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Decoding "New Education Policy"

Misguided Policies for Improving Higher Education

Kumkum Roy (kumkumroy@gmail.com) is a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. 

An MHRD document titled “New Education Policy”, inviting comments from various stakeholders, seems to propagate the same old technocratic orientation towards improvement in higher education. That it would neither empower underprivileged students nor improve teaching and research has missed the ministry’s attention entirely. 

The website of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) contains a document titled “New Education Policy”[i], which invited suggestions till 30 April 2015. This includes an annexure on “Themes and Questions for Policy Consultation on Higher Education”. While the entire document deserves careful scrutiny, debate and discussion, and will hopefully receive the attention it merits, I will confine myself to discussing Annexure-II of the document, which consists of 55 pages.

As someone who has been teaching in different public institutions of higher education for more than 30 years, I have always associated these institutions with teachers and students. The relationships amongst teachers and students are extraordinarily diverse—there are far too many moments of frustration, despair and exasperation, but there are also moments of exhilaration and excitement. If one is looking for an understanding of these experiences and also of the transformative potential of education, this document is clearly not the way to go. The covering page of the document lists 20 themes for consultation. Teachers figure in the title of the 12th theme, and student support in the title of the 13th. That provides, perhaps, a sense of the priorities of those who have structured the document, and the consultation that is meant to ensue on its basis.

Some Issues of Structure and Content

Each of the 20 themes of the document is accompanied by a set of questions for discussion. While it is not possible to discuss each theme in detail, I will highlight some of the issues that the document raises. There is, expectedly, an enormous anxiety, perhaps not entirely misplaced, about quality.

The very first theme is titled “Governance reforms for quality”. While the document recognises that “Quality is a multi-dimensional concept” (p 3), it almost immediately loses its way in attempts to quantify quality. The problems inherent in the process have been analysed and discussed at various levels. For instance, a sub-committee that had been constituted by the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had pointed out the problems inherent in ranking journals and the kinds of hierarchies it would lead to. To cite just one example, scholars who choose to publish in regional languages in order to make their work accessible as part of their democratic commitments would lose “points” in a system where international publications are ranked higher. And this is just one example amongst many of the pitfalls of the system—sometimes a single foreign, preferably white, scholar is invited to a conference to convert it into an international conference in order to get more points for the organising institution/ individual. Unfortunately, the authors of the document seem to be unaware of the threats to serious academics posed by the mindless mirage of quantification.

Some of the points in the section on quality are things that ought to be taken for granted. Or is there something we are missing? For instance, the document lists, as a point of discussion:

A governance structure where in appointment of vice chancellor (VC) & Professors are through transparent and competitive process. (p 4)

This would seem acceptable—but why are not all university appointments—both teaching and non-teaching, included within this statement?

And what are we to make of the following statement?

Prevention and prohibition of unfair practices so as to ensure that only merit plays a role in admissions. (p 5)

A word about the tone of the document—for a text that is meant to generate consultation, some of the statements are formulated as commands rather than suggestions that are open for discussion. This is just one example:

In order to ensure horizontal and vertical mobility of students, we need to ensure that uniformity is achieved in terms of syllabi and curricula through a framework: Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) is adopted by all institutions. (p 4)

While mobility of students is certainly an attractive idea, we are not left in this formulation with any option to discuss how mobility is to be achieved, and whether there is more than one way of understanding mobility. Is a uniform syllabus and curriculum the only way forward? Can we have more than one opinion about the CBCS? The document does not frame any questions on the CBCS either here or anywhere else—so it stands as something that is inevitable, which will be imposed.

Also, from the same section, is an instance of the ways in which potential responses are structured.

The following is posed as a question: "What should be done to teachers who do not teach? The options are: "remove, transfer, counseling."

The question that follows is: "Would you support if they are removed?" (p 6)

And the last question, in the same section is: "Should teachers have probation for 5 years?" (p 6)

Incidentally, this is the first mention of teachers in the document. The concern with removing teachers resurfaces elsewhere:

Should teachers be removed when they do not perform? (p 16)

The document is expectedly, and understandably, complex, and deals with a range of issues, including financial matters, research priorities, structures of administration etc. Engaging with these requires time, energy, skills, vision and imagination. For the moment, I will simply highlight some of the ways in which students and teachers are conceptualised in the document. Interestingly, while students figure occasionally as stakeholders in the vocabulary of the text, teachers are not conceptualised in those terms. Finally, I will turn briefly to the space for the social sciences within this document.

Students—Skills, Merits, Needs and other Concerns

The ideal student is visualised as a graduate “with new skills, a broad knowledge base and a wide range of competencies to enter a more complex and interdependent world.” (p 3) This concern is expressed more vividly elsewhere:

Both vocational education and skill development are known to increase productivity of individuals, profitability of employers and national growth. ….India has set the target of skilling 500 million people by 2022.

Is there any vision of what are the skills that would be required seven years down the line? And how is the mass-produced skilling to be achieved? This is followed by a discussion on distance learning, which is visualised as a panacea for at least some, if not all problems. We are assured that “Digital literacy (e-skills) has transcended barriers of age, class and income.” (p 22)

There is some recognition that students are differentiated—so we find references to students who can afford to pay, and needy students (pp 5, 6, 16). More insidious, in the discussion on financing, we find the following question:

Should each institution should [sic] cover 1% meritorious students and 1% needy students not covered by any scholarship by alumni contribution, fund raising (p 45).

The assumption seems to be that the needy student is, by definition, not meritorious.

There are other categories of students as well—and, not surprisingly, for issues of ranking, the “share of international students” (p 7) is a criterion. One wonders why ranking cannot be based on creating space for students from different classes, communities, castes, regions, genders/ sexual orientations, or abilities within our institutions.

There is also some recognition of regional disparities in terms of the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER). The categories used seem to be curiously blurred. So we learn (p 26) that

The GER varies between 8.3 per cent for rural females and 30.5 per cent for urban female [sic] and between 7.7 per cent for the Scheduled Tribe population and around 45 per cent for the Christian population.

One is left wondering whether rural and urban women may or may not be part of scheduled tribes (ST) or Christian populations as well, and why some groups of students have been singled out for these statistics.  Elsewhere (p 28), Christians, ST, Muslim and scheduled caste (SC) students are singled out for attention. Expectedly, these and other categories figure in theme X, titled “Bridging Gender and Social Gaps in Higher Education”. In case one assumed that this would deal with the content of higher education and the exclusions of the concerns and perspectives of marginalised groups, one is sadly mistaken. One learns

…youth from marginalized community prefer to earn livelihood rather than continuing higher education (p 28).

Questions about the circumstances that may constrain such “preferences” and choices are not even raised, let alone addressed. The resolution is envisaged in terms of accommodating more students from the marginalised sections.

The questions for discussion at the end of this subtheme are particularly revealing.

How should women’s participation and performance in higher education be incentivized by providing safe and secure environment with and outside the institutional campus? (p 29)

The framing of the question visualises women’s exclusion from education virtually as a “law and order” problem—there is no scope for discussing structural issues of patriarchies, or cultural practices that normalise and naturalise violence and gender stratification in countless ways.

Additionally, the last question for discussion in this section runs as follows:

How to bridge the Gender Gaps—Put them in descending order in terms of priority. Mention 1 if it is priority 1

      1. Get girls to school by providing hostels.

 

2.     Give them scholarship to find accommodation

3.     Give them computing devices & connectivity to get over quality problem of teaching.

4.     Give them skill training so that they can earn while learning

5.     Make flexible entry and exit.

There is no space in this provision for a sixth response or even a none of the above (NOTA) option.

Not surprisingly, the language of the document is gender blind. We are informed (p 30) that “the country does not have adequate manpower to carry out developmental work.” [emphasis mine]

What is also significant is the way in which the possibility of social mobility or transformation through education is carefully circumscribed. Consider the following question for discussion:

What are the possible ways of formalizing traditional works [sic] into the higher education? Since most of the minorities are involved in traditional works [sic]. (p 29)

The implication is that minorities are to continue these “traditional works”—there appears to be no way of moving beyond these possibilities.

There is some discussion on whether the intake of students should be regulated (p 10). There is also an expression of justified concern about privatisation:

What are the anomalies/challenges thrown to education sector by private sector which converts education into a profit making enterprise at the cost of students and academics? (p 12)

In the theme devoted exclusively to students (Sustaining Student Support Systems in Higher Education, p 34), we are given to understand that

Students need to be envisioned not just as passive recipients of policy transfers, rather as stakeholders with a voice.

However, the major concern of the section seems to be with financial matters, including issues of loans versus scholarships, and the basis on which these should be allocated. Seven of the 10 questions for discussion at the end of the section pertain to these matters. An example:

Do you agree that it is not possible to give scholarship to everyone, however meritorious students should not be denied access to higher education. (p 36)

The learner becomes a customer/consumer further down the line, in the discussion on partnership with private sector (p 40). In general, this is expected to be cost-effective, to lead to higher productivity and ensure access to modern technology. Also it is capable of

Promoting accountability through clear customer focus, which, in turn, results in accelerated & improved delivery of quality public service. (p 40)

There is one quick indication that “the cherished national objectives of excellence, social justice, inclusion as well as removal of gender, regional and social group disparities will continue to be the guiding principles” (p 41), but how this is to be achieved does not figure anywhere in the seven questions for discussion (pp 41-42)

Teaching the Teachers

If students are regarded as potential stakeholders/ consumers, teachers are perceived to be a part of the problem. As in the case of students, they are classified in a variety of ways. There are (p 6) “the exceptionally qualified faculty” and those who are there because of the “equity focus”. One senses an assumption that those who are there because of the “equity focus”, clearly a euphemism for reservations, a term which the document seems reluctant to use, are not viewed as potentially or actually “exceptionally qualified.”

As mentioned earlier, teachers are viewed with a degree of mistrust. The last question in the section on reforms for quality is:

Should teachers have probation for 5 years? (p 6)

One wonders whether this is a condition in any other job.

This theme is elaborated even further in section XI, on “Linking Higher Education to Society”.

Here, one of the questions for discussion (p 32) is as follows:

Teachers should be assessed by

Community

Students

Parents

By all of them

This is followed by

What is the corrective action for them?

1) Remove 2) Retrain 3) Do not lift probation 4) Deny Promotion 5) 1, 2 &3 together 6) 2, 3 &4 together 7) 1, 2, 3, 4 together.

The document does not provide for similar assessments for any other sections / “stakeholders” of the university community. And, teachers are not considered as capable of assessing others.

Turning to the next section, on “Developing the Best Teachers”, we learn that there are two problems—

Unfortunately, a major share of our teachers, especially in the colleges does not possess doctoral degrees….Invariably teaching profession is not high in the priority list when the graduates look for jobs. (p 32)

As one amongst many of our generation who were taught by several teachers without doctoral degrees, I can testify that we did not lose out on anything—the burden of compulsory research can and has been stultifying and counterproductive in many cases. Also, one wonders how the attitude towards teachers that runs through the document can encourage young people to choose the profession. Being under surveillance and suspicion can do little to encourage creative thinking and innovative practices. Once again, the questions for discussion at the end of the section are revealing. Three of the 11 questions are about the percentage of training that should be online, and the last question is:

Is not counseling an essential role of teachers also? (p 33)

That such a question can be posed is intriguing, to say the least. On the one hand, teachers are visualised as potentially irresponsible, requiring constant scrutiny and monitoring; on the other hand, there seems to be a suggestion that they must perform a professional, highly sensitive role.

Elsewhere, teachers are described as incubators. This is perhaps in keeping with the techno-mania that runs through the document. Faculty of central universities are expected to incubate students and

will be responsible for excelling the knowledge and research oriented aptitude in the students of first to eight standard, ninth to twelfth standard and UG/PG standards respectively.(p13)

Once again, this recommendation is not open for discussion.

It is in the description of public state universities that one finds some recognition that teachers can face problems. The document states:

There is heavy bureaucratization in the universities. There is severe shortage of teachers, and teachers appointed on ad hoc positions are ill equipped to manage teaching and research on paltry payments to them. (p 15)

And here at least, the questions at the end of the section allow scope for discussing how academic support can be provided, and research promoted in state universities. (p 16)

Where Are the Social Sciences?

The social sciences, paradoxically but perhaps expectedly, are at once visible and invisible in this document. The very first question in the discussion on ranking is:

Should India focus its resources on research universities, including liberal arts and social sciences so as to improve the country’s position in the global rankings? (p 8)

That might seem reassuring, and is perhaps an acknowledgement that the contributions of Indian social scientists—historians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, have indeed been recognised globally.

At the same time, the role of educational institutions is conceptualised in rather ambivalent terms. They are seen as ideally geared towards

the production of highly skilled personnel to meet requirements of the production sector. This critical role should not keep them away from their role in the building of new institutions of civil society, encouraging and facilitating new cultural values and training and socializing new social elites. (p13)

Education for social justice, and concerns of democratisation seem to drop by the wayside in this quest.

Instead, we are provided with the concept of “Cultural Integration” (theme XIV, pp 37-39). We learn: “While cultural syncretism carries a negative connotation, cultural integration is generally looked upon as positive because nothing is lost.”(p 37). This is followed by a discussion on multilingualism, which is described as “the essence of the Indian identity.” (p 38). While this is potentially interesting, in the questions for discussion, we find the following:

Should Universities include foundation courses on cultural integration? (p 38)

Do you think that development of regional and national Indological centres help preserve the vast repertoire of languages of various regions? (p 39)

Should Indology Studies be a part of curriculum?

These are three of the seven questions in this section. One would have imagined that located where we are, in the 21st century, respect for diversity, and courses developed around issues of social justice would have been part of a forward looking, critical curriculum. Several such courses and programmes, often inter-disciplinary, have been developed in centres/ departments for women’s studies and centres for the study of discrimination and exclusion in recent years. But, instead of refining these and extending their scope, we are now provided with the option of courses on cultural integration, which may develop into monolithic, uniform, bland “feel good” courses—far removed from the critical thinking that is not even considered amongst the “skills” that need to be developed.

Also, Indology has had a fraught and complicated history. It developed in the colonial context, and has had strong orientalist tendencies. While it led to the preservation and production of texts and knowledge, and the contributions of Indologists are undeniable, it is perhaps a discipline with a past rather than a future. That it should be singled out for attention in a document which generally abstains from naming disciplines is intriguing, to say the least.

Again, the last question in the subtheme is interesting:

Should all universities have essential language departments with focus on dying or extinct languages?

How does one answer this? Do we say yes, and fall into the trap of a uniform educational system? What do we mean by “essential”?  Will this mean that all students will have to learn these? Which are the languages that will be identified as dying or extinct?

This is just one amongst a series of documents meant to elicit responses that may go into the making of a “New Education Policy”. Clearly, it merits far more attention than it has received—and deserves to be discussed, analysed and responded to. Higher education in the country is at the crossroads—we need to ensure that diversity and the space for critical enquiry that can ultimately ensure a healthy, vibrant academic world, and democratic institutions that grow through debate and discussion are not sacrificed in the interests of uniformity and standardisation that is being advocated in the name of efficiency. We also need to remember that a system that is premised on a dichotomy between a decontextualised notion of excellence and a condescending acknowledgement of equity is intrinsically flawed, and is conducive to neither.

Note

[i] All subsequent quotations are from Annexure –II “Themes and questions for Policy Consultation on Higher Education” of the Ministry of Human Resource Development document titled “New Education Policy”, accessed on 8 May 2015, available at http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_document/Themes_....

 

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