Examining the Draft National Education Policy, 2019

This paper on the draft National Education Policy 2019, examines its timeframe and the possible implications of its implementation in terms of the overlapping categories of gender, caste, and class identities. It also focuses briefly on issues of language and the way in which historical precedents are invoked. This is followed by a discussion on the wide-ranging changes envisaged in higher education. I suggest that the document needs far greater scrutiny than it has received so far, and that a hasty implementation will have grave consequences, diluting if not reversing the serious and painstaking attempts that have been made to democratise the contexts, and contents of education for decades. 

The draft National Education Policy, 2019 (henceforth NEP) was amongst the first documents to be released by the new government that took over on 30 May 2019. In the public domain from 1 June 2019, with suggestions invited till 30 June, it requires careful scrutiny. Even prior to its release, and within a day of the declaration of the results of the momentous elections on 23 May 2019, the Hindu reported that Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme (EQUIP) had prepared a project to invest Rs 1.5 lakh crores in higher education over the next five years. So it is important to see what we are looking forward to.

My approach to the document is shaped by my location as a student of history since 1973, and as a teacher of history in colleges and universities in Delhi since 1983. It is also shaped by my interest in the teaching of the discipline in schools for several decades.

The 484-page draft (which includes six pages devoted to acronyms), consists of four parts:  dealing with “School Education,” “Higher Education,” “Additional Key Focus Areas,” and “Transforming Education,” with an addendum, and 14 appendices. It is animated by a vision to create an “India-centred” education system that will lead to the creation of an “equitable and vibrant knowledge society” (p 41).

The text is sophisticated, complex and challenging, with a vast sweep from early childhood care and education (henceforth ECCE) to higher education. Its strengths include the welcome recognition of education as a public good,[1] rather than as a commodity to be consumed. There is also an occasional acknowledgement of diversities. For instance, categories such as transgender children find a passing reference (p 153).

Further, there is an attempt to restore the term “autonomy” to some of the meanings we were familiar with, even as this is almost immediately circumscribed (compare for instance p 241 with Chapter 17). The policy envisages space for teachers to create and transact courses at least in higher education, and insists on the continued allocation of public funds to strengthen the educational system (p 208). There is also a welcome assurance that the contractualisation of the teaching profession will come to an end (p 209).  

However, there are other, fundamental issues that require attention. I will attempt to highlight some of these. This list is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive. It is simply illustrative.

Timelines/Deadlines

As a student of history, I looked for dates. The document begins with an undated message from Prakash Javadekar, as Minister, Human Resource Development, Government of India (p 1). The report was submitted on 15 December 2018 (p 3), so one may assume that the message was inserted sometime between December 2018 and May 2019.

More importantly, the document sets out deadlines for achieving various goals.[2] A plan for outlining the operational and financial implications of ECCE is slated to be ready by the end of 2019 (p 51), with the expectation that this will be achieved by 2025 (p 45). The same date (that is, 2025) is set for achieving foundational literacy and numeracy for all students in Grade 5 and beyond (p 55).

More critical is the year 2020. By then, the National Curriculum Framework is to be updated (p 101). In the same year, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are expected to morph into one of three possibilities —research universities, teaching universities and autonomous colleges (pp 213–14) and existing statutory bodies in these institutions will be dismantled and replaced by a Board of Governors (p 315). The Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (henceforth RSA), which, “over a period of time, as the roles and functions stabilise, … will be given Constitutional status through an Act of the Parliament” (p 394), will be in place. Meanwhile, it will review and approve the processes devised by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, henceforth NAAC (p 329). No more affiliated colleges will be set up after 2020. The Ministry of Human Resources Development will revert to its old name, the Ministry of Education. This is somewhat ironical in view of the fact that the document repeatedly talks about issues of employability, skill development and collaboration with industry ( pp 360, 365, 371).

By 2021, Mission Nalanda will work out the financial modalities of the system (p 217).

There are other deadlines as well. By 2022 all schools will have electricity.

All schools will also be provided with computers and internet connectivity for pedagogical purposes, infrastructure and materials to support differently-abled students, safe drinking water on the school premises, functioning toilets with running water, separate for girls and boys, and basic hand washing facilities by 2022 (p 125).

This, at least, acknowledges that these basic infrastructural requirements have not been met as yet.

The year 2022 is also the year when frameworks for evaluating teachers’ performances will be put in place (p 132), and when the management system in schools will undergo fundamental changes (p 184). This will include the setting up of Boards of Assessment and systems of accreditation, subject to review every five years (p 188).

By 2023, the aim is to ensure that “computers or tablets [are] available in all schools extended to cover every student in every school at the basic level” (p 62). In the same year state governments are expected to cluster schools together into more viable units known as school complexes (p 168). And, “By 2023, India should have only educationally sound teacher preparation programmes in operation, developing professionally competent teachers—all others must be shut down” (p 285).

By 2024 (assuming 2019 as the starting point) there will be five world-class liberal arts universities modelled on Nalanda and Ivy League schools (pp 231–32). Further, all public universities will be expected to offer a four-year teacher preparation programme (p 288).

There seems to be a bit of a lull in this fast-paced activity between 2024 and 2029. However, it is during this period that the regulatory regime, which is estimated to take about five to seven years to evolve, will be put in place (p 325). Not surprisingly, this will be under the control of the RSA (p 327).

Also, there is the hope that by 2025, “all students are likely to have access to connected personal computing devices.” Further, at least 50% of all learners are to have access to vocational learning by the same year.

By 2029, colleges will also be expected to offer a four-year teacher preparation programme (p 288).

By 2030, all school teachers will require a four-year liberal integrated B.Ed degree (p 120).[3] By that year, “all children should have an equal opportunity to learn and thrive, … so that participation and learning outcomes are equalized across all genders and social categories (p 137).” Further, all districts will have HEIs, which will be completely ‘autonomous’, in terms of recruitment of faculty, and determining salary structures (p 263). Moreover, “all currently existing genuine teacher education institutions must aim to become multidisciplinary higher education institutions by 2030” (p 284). In the same year, “all institutions offering either professional or general education must organically evolve into institutions offering both seamlessly” (p 301). And 100% literacy should be achieved for youth and adults.

By 2032, only accredited HEIs will be able to grant degrees or diplomas (p 219). This is the date by which affiliated colleges have to merge with universities or become universities (p 220).

By 2035, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) for higher education is expected to be at least 50% (p 201).

And, by 2040, the number of HEIs will decrease, but the clustering of students in them will increase (p 215).

What is evident from this timeline is that in spite of an avowed commitment to transforming the school education scenario, which is projected to be of primary importance, it is the immediate and rapid restructuring of higher education that is assigned priority in practice.

Some Key Words and Phrases

While compulsory imposition, even if considered desirable by the committee, is evidently an inappropriate phrase, it is replaced by an interesting alternative: “heavy promotion.” So we learn: “All stages [of school education] will heavily incorporate Indian and local traditions” (p 76). Further, “Indian languages must be heavily promoted again and with new vigour” (p 82). When we were children growing up in Kolkata in the 1960s, Bengali newspapers often carried reports about how police quelled demonstrations and disturbances with a “mridu” (gentle or mild) lathi charge. The phrase “heavy promotion” reminded me of that scenario. 

Another keyword is upliftment/uplifting. So, language teaching “will be enhanced with the reading of an analysis of uplifting literature from the Indian subcontinent, ancient to modern, and by authors from all walks of life” (p 85).[4] While the last phrase is encouraging, and can potentially open spaces for diverse perspectives, the emphasis on upliftment can potentially degenerate into a somewhat dreary moralistic and monolithic perspective. Also, at another level, children in the 21st century deserve exposure to literature from all over the world. These have been, and can be made accessible in translations. Denying students access to this vast domain would be sad, to say the least.

Upliftment is meant for women (p 145) and for people (p 202). Fortunately, no single, formulaic definition of what one may find uplifting, and the search for or imposition of such a criterion may be futile if not dangerous. But perhaps more problematic, as is discussed below, is the way in which the upliftment of what is designated as underrepresented groups (URGs) has been visualised (p 140).   

The Constitution

A non-keyword in this document is the Constitution. Generally, official documents begin with at least an invocation of constitutional goals and values. The aim in the present draft in the words of the chairman, Dr Kasturirangan, is to attempt “to create a new system that is aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st Century education, while remaining consistent with India’s traditions and value systems” (p 24).

This concern is reiterated in the context of teacher education, where we are told: “Teachers must be grounded in Indian values, ethos, knowledge, and traditions, while also being well-versed in the latest advances in education and pedagogy” (p 283).

There are, however, stray references to the Constitution in the discussion on language (p 83) and a more lengthy set of ideals, apparently derived from the Constitution, as part of a discussion on ethics (p 96). This, reiterated later as well, includes:

democratic outlook and commitment to liberty and freedom; equality, justice, and fairness, embracing diversity, plurality, and inclusion; humaneness and fraternal spirit; social responsibility and the spirit of service; ethics of integrity and honesty, scientific temper and commitment to rational and public dialogue; peace; social action through Constitutional means; unity and integrity of the nation, and a true rootedness and pride in India with a forward-looking spirit to continuously improve as a nation.[5]

And, amongst other things, faculty who train future teachers are expected to be rooted in constitutional values (p 289).

While these may be reassuring, perhaps the most revealing discussion on the Constitution occurs in the context of legal education (p 303). The text assures us: “this Policy envisages a law education that is informed and illuminated with Constitutional values of Justice—Social, Economic and Political—and directed towards national reconstruction through instrumentation of democracy, rule of law and human rights.” Yet, further along the same page we read:

The law curriculum has to fall back upon the culture and traditions of people, the history of legal institutions and victory of “Dharma” over “Adharma" writ large in Indian literature and mythology.

An Undifferentiated Community?

While the Constitution is a shadowy presence, what takes its place is ‘the community’ (for example, p 29). The community is expected to be involved in School Complex Management Committees and to volunteer “to ensure the success of educational programmes.”  It is also expected to support the ECCE (p 53), as well as initiatives to improve literacy and numeracy skills (p 57), and the enforcement of the Right to Education (RTE) (p 67). Further, the community will be involved in working out the vocational skills that need to be taught to students from Grades 6 to 8 (p 95). It is the community that is expected to play a key role in School Management Committees (p 173). Higher education institutions (HEIs), are, likewise, expected to engage with the community (p 202).[6]

This element of decentralisation may sound exciting, but needs to be located within the framework of a new euphemism that the draft offers us—URGs. Much more needs to be thought through and accomplished in terms of active inclusion in terms of gender, caste, class, and religious minorities to ensure that “the community” represents diverse, and even conflicting interests. Unless this happens, we may be faced with the enforcement of a monochromatic, monolithic, and simplistic mode of education run by the dominant majority.

It is within this context of the valorisation of the community that we need to examine the understanding of gender, caste, class, tribe and disability provided by the document, and the ways in which issues of discrimination, exclusion and even oppression are sidetracked. These should be serious concerns for educational policy in an increasingly differentiated socio-economic scenario.

Gendered Identities

Perspectives on gender frame the document in peculiar and troubling ways. One of the goals of education that Javadekar envisages in his message, for instance is, “to eliminate the shortage of manpower[7] in science, technology, academics and industry” (p 1, emphasis mine). The terminology thus renders women and those with gender-fluid identities invisible and irrelevant in terms of what are considered to be important domains in society. Not surprisingly, then, the designation of the head of the committee, Dr K. Kasturirangan, is Chairman (p 3, 23).  Additionally, while other parts of the document contain sporadic instances of gender-neutral and gender-sensitive language (for example p 29), gender roles are often visualised as ideally and sharply differentiated.

This begins as early as the provisions for ECCE, which is aimed at the mother and child (p 46), although the text does suggest that there should be family leave policies for both women and men (p 48).

Further along the line, women and mothers are expected to provide the majority of those who work to improve literacy and numeracy skills (p 57, p 60). This concern for recruiting “female students” (p 116) and other women (p 146) is found up to the school level, but evaporates as we move higher up the educational hierarchy.

Also surprising—given the supposedly forward-looking 21st century perspective of the document— is that women’s education is not regarded as a right, but is justified primarily in terms of the supposedly greater good it will yield:

Girls’ access to education is the clearest path to disrupt poverty and violence, promote community health and well being, and foster development dividends that carry on into the next generation (p 145).

Sexual harassment is alluded to in passing ( p 66, 69). However, offenders are identified as miscreants who are to be disciplined (p 69). Long-term structural mechanisms of gender sensitisation, especially for men, find no space within the draft. Sexual matters remain vague allusions. Children are to learn “respect for women, safety, family planning and STD prevention” (p 97).[8] While we are told that there is a need for “changing mindsets and halting harmful practices to foster gender equity and inclusion” (p 145), what these “harmful practices” are remain unstated. Also, while there is mention of providing working toilets, menstrual hygiene products, safe transport and gender sensitisation (p 147), this 21st century document—purportedly based on ancient Indian traditions— shies away from mentioning sexuality, or alternative sexual orientations. Instead we have some advice on “adolescent problems faced by growing boys and girls” (p 197). Sadly, while women’s studies or gender studies are amongst the most exciting and challenging interdisciplinary fields to have emerged in recent decades, these find no mention. So school children, in the new dispensation will be denied access to insights from some of the most innovative disciplinary spaces that have been opened up.

Class, Caste, and Tribe

The draft document introduces several acronyms, of which, perhaps the most enlightening, is the URGs. This becomes a catch-all phrase, and a euphemism, often, but fortunately not always, used as a substitute for less privileged classes, castes, tribes, regions, communities, and the disabled.

Closer scrutiny indicates that the attitude towards economic disparities that undergirds the discussion is naïve, complacent and condescending. It could have been overlooked if it was not part of a draft policy document. Consider the following, offered as justification for ECCE: “quality pre-school education is strongly correlated with higher incomes and rates of home ownership, and lower rates of unemployment, crime and arrest … ECCE gives the best chance for children to grow up into good, moral, thoughtful, creative, empathetic, and productive human beings” (p 46). Elsewhere, the less privileged are simply ignored. The discussion on the ECCE, for instance, does not take into account single-parent households, or those working in the unorganised sector (p 48). Imagine the additional burden on these households when they are expected to participate in achieving the goals laid down in the educational framework for learners in the age group between three to eight years. Children are expected to carry back “worksheets and interactive activities to be done at home together with parents to help develop parental involvement in their child’s schoolwork” (p 62).

The same attitude informs the discussion in what is perceived as the crisis in literacy and numeracy. Here (pp 56–57), six “causes” are outlined: lack of school preparedness, too little curricular emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy, teacher capacity, teacher deployment, health and nutrition. Note the absence of any acknowledgement of structural issues that may help us understand deprivation.

An underlying notion that the less privileged are somehow responsible for their own plight pervades other “explanations” as well. We learn:

For example, some children and adolescents are not sent to secondary school because of harmful practices relating to early or child marriage, perceived roles of gender or caste, or child labour and pressure on children/ adolescents to work and earn. Often the need to care for siblings prevents older children from attending school. In regions with poor hygienic conditions, lack of good sanitation and unhealthy food habits unfortunately make children prone to chronic illnesses, thereby preventing them from attending classes consistently or at all (p 66).

Other problems are also identified. These include historical discrimination, often resulting in "a vicious cycle of discrimination," biases in textbooks etc. (pp 138–39).

Yet, the ways in which the URGs attempt to break out of this vicious cycle are devalued. Thus, the aspirations of the less privileged to ensure that their children learn English—described in the text as the language of the economic elite— is dismissed as “an unnatural aspiration”(p 82).

As part of this understanding, we are told: “Unfortunately, prejudice and bias, based on gender, social and economic status, and special needs, among other factors, often affect people’s capacity to benefit from the education system” (p 137). Grouped in the same category under URGs are “those having given gender identities (including women, and transgender individuals), given socio-cultural identities (such as SC, ST, OBCs, Muslims, migrant communities), given special needs (such as learning disabilities) and given socio-economic conditions (such as the urban poor)” (p 137). Who gives, or takes on these identities, and why, remains unexamined. How do we identify men, other castes, communities, and the rich? Or are these seamlessly assumed as the taken-for-granted, unmarked target audience and beneficiaries of the draft policy, and is the attempt then to make those who are “given identities’ fit in to the requirements of the privileged?

One of the few concessions made to the less privileged is that they are assured of scholarships based on school performance, National Testing Agency scores, and geographic and socio-economic background. The latter includes people belonging to rural or tribal areas (p 121).

For HEIs, there is a provision for a National Scholarship Fund for students who may need assistance (p 245).  In the context of professional education, institutions providing these, “will … be required to fulfil their social obligations and provide scholarships to students from the socially and economically weaker sections of society. Up to 50% of students qualifying for admission must receive some degree of scholarships, and a minimum 20% must receive full scholarships” (p 300). [9]

Caste clearly remains a troubling, virtually unmentionable, theme. So, a section on contemporary issues to be discussed by schoolchildren states: “Articles addressing social issues such as patriarchy and racism will be included as well” (p 101). One is left wondering about the silence on casteism.

Consider also the following statement: “all children will be a part of an inclusive and equitable society when they grow up, which in turn will raise the peace, harmony, and productivity of the nation” (p 138). Apparently innocuous, it masks the absence of any reference to the rights of those who drop out of the current system, and, as far as I could see, the term “reservation” either for students, or for teachers, and other employees of educational institutions at all levels, has simply been deleted. With all its limitations, reservation has made education and employment available to some of the most underprivileged, and has helped transform lives. It certainly needs to be retained as one of many possible strategies of affirmative action in an increasingly differentiated socio-economic scenario. Reservations have made public educational institutions diverse, and this diversity has been both challenging and enriching. To erase it through the introduction of this policy document will undo the work that has been accomplished painfully and painstakingly, through decades of effort.

Also, the draft categorically states: “Private HEIs shall not be mandated to adhere to reservation guidelines other than those stated in this Policy and their formative Acts with respect to local State students” (p 334). Given that no guidelines are visible in the policy, the implications are grim, to say the least.

When caste does surface, in what still evidently remains as mandatory references to Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (pp 148–49), the framers of the policy seem to suggest that students from these categories are best taught by teachers from the same categories, who can function as role models. We thus appear to be veering towards a system of segregated or semi-segregated schooling. A more or less similar situation is envisaged for tribal communities (pp 149–50). Muslim students are also expected to benefit from the hiring of "teachers who speak and write in Urdu or other home languages" (p 151). The assumption is that most Muslims speak Urdu and/or only Muslims speak Urdu. Clearly, areas like Kerala and West Bengal are not considered important enough to render the discussion more complex.

In terms of implementation, what is suggested is the creation of Special Education Zones (SEZs) to meet the requirements of the URGs (p 138). Not surprisingly, women are once more to be assigned the task of providing the workforce for these special institutions (p 140). Further, while no mention is made of reservations, URG teachers from the URG groups are to be recruited and then trained for the purpose (p142).

The scenario envisaged for the urban poor is also revealing. We learn:

Some parts of the curriculum will be redesigned to help students from urban poor families navigate life in urban poor areas, and will include: matters of health and safety, clean drinking water, the harmful effects of substance abuse, ethics, nonviolence, matters of gender equality, respect for women, tolerance and empathy for people of all backgrounds, multilingualism, the harmful side of improper use of technology such as smartphones, beneficial uses of technology, financial literacy, aspirations for employment and higher education, and skills and vocational training (p 153).

Accompanying this segregated educational scenario is a fallback on the concept of merit, which remains undefined. So, everything from summer schools for students (p 111) to the recruitment of schoolteachers (p 114, p 116, p 119) will now rely on what is described as “a rigorous merit-based admissions process.” This will also operate in HEIs (p 210).

The category of the URG assumes, implicitly, that there are ORGs (over-represented groups). The draft policy assumes that all is well with these ORGs, and that they should be allowed to remain more or less as they are. In a policy that advocates stringent regulation and oversight at various points, the following is revealing to say the least:

In the end, the schools must decide that they want this; forcing schools through measures such as those in the RTE Act 12 (I)(c) have not worked nearly as effectively as had been hoped. Giving schools the autonomy to do the right thing, and to innovate, is in general the better way to encourage best practices in schools, and is in better alignment with the principles of this policy (p 191).

Not surprisingly, the discussion peters out to advocating “service to students from underprivileged backgrounds” (p 192). The long fought-for idea of rights is allowed to gently lapse into oblivion. This, even as it is suggested that these children will have an opportunity to an extended guarantee of education up to Grade 12 (p 193). Apparently, implementing the RTE has led to fake certificates, therefore “the large amounts of money and effort spent on implementing this clause may be more effectively spent, e.g., by investing the money on the public schooling system—particularly in disadvantaged areas—which would directly support many more students from underprivileged backgrounds in a sustainable manner” (p 194). In other words, the grounds for segregated education are justified on the basis of economic benefits.

Issues of Disability

The acronym CWSN (children with special needs) occurs frequently in the first part of the text, but tapers off as we move into higher education. In the section devoted to them (pp 154–55), there are provisions for a fairly flexible approach to address special requirements. However, there are two things that are troubling. One, in a document that lays down deadlines at almost every turn, no deadline is set for making schools physically accessible to learners in this category. Even more troubling, there are no special provisions for recruiting teachers with special needs at any level of the educational system. In other words, little more than lip service is paid to one of the critical criteria of a genuinely inclusive policy.

The Language Policy

One of the features of the draft that has attracted immediate, if somewhat adverse, attention is the language policy. While the discussion in the media has been expectedly polarised, and the government seems to have beaten a hasty retreat on the compulsory imposition of Hindi in the face of opposition (Hindu 2019), the suggestions merit careful consideration. The text works with the assumption that children have the potential to acquire multilingual skills and these need to be encouraged at the earliest (p 49). There are also suggestions for supporting education in home languages and mother tongues, tribal as well as sign languages (pp 80–81).

All of these are accompanied by a privileging of languages with formal scripts. Note the following observation:

Moreover, Indian languages are very scientifically structured, and do not have unphonetic, complicated spellings of words and numerous grammatical exceptions; they also have a vast and highly sophisticated ancient, medieval, and modern literature in the Indian context (p 81).

However, several languages spoken by linguistic minorities do not have formalised and standardised traditions of writing. Their fate seems precarious at present.[10]

This is accompanied by an insidious and rather inaccurate privileging of Sanskrit. A new course, called “The Languages of India” is proposed for all students from Grades 6 to 8 (p 86):

In this course, students will learn about the remarkable unity of most of the major Indian languages, starting with their common phonetic and scientifically-arranged alphabets and scripts, their common grammatical structures, their origins and sources of vocabularies from Sanskrit and other classical languages, as well as their rich inter-influences and differences.

One cannot help but wonder about the logic of introducing such a course for students who are already supposed to be overburdened by syllabi and textbooks. Additionally, although this provision is likely to be dropped in view of the furore surrounding the language issue, we are told: “All students in all schools, public or private, will take at least two years of a classical language of India in Grades 6-8” (p 87). While Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Pali, Persian and Prakrit are listed along with Sanskrit, it is likely that in practice, Sanskrit will be retained as the default classical language.

Overall, the draft claims a privileged position for Sanskrit that needs to be examined, rather than assumed. Consider the following: “Sanskrit, while also an important modern language, possesses classical literature that is greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together… written by people of various religions as well as non-religious people, and by people from all walks of life and a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds over thousands of years” (p 86). What is significant is that Arabic and Chinese are carefully excluded from this comparative exercise.

Also, lists of optional foreign languages to be offered at the secondary level include French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese (p 84). African languages, or Arabic do not receive even passing mention.

Evaluation

There is a recognition that the current system of examinations requires an overhaul, as it encourages rote learning and reliance on coaching (pp 104–05). What is curious is that there is no mention at all, of the other problems, so evident in the Vyapam scandal that rocked the country a few years ago.

Typically, issues of evaluation are sought to be resolved through the National Testing Agency (NTA). We are assured: “It will use the best subject experts, psychometricians and IT delivery and security professionals to ensure high-quality assessment across the board” (p 106). Beginning with school examinations, other institutions, including those of higher education, “will be encouraged to use these NTA tests rather than their own examinations to ease the burden on students and on themselves” (p 109). What will happen to academic autonomy if the evaluation is handed over to technocrats does not seem to be a matter of concern. Equally worryingly, we are told: “Some app-based multiple-choice examination systems are already available now that make it very easy for faculty to conduct quizzes” (p 350). This is indeed a far cry from the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, which, amongst other things, sought to break away from the quiz mentality that fragments information into meaningless and decontextualised units.

At another level, there is provision for introducing “census examinations” in Grade 3, 5 and 8 (p 107). The possibility of an open book examination is recognised (p 107), but not pursued further.

Technology

Technology is viewed as providing quick solutions and is to be harnessed to deal with the roadblocks en route to foundational literacy and numeracy (p 62). Also we are told: “Once internet-connected smartphones or tablets are in the hands of all students, online apps with quizzes, competitions, assessments, enrichment materials, and online communities for shared interests will be developed and will work to enhance the initiatives (p 112).” In this context, it may be worth noting that a recent survey discovered that only 28% of mobile owners have smartphones.[11]

This simple faith in technology resurfaces in the discussion on Massive Open Online Courses. That these courses have not been particularly successful is acknowledged (p 248), but, at the same time, there is an insistence that these should be strengthened. No analysis of the shortcomings of the programme is offered. Neither is there any mention of target dates for achieving meaningful connectivity in a document that is obsessed with deadlines.

What is also intriguing is that even after the recent Supreme Court ruling making identification through Aadhaar optional, rather than mandatory, teachers and learners are to be identified by their Aadhaar numbers (p 352).

Invoking History and Indology

As a student of history, I find the way in which ancient Indian history has been cited in the document particularly casual and disturbing. Consider the following statements:

The Indian education system produced scholars like Charaka and Susruta, Aryabhata, Bhaskaracharya, Chanakya, Patanjali and Panini, and numerous others. They made seminal contributions to world knowledge in diverse fields such as mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, medical science and surgery, civil engineering and architecture, shipbuilding and navigation, yoga, fine arts, chess, and more (p 26).

There are at least three things about this list that attract attention. First, if one expects to match the list of scholars mentioned in the first sentence with the subjects listed in the second, they will run into trouble. Charaka was not a mathematician, nor was Susruta an astronomer. Second, by no stretch of imagination did Chanakya, Patanjali, and Panini contribute to any of the subjects listed in the second sentence. Third, for what it is worth, if chronology has any value, Panini’s name should have preceded Patanjali’s, as the latter wrote a commentary on the former’s deservedly famous text on Sanskrit grammar. But, perhaps more worrying, is the fact that only scholars whose works survive in Sanskrit have been named. What, one wonders, about linguistic traditions such as Tamil, the Prakrits, and the other regional languages?

If the casual manner in which these specifics are addressed is disturbing, so are the more generic allusions to ancient traditions. For instance, we are told, in the context of the RTE:

Despite progress in some aspects, a mind-numbing uniformity prevails in the education system today, one in which students are not nurtured for their individual potential, in complete antithesis to our ancient traditions (p 27).[12]

At one stroke, these allusions render invisible the histories of marginalisation, neglect and exclusion of women, and those considered ‘low’, representations of which survive in figures such as Ekalavya in the Mahabharata, and Shambuka in the Ramayana, for instance.

More importantly, there is now a provision for an elective course on Indian knowledge systems for school children, to be introduced not simply for reasons of historical accuracy, but also “for reasons of increased relatability due to geographic location, national pride, inspiration, and self-esteem” (p 99). We are also provided with a list of great men, whose lives are considered exemplary—while we are assured that the list will be expanded, it is worth noting that the only woman who makes the grade is M S  Subbulakshmi (p 98).

It is therefore not surprising to find statements such as the following thrown in for good measure:

Indian society has long upheld the high status of women and girls and the importance of girls’ education. Early history dating back thousands of years indicates the preeminent role women played as leaders in politics, defense, religion, literature as well as the fabric of Indian society (p 145).

While none of these easy generalisations will withstand scrutiny, this is not the place to launch into a detailed critique. Yet it may be useful to remember that women such as Pandita Ramabai, well versed in Sanskrit, had provided critiques and alternatives as early as the 19th century.

Also, Takshashila and Nalanda are upheld as ancient, multidisciplinary universities with a global reach (p 206), with the former being described as the world’s first university, set up in 700 BCE. One may wonder why such ancient precedents are necessary. But again, this is not the space to contest such unfounded claims.[13] Similarly, the equation of the 64 kalas described in Sanskrit texts (p 208) such as the Kamasutra (not mentioned in the draft policy) with the 21st Century understanding of the liberal arts is far-fetched, to say the least.[14]

What is also interesting, is that, while Indian history receives passing mention, it is Indology that is evidently considered more valuable (for example, p 250). Is this shift in emphasis significant? Indology, as generally understood, can and does involve the study of ancient texts, works of art and traditions. Many Indologists have made valuable contributions to knowledge about the past by deciphering, transcribing, translating texts and inscriptions, and studying architecture and sculpture, and historians have often relied on these. Also, there have been and are scholars who combine the expertise of Indology with historical perspectives.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that history has been amongst the most rapidly changing and growing disciplines post Independence, when several major historians began viewing the past, not so much from the perspective of the ruling elites, as from the perspectives of those who constitute the vast majority, that is, what the NEP would classify as URGs. These include working women, and men in hunting, gathering, craft production, commerce, agriculture, fishing, amongst other things. Histories of marginalised castes and communities, and of relatively neglected regions such as what has come to be designated as the North East, have now developed as major areas of research, being conducted and disseminated widely. These need to be continued, and made available to future generations, and not restricted to a limited understanding of what is viewed as the major “achievements” or contributions made in the past.

Redefining Higher Education

For many of us located in institutions of higher education, Part II of the draft policy holds the prospects of quick, and dramatic transformations. The discussion begins with what may seem relatively innocuous, if not particularly original, ideas:

It should engage faculty and students with local communities and with real world problems, and function in collaborative, inclusive, and cross-disciplinary ways. Instead of solely mechanistic rote learning, colleges and universities must encourage active learners to develop the ability of independent, logical, and scientific thinking, creativity and decision making. It must engage young people in national issues and concerns of the day. Finally, it must generate human capacity to build new knowledge and foster innovation (p 202).

The idea is that this “will not only help to develop outstanding employees but also outstanding citizens and communities” (p 203).

Several problems are quickly listed: standalone institutions, early specialisation, lack of autonomy, hindrances to leadership, fake colleges (pp 203–06). The solutions proposed include multidisciplinary and liberal undergraduate education (pp 206–7). Other problems, specific to faculty, are also listed. These include problems with infrastructure, poor working conditions, the lack of autonomy, heavy teaching loads, (p 256) and a situation where “the institutional leadership system is broken” (p 257).

The remedies suggested include motivation, improving service conditions, increasing autonomy, and ensuring “merit” in hiring and promotions (pp 257–59). As we have already seen, the insistence on “merit,” which is not defined anywhere, may serve as an insidious way of evading reservation policies in recruitment. While the ability to work with diverse groups is mentioned as a criterion for recruitment (p 260), there is little to ensure that the faculty itself will be diverse.

HEIs are expected to be transformed by 2020, that is,  within a year. Among the transformations envisaged are an introduction (p 215) of a Four Year Undergraduate Programme, which has had a rather chequered history in University of Delhi. A range of disciplines are considered basic—languages, social sciences, humanities, physical sciences, education, mathematics, arts, music, sports, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, forestry (p 215).

While HEIs are envisaged as autonomous, research will now be supported and funded (p 218) by the National Research Foundation (NRF). Research concerns, expectedly, are laid down. While there is a passing concession to the fact that research can have startling and unexpected consequences (p 225), the guiding principle is “relevance”. Researchers will be expected “to connect such research across disciplines with societal needs and with governmental bodies and with industry” (p 228). Further: “It is also extremely important to note that only the government can have the perspective to drive the research that will result in innovations that will facilitate economic growth” (p 267). Evidently, the autonomy promised to teachers and researchers in HEIs is to be exercised within sharply defined parameters. So, while the NRF will have an annual budget of Rs 20,000 crores (p 270), how it will be utilised will be regulated by the government. The degree of control envisaged becomes even more apparent when we learn that the Governing Board of the NRF will be constituted by the RSA (p 271), which, in turn, will be headed by the Prime Minister (p 391).

Accreditation becomes central at all stages (for example, p 247). For those of us who have participated in the process, we have seen that it is often based on a mind-numbing quantification of data. To extend the scope of the process without subjecting it to evaluation in terms of its usefulness would simply serve to bureaucratise educational institutions even further.

Perhaps the most drastic changes envisaged are in the systems of governance, in spite of all the claims to academic autonomy. Here, the ideal is to establish clear chains of command, without any scope for democratic functioning or representation from students or faculty. What we will have instead, is a “competent and committed Board” of governors (BoG, p 311). The criteria for those who will head these institutions lay less stress on academic excellence, and focus instead on leadership and management. It is recognised that these arrangements would require changes in existing statutes (p 314). Further, it is the BoG that will develop Institutional Development Plans (p 315). The Vice Chancellor, now re-designated as the Chief Executive (CE), “shall be free to close, reconstitute, redefine membership and change structures currently existing within the HEI” (p 316). Similar principles will guide the choice of heads of departments and deans.

There will be no elected members to any of the bodies or  structures within the HEI, other than some bodies of students” (p 316). Sadly, and ironically, then, HEI, which are supposed to educate future citizens, will be reduced to institutions that are run in a completely top-down mode, with virtually no legitimate space left for the learning and practice of democratic ideals.

At another level, pedagogic goals are also categorically laid down. Evaluation by regulatory authorities such as NAAC, for instance, “must focus on outcomes and their quality, and not inputs or process parameters” (p 327), a far cry from the formative assessment model advocated for schools.

Marginalised Concerns

While there is a preoccupation with issues of language, and real or imagined glories of the past, other issues receive a passing mention. These include gender and environmental changes (for example p 100). Also, while HEIs are visualised as multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary spaces, and a long list of disciplines that are supposed to ensure this is provided (p 226), there are notable omissions. These include Women’s Studies, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Dalit Studies, Studies of Discrimination and Exclusion, Environmental Studies and Development Studies, all of which have developed in challenging ways over the last three or four decades, often through dialogue between activists and academicians. Other major disciplines that receive only a casual mention include history, political science, and archaeology (for example p 229)

Banalities, Platitudes and Repetitions

There are several points where the draft document tests the patience of the reader. A few instances must suffice:

The guidelines would include how to make simple low-cost aids (such as baby rattles using a plastic bottle and colorful hard candy; simple melodic and percussion instruments that can be hit with sticks; hats and boats made from folding newspaper; etc) (p 49).

What is even more startling is to come across the following as an exemplary question to encourage scientific thinking (p 89):

What frequencies of notes should be used in musical scales, given that notes with resonant frequencies are the ones that sound good together to the ear?

The context-specific nature of music and its appreciation is lost in this assumption that there is some uniformity in sounds that are recognised as pleasant.

And compare the following statements:

The module would concentrate on play with alphabets, words, colours, shapes, and numbers, and would actively involve parents, including take-home worksheets and interactive activities to be done at home together with parents to help develop parental involvement in their child’s schoolwork (p 62).

Teachers will also regularly give take-home worksheets, activities, or assignments to be completed in collaboration with parents to further develop parental involvement in children’s schoolwork, learning, and progress (p 63).

One would be hard pressed to find the logic behind such repetitions. [15]

The Absence of References

Given the sheer bulk of the text, one would have expected some detailed references to the specific studies or reports on which the experts who prepared the draft relied. But this expectation is belied. What we find instead are statements such as the following: “many recent reports from UNESCO, the OECD, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and the Brookings Institution have highlighted the broad consensus that has developed” (p 25).[16] While all of these statements may be plausible and accurate, some means of enabling readers to cross-check them, and the basis on which they have been made, would have been desirable, to say the least.

Possible Implications for Students and Teachers

Although the policy makes no mention of them, there is no provision for recognising the organisations of students, or of teachers. In fact, the issue of unionisation is amongst the many on which there is a studied silence. While there are occasional references to individual grievance redressal mechanisms (p 246), the policy leaves very few avenues open for dialogue, dissent, or constructive criticism within the institutions of the future. For instance, there are occasional references to HEIs as spaces of peaceful and critical dialogue (p 243) through pedagogical practices and involving students in institutional processes (p 245), but none of these is spelt out in a document that abounds in prolix detail and reiterations. What is more, in case teachers have grievances, they can complain to government functionaries, and to the RSA, which, as we have seen, would be headed by the Prime Minister (p 292).

Some Suggestions

The draft policy is an important document outlining policies whose implementation will make an impact on future generations. Therefore, it deserves to be discussed widely in terms of the possible implications of the policy.

Given that a massive and rapid restructuring of higher education is being envisaged, it would be useful to know the basis on which these policies have been devised. What are the specific problems that were perceived in existing HEIs, which are differentiated and unique in many ways, with distinctive histories, by the policymakers? These need to be clearly spelt out before the suggested remedies of standardised top-down administrative systems for all are adopted.

Also, the understanding of categories such as “upliftment” need to be clearly spelt out. There seems to be an underlying assumption that women, the poor, marginalised communities, castes and tribes, amongst others, are in need of some kind of improvement. This is accompanied by the assumption that those formulating the policy know what is best—a semi-segregated education for several of these categories, even as there are occasional concessions envisaged for local, indigenous knowledge and practices. This assumes that an integrated, common educational system, which acknowledges and respects diversities and differences, is not desirable,  or not achievable. First,  these assumptions need to be rethought rather than being accepted, as they have long-term implications. Second, the document rightly condemns the existence and creation of silos between disciplines and institutions. However, at the same time, it seems to envisage a situation where most people, especially the URGs, apart from the very exceptional, will be slotted into silos. This needs to be prevented at all costs, as it will only further reinforce existing socio-economic differences instead of ameliorating or eliminating them.

Third, the Constitution deserves more than the lip service it receives in the document. This is especially but not only true of the way in which legal studies have been envisaged. This needs to be revisited throughout the document. While employability is certainly crucial, and significant, it needs to be accompanied by an ability to exercise democratic rights within educational institutions. Existing institutions are, more often than not, hierarchical. If additionally, they will now be subjected to a reinforced top-down system of monitoring and surveillance, the spaces for questioning, debate, discussion, and dissent will shrink rapidly. We will have a curious mix of a uniform administration that can potentially strengthen differences and hierarchies. While this may be administratively expedient, it will weaken the roots of democracy. Therefore, the very premises of the document need to be revisited urgently. Substituting the Constitution with the community is likely to lead to an erosion of the already fragile access to rights by members of the so-called URGs. We need to only remind ourselves of the links between khap panchayats and the so-called “honour killings.”

Fourth, the entire document needs to be subjected to careful analysis in terms of gender, caste, class, disability, minority rights, and rights of tribal populations. We can no longer afford a simplistic, mechanical approach towards inclusivity. To be meaningful, inclusivity must inform the entire policy, as well as the curricula, syllabi, and textbooks. It will also require a transformation of the attitudes of administrators, teachers, students, and staff within educational institutions. This is far more important than dismantling existing structures and replacing them with even more hierarchical ones as seems to be envisaged in the draft document.

Fifth, the policy needs to categorically reaffirm a commitment to policies of reservation for students, teachers, and other employees of educational institutions, as this is the bare minimum that is required in terms of affirmative action.

Sixth, the needs to be strengthened, rather than dismantled or watered down. The framers of the policy need to be reminded that this is a right, and not a service rendered to the less privileged.

Seventh, issues of learners, faculty, and staff with disabilities, as well as their concerns, need to be seriously addressed in a time-bound manner. This includes, but is not limited to, issues of physical access.

Eighth, while languages are crucial to learning, privileging Sanskrit and Hindi at the cost of other options needs to be avoided.

Ninth, issues of evaluation are complex and sensitive. To think in terms of quick technological solutions can be counterproductive. Instead of an overarching centralised NTA, space needs to be created for context-specific and diverse modes of evaluation for different fields of learning.

Tenth, access to technology and issues of connectivity need to be resolved before insisting on its use to strengthen educational systems.

Eleventh, learners in the 21st Century have a right to know about complex histories of ordinary people whose lives have been reconstructed and are being reconstructed through historical research. Replacing this with a simple if not simplistic list of achievements would be a great disservice to future generations.

Twelfth, steps need to be taken to ensure that there is genuine autonomy in HEIs. This can be ensured by providing regular rather than sporadic financial support, based on accountability, and estimates of the requirements of institutions arrived at through discussion amongst faculty, students and administrators rather than through an arbitrary, top-down mode.

Thirteenth, space needs to be created for sustained research and teaching in all existing disciplines and fields, as well as those that may emerge in future, irrespective of whether they seem to be immediately relevant or not.

Fourteenth, several universities, and HEIs have evolved and sustained democratic mechanisms including academic and executive councils. These have formulated, discussed, and implemented policies, courses and other institutional matters. What has made them vibrant institutions is the presence of faculty and students, elected, as well as on the basis of seniority and rotation. Jettisoning all of these structures, norms and practices in favour of a linear top-down mode of administration bodes ill for the survival of democracy. Therefore, these need to be sustained and strengthened rather than replaced.

Finally, fields of study such Women’s Studies or Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Dalit Studies, Studies of Discrimination and Exclusion, Environmental Studies and Development Studies, all of which have developed in challenging ways over the last three or four decades, and are extremely vibrant, need to find space and active encouragement. Additionally, existing disciplines such as history, political science and archaeology need to be supported rather than marginalised.

 

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