How Does the National Education Policy Accelerate the Privatisation of Higher Education?

In the garb of promoting new-age and liberal education, the latest education policy advances privatisation and centralisation in the system. A scant attention is paid to improve the state of public education in the country. At the time of writing this article, the new education policy had not been approved by the union cabinet. This article is based on the Draft National Education Policy 2019, which has been eventually ratified by the government. 

 

The Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) 2019 continues to be in line with the neo-liberal, anti-democratic, and centralising tendencies that have been prevailing in higher education since the early 1990s.[1] These tendencies are pronounced in the latest DNEP with the incorporation of the elements of revivalism, communalism, and social insensitivity. While advocating for a multidisciplinary liberal education to meet the demands of the job market and the challenges of the 21st century, the DNEP insidiously overlooks the importance of upholding the Constitution, secularism, equality, social justice, and plurality that our social fabric demands. The absence of such inclusivity in the policy speaks much louder than its divisive overtones.

On the state of higher education, the document begins on a concerned note about what it calls the “Fragmentation of Higher Education System” (MHRD 2019: 203). The reason for this fragmentation is identified as the presence of over 800 universities and 40,000 colleges spread across the country. In effect, the sociocultural diversity, decentralised autonomy of the universities, and the reach and scope of affiliated colleges that have been catering to the needs of students in urban and rural areas are negated in a single stroke with the label of “fragmentation.” The new policy proposes to overcome this through the establishment of higher educational institutions (HEIs) of a much broader scope and size, which indicates a move towards a monolithic and homogenised educational regime.  

A Move Towards Homogenisation

With its oft-repeated references to “Indianness,” the policy draft makes a case for homogenisation. It promises special funding for the study of Indian art, culture, and literature. The draft policy states,

All undergraduate programmes will also emphasise music, visual arts, performing arts, and sports. This shall include India’s deep traditions in the arts, music and sports, including the numerous remarkable local regional traditions. Yoga shall form an integral part of such efforts as well. Institutions will be encouraged and funded to offer full-fledged programmes and courses in these areas (MHRD 2019: 230).

 

The use of the term “Indian” in relation to art, culture, and literature is problematic. India is not a monolithic structure. Diversity and plurality are our hallmarks. The dangers of revivalism are inherent in the call to study Indian culture. There is a possibility that the majoritarian culture would emerge as the Indian culture at the cost of other cultures getting a raw deal. Fears abound that the plurality in the art and the way of life could be wiped out in this impending homogenisation. The policy makes it clear that adherence to this distorted view of Indianness is compulsory, or at least institutions are lured with the promise of funds.  

 

The Limiting Vision of Education

Another important recommendation of the DNEP is to make students job-ready, and make the education system the hub of the next industrial revolution. It adds,

By focusing on such broad based, flexible, individualised, innovative, and multidisciplinary learning, higher education must aim to prepare its students not just for their first jobs- but also for their second, third and all future jobs over their lifetimes. In particular, the higher education system must aim to form the hub for the next industrial revolution. (MHRD 2019: 203)

The above quote says a lot more than what it does not spell out explicitly. It indirectly points to the fact that government-sector jobs and the security they provide would become a matter of a bygone era. The capitalist dictum of “hire and fire at will” would soon become a norm in the job market, and the new crop of job seekers have to grapple with this new reality.

The imagination that the education system should emerge as the hub of the next industrial revolution is worrisome because one fails to understand if the role of education is only about industrial prosperity. This is an attack on the fundamental premise of education that goes beyond the "mass-production" of outstanding employees, citizens, and communities to make students socially conscious. It does not factor in the realities of our society that include providing basic education to every section of the population. Access, equity, and inclusiveness are the primary needs of our society. Even today, a substantial number of students in higher education are from first-generation-educated families. The educational goals set out by the DNEP only cater to the privileged lot who have had access to education over generations. Although the hyped internationalism and world-class education are desirable, it is essential and urgent to ensure that education reaches all, to pave way for a better life. But, such concerns are not adequately addressed in the current policy draft.    

On the other hand, the policy perceives that there is a lack of novel initiatives from the teaching community to improve educational standards because it is not satisfied with the “selection, tenure, promotion, salary increases and other recognition and vertical mobility” (MHRD 2019204). Still, the policy continues with the unscientific Performance Based Appraisal System (PBAS), initiated under the 2010 Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) of the University Grants Commission (UGC). The academic performance indicators (API) for career advancements, which were discontinued after the release of UGC 2018 regulations, have not been reinstituted (University Grants Commission 2018). It is anti-academic to connect academic innovation, brilliance, and performance to material rewards.    

Facilitating Privatisation  

The policy draft is critical of the current regulatory bodies, and accuses them of promoting mediocrity and corruption. It states, “private Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have not been treated on an equal footing with public institutions […] this approach has discouraged public-spirited philanthropic HEIs” (MHRD 2019: 206). The use of the term “public-spirited philanthropic HEIs” to refer to private investments seem ironic in an age when education has been commoditised, and is part of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

The DNEP calls for a thorough revamp of the current structure of higher education, favouring the establishment of large multidisciplinary universities. Accordingly, an educational institute in the country has to fall under one of these three types: research universities (type 1), teaching universities (Type 2), and colleges (type 3).     

Both type 1 and 2 institutions have been planned as mega HEIs with 5,000–25,000 or more students. These HEIs demand huge resources in terms of land, infrastructure, and all other basic amenities. The proposal to have at least one HEI in every district in the country is not feasible as per the current education system followed by the states. There is no clarity on the modalities, funding, and the operationality of these HEIs. The idea of liberal and multidisciplinary education envisaged through such HEIs would be limiting in its reach to all sections of the society. It is evident that such centres of learning demand huge investments to procure land and infrastructure, and to administer. The move is directly aimed at increasing privatisation in the education sector. Only large-scale investors have the ability to set up such huge multidisciplinary institutes. This paradigm shift that the policy boasts of is nothing but a direct transfer of power to multinational corporations or big private investors. Meanwhile, that the policy draft makes only a single statement in passing about public education clearly underlines the government’s vision for education.

While proposing to revamp higher education, it fails to clarify on the practicality of such plans. No details are provided about the funding and implementation. The mandates it puts forward make it difficult for the colleges across the country to sustain their efforts to provide access to the regional multitudes. Colleges that do not meet these standards would be shut down, which is tantamount to the denial of opportunities for rural and semi-urban populations.

The suggestion that all institutions need to “have student enrolments in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, for optimal use of infrastructure and resources" (MHRD 2019: 212) reveals the overarching design of the policy. There is a negation of the local, the little narratives, and the possibilities for knowledge production and implementation at different levels. The differentiation of HEIs as research and teaching universities is also irrational. HEIs as the centres of learning and knowledge production cannot be viewed separately.

According to the policy, colleges categorised under type 3 educational institutions need to have more than 2,000 students. Colleges that do not meet the criteria, whether government, aided, or self-financed, would be converted to autonomous institutions by 2032 or would be merged with the university they are affiliated. The gradual, yet complete distancing from public education in favour of autonomy would pose a threat to many who do not possess the means for private education.

Granting autonomy to HEIs also has the potential to disturb the current recruitment process that factors in qualification, reservation, and other aspects of the applicants, and undermines natural justice. It could also pave the way for corruption in the form of favouritism, political lobbying, among others.   

Making Way for Political Meddling

One of the most problematic parts of the policy is the proposed establishment of Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog, an apex body with the prime minister as its head to oversee the education sector in the country. Knowledge systems should be kept out of the intervention of political office, but the policy goes against this established principle. This is a threat to the education sector and constitutional values as ruling parties would find ways to further their agenda through curricula.   

The proposed establishment of the National Research Foundation (NRF) is also restrictive in nature, and is against the assertion of the multidisciplinary approach referred to in the policy multiple times. The NRF is stated to act as a “liaison among researchers, ministries of the government, and industry, in order to ensure that the most relevant and societally useful research reaches people” (MHRD 2019: 209). As a free space for knowledge formation and dissemination, research need not have an overtly measurable or tangible output. In varied streams of arts and humanities, research leads to the creation of social knowledge and historical awareness about formations of power, culture, and knowledge. This results in the creation of a sociocultural sensitivity, and provides an opportunity to uphold constitutional values. However, as per the policy, the mandate for research is to “[create] beneficial linkages among government, industry, and researchers” (MHRD 2019: 279), which is an attempt to quantify research for its commoditised capital use-value.  

Additionally, the NRF would be vested with powers to “identify areas of research that are of special importance to the country, and prioritise funding to them” (MHRD 2019: 270). This would certainly become a matter of concern as it would allow officials to act as per their prejudices and toe the line of the ruling dispensation to significantly undermine the research space.

Grounding in “Indian” Values, a Prerequisite for Teachers

In the section on teacher education, the policy calls for teachers to be "grounded in Indian values, ethos, knowledge, and traditions" (MHRD 2019: 283). The intention behind such a statement is suspect. However, nowhere in the document is it mentioned that a teacher should be socially sensitive, critique knowledge and power formation, and uphold constitutional values. 

On the other hand, the policy states that substandard and dysfunctional teacher education institutes (TEIs) that do not meet the basic educational criteria would be shut down. However, the policy does not list out the requisite criteria, except a directive to TEIs to become multidisciplinary. From the policy, it emerges that the multidisciplinary approach is the only possibility by which good teacher education can be imparted. 

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