative Research
Make no mistake, the policy has a section dedicated to addressing this. But most of the measures it talks of is upgrading infra, continuous evaluation/monitoring etc. I feel this is an inadequate aspect to target and that this requires a holistic approach. Apart from those dropouts attributed to social evils like child marriage for example, if you look at the graphic on reasons for students dropping out, most of them link back to just one fundamental need – money.
Young children in many parts of the country are still seen as extra helping hands, as labor which can help supplement the income of the family, especially in times of distress. The basic idea behind how to address some of this is to involve the local communities, counsel parents/students, help lessen the burden on them to the extent possible and at the same while make classrooms and learning seem more beneficial for the future of these kids. Yes, steps like providing breakfast would go a long way. However, it’d ultimately boil down to how much we can invest in education at a broader level. Which brings me to my next point.
4. But what about investment?
In the year 1976, education was moved to the Concurrent list of subjects in the constitution, which meant that the allocation of resources and expenditure became a shared responsibility of the Centre and states. Ever since the days of the Kothari commission in 1966, we’ve come to agree that a figure of somewhere around 6% of the GDP would suffice as adequate for the sector. Of course, this needs to go up, but an interesting aspect is how government school teachers get paid more, much more actually, than their private-sector counterparts, and still consistently deliver abysmal learning outcomes.
Our states, like in most other areas of social-sector spending, naturally outspend the central government. How is it that they’re doing? As per the 2019 “State of Working India” report released by the Azim Premji University, Bihar spent the highest share as a percentage of GSDP, at around 7%. It is well above the national average of 4.1% and that of other states such as Kerala (2.7%), Tamil Nadu (2.1%) and Gujarat (1.8%), states which you’d traditionally associate with higher social-sector spending. However, the fact is that Bihar’s high percentage is owed simply to the low GSDP of the state, and its spending per child is the lowest in the country after Uttar Pradesh at Rs. 9583 and Rs. 7613 respectively.
States such as Kerala and Himachal Pradesh spent among the highest in India on education per student and performed well above average in learning outcomes in English and Math. States like Assam, Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh spent the least per student in public schools with some of the worst learning outcomes in the country.
The report stated – “West Bengal and Orissa are states which have been able to achieve relatively high learning outcomes with only moderate spending per student. Recall that these two states also featured as having better than average health outcomes given lower than average NSDP.” Maybe something we are missing out on? Missing out reminds me of my next point of focus.
I’ll come to my personal favourite from this NEP:
5. Coding. From class 6.
Speaking to a friend recently, who pursued a BCA (Bachelors in Computer Sciences) for his undergrad, I was stunned to know from him that coding is essentially optional for a BCA student apart from certain theoretical aspects. I was left wondering what on earth does a degree in computer sciences teach you otherwise, that too for three full years? Nonetheless, the point is that this is a very important and timely call, equipping this generation of Indians with one of the most fundamental skills possible for the digital age.
6. What is with the word ‘multidisciplinary’?
This NEP uses the word ‘multidisciplinary’ a full 46 times in a span of just 60 odd pages. The idea being tried to convey is that going ahead, there’d be a greater focus and emphasis on multidisciplinary education for students cutting across streams and subjects. But I have to ask this. Which model are we going for here? Model 1 is that we include subjects like say psychology or history as a part of the curriculum in IITs, for example. At least for a semester or two. Model 2 is that the IITs themselves set up sub-par humanities departments as a part of their own offerings, as seems to be increasingly the case in India.
Make no mistake, the IITs might and maybe will improve upon their offerings in humanities, but that’s not even the point here. Some institutions are just set up in a manner with a specific set of purposes for imparting a specific kind of education. It’s my view that the first model, wherein multidisciplinary education is offered to students cutting across universities as part of their existing courses and curriculum, would serve the purpose better, instead of setting up new, dedicated departments from the grounds up for the same. If you disagree or feel I’ve missed out on nuances, kindly comment and I’d be happy to discuss and learn more!
7. Wait, what about exams?
I possibly can’t say this better than Pratap Bhanu Mehta, here’s quoting him – “The second tension is in terms of exams. The document rightly emphasises that focus needs to shift from exams to learning. But it contradicts itself. Exams are neurotic experiences because of competition; the consequences of a slight slip in performance are huge in terms of opportunities. So the answer to the exam conundrum lies in the structure of opportunity. This will require a less unequal society both in terms of access to quality institutions, and income differentials consequent upon access to those institutions. India is far from that condition. Exams are also necessary because in a low trust system people want objective measures of commensuration.”
8. So we are closing down schools now?
India has nearly 1.5 million schools. How many does China have? Around 0.5 million. Yep. With far better learning outcomes of course. In our idea of ensuring access with essentially quality as a trade-off (atleast at a practical level), it seems we ended up with neither. Why do I say that? Let’s take a look at some of our current realities.
India has far too many ‘schools’. As explained rather well in this article from the New Indian Express, “With over 15 lakh schools and 25 crore students, the average Indian school has six teachers, 160 students and a healthy pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) of 27:1. The flaw in an analysis of averages, however, lies in the disparities it hides. For example, the maximum variation in PTR is seen between states not too far apart—under 9 in Sikkim to over 42 in Bihar. In terms of proportions, regional differences bring up interesting revelations. Home to 10% of India’s students, Bihar has less than 6% of the country’s tally of schools, while Assam has almost twice the proportion of schools vs. students. The average number of students per school varies from 65 in Meghalaya to over 1,000 in Chandigarh. ”
Over the course of the last decade, between 2010-18, the number of students being enrolled fell by 7 lakh students. At the same time, 1.5 lakh more schools were opened.
More than a third of all schools in India have less than 50 students, yep! It is impossible to ensure quality in such ‘schools’ no matter how many attempts are made. These are mostly dilapidated buildings (in some cases, not even that) with a single teacher, who acts as the administrator as well and in some cases as the mid-day meal cook as well. Running water, electricity in such ‘schools’? You know what to expect. The NEP tries to address this, by harping on the concept of a “School Complex”.
The basic idea here is that we consolidate and pool resources in order to ensure consistent quality. What about students who might be unable to access schools due to school closures you ask? There are a number of ways to take care of that. Firstly, this exercise has already begun in a number of states, most prominent example being Jharkhand and the idea is you carry out the consolidation in a rather measured, scientific manner so as to ensure minimum travel for the maximum possible number of students. Secondly, there are other initiatives already in place which can hugely help bridge the gap – providing free of cost bicycles to all students, for example.
I have to admit, this is a well-drafted, ambitious intent of education policy change and evolution. We couldn’t have gotten it sooner either, coming as it does as the cusp of the largest adoption of digitisation in nearly all aspects of life literally overnight. There are people whose entire skillsets have been rendered useless in a matter of mere weeks for the new market realities. Then there are those whose skills are in demand but there remains a massive shortage of practitioners. The way we design our education policies going ahead, our curriculums, our systems and our institutions, will leave its mark not just on India but that on the global economy as well.
It’s an imperative we must live up to.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.