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A Country in Search of an Education Policy

Praveen Jha (praveenjha2005@gmail.com) is Professor of Economics, with the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Pooja Parvati (pooja.parvati@gmail.com) is a development practitioner based in New Delhi.

The draft National Education Policy, out in May 2019, when accepted, will be the third education policy document of the country, coming after a gap of 33 years since the last one. Some of the relevant concerns, such as around the question of provisioning for good quality universal education, are examined, and focusing more specifically on school education.

 

If we assume that the principle of good quality universal education, at all levels, ought to be the lodestar of an education policy, India’s record has been quite dissatisfying, to say the least, throughout the period since the country embarked on nation-building after independence from British colonial rule. In fact, even at the elementary education level, legal recognition of education as a right came well after 60 years of independence, with the enactment of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) in 2009, which itself was seriously flawed in many ways, as we have referred to in a couple of pieces in this journal (Jha and Parvati 2010, 2014). India’s quest for a comprehensive, coherent, equitable, universal, public-funded education has been a long and tortuous one. Going by the policy pointers emerging from the draft National Education Policy (NEP) report submitted to the Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister on 31 May 2019, it would appear that the above-noted quest may have become even more worrisome on several counts. We have flagged some of the relevant concerns here, especially with respect to school education.

Setting the Context

The draft NEP covers a very large canvas, with 24 diverse themes/objectives, and addresses a plethora of issues. It was two years in the making (from June 2017 to June 2019) and, coming more than three decades after the last NEP, there were significant expectations from it. When the National Democratic Alliance-II (NDA II) came to power, it had set up a “Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy” in October 2015, headed by T S R Subramanian. The committee submitted its report in May 2016 (GoI 2016). Some key recommendations included setting up the Indian Education Service, increasing outlay on education to 6% of gross domestic product (GDP), compulsory certification of teachers in government and private schools, allowing top 200 foreign universities to set up campuses in India, among others. The Subramanian Committee report was put in cold storage and it appears that the current draft, prepared by a panel of experts led by the former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Kasturirangan, in many ways, is an attempt to build on the Subramanian Committee report.

The draft NEP bemoans the fact of a “severe learning crisis” in India and outlines its guiding goals as: access, equity, quality, affordability and accountability. Some overall observations merit attention before we focus specifically on provisions laid out for financing education. For reasons of space, we are not in a position to engage with these in a substantive manner and our core concern relates to what the draft has to offer for provisioning of good quality public education.

Some Broad Observations

The draft NEP aims to set up a Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA) or a National Education Commission (NEC) headed by the Prime Minister. Barring the pre-independence commissions, such as the Indian Education Commission (1882) and Indian Universities Commission (1902) and Indian Universities Act (1904), this will be the third comprehensive education commission, after the NEC, or Kothari Commission (1964–66) and the Secondary Education Commission, or Mudaliar Commission (1952–53). While the earlier commissions were headed by academics, such as the chairman of the University Grants Commission (D S Kothari) and the vice-chancellor of Madras University (A L Mudaliar), the proposed commission will have the “privilege” of being headed by the Prime Minister. It calls to question the need for independence and separation of powers between such an important body and the country’s head of legislature. Further, it smacks not only of centralisation but also undue influence of the party in power at the centre.

Data (or the lack of it) is cited as a major gap in effective policymaking and, to address this, the draft NEP recommends the creation of Central Educational Statistics Division (CESD) within the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration. It is unclear how this entity will coordinate with stakeholders such as the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) line departments, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Reserve Bank of India, and Niti Aayog, who also collect data on education. The draft NEP further suggests that the CESD will ensure secure access to all data and information to prevent misuse and ensure privacy (p 340). Is this a ruse to centralise and further restrict access to useful information, thereby limiting independent evaluation and analysis by policy stakeholders, academic bodies, think tanks and individual researchers?

There is a clear and unapologetic push towards promoting voluntarism in the draft NEP, be it getting literate people to double up as schoolteachers or for the adult literacy programme through the proposed “National Tutors Programme” or the “Remedial Instructional Aides Programme,” etc, or in financing mechanisms. This is most worrisome as promoting voluntarism in a politics of majoritarianism can easily descend into strengthening communal discourses. Organisations of questionable credentials and aligned to communal forces could potentially end up strengthening such tendencies. Instead, a fully financed public-provisioned system is required to address the current situation of India’s education sector. Principles of equity and inclusion will not find fruition if left entirely to ill-structured, ad hoc mechanisms in contexts where caste, religion, gender and socio-economic status continue to influence access to, and provision of, basic entitlements such as education.

The draft makes a strong pitch for including the early childhood care and education (ECCE) of children in the three–six age group within the justiciable rights framework, by making it an integral part of the RTE Act. It also proposed inclusion of secondary education (up to Grades 11 and 12) into the ambit of rights. These are laudable goals, that have come about as a result of advocacy by educationists, networks and activists, but without a clearly defined road map, these would only remain more as wishful innuendoes. Furthermore, with the launching of the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, the justiciability of the RTE itself has come under a cloud and there is a real danger of diluting the framework of rights into schemes.

The draft NEP also alludes to review, amend, and make appropriate modifications to the RTE 2009 with the stated objective(s) to enable this policy to incorporate improvements, and to ostensibly make the requirements for schools substantially less restrictive. This proposed review is worrisome, especially in the light of the fact that only about 10% of schools are fully RTE-norm compliant. Further retrogression of an already limited provision would serve no substantive purpose. Specific illustrations mentioned in the draft include: changes to Clause 12(I)(c), that provides for inclusion of students from socio-economically backward groups into private schools, citing reduced autonomy of schools; review of infrastructure norms; and review of the recent amendments to the RTE on continuous and comprehensive evaluation and the no-detention policy.

In its Preamble, the draft NEP talks about drawing from Indian heritage and pays homage to scholars such as Charaka, Sushruta, Aryabhata, among others (p 26). We contend that reference to only these names does no justice to the rich tradition and legacy that has existed in the country to promote inclusive, equitable and universal education systems. In this regard, the draft fails to mention noted educationists who played a significant role in bringing about and strengthening progressive, inclusive and syncretic traditions in the Indian education system. It is indeed a large pantheon if we look at the last couple of centuries. To mention only a few: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Charles Wood, William Wilson Hunter, Rabindranath Tagore, Savitribai Phule, Syed Ahmed Khan, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Mahatma Gandhi, networks such as the All India Peoples Science Network, Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, and organisations such as Eklavya, among many others.

Quality Education for All

At the outset, the challenges and requirements of each sector within education differ immensely and hence require focused attention. Any such exercise must take into account rigorous estimation of unit cost not only for the different levels, such as elementary, secondary, higher and adult education, but also must assess carefully the gaps across regions and states. Unless such an exercise is done, any number as regards the resource gap will not be credible. However, the basic principle for such an estimation must be wedded to universal, free, compulsory and public financed education. It is worth noting that when the RTE was enacted, there was no financial memorandum. It seems the current report is also shying away from any serious engagement with the challenge of resource requirement.

The draft NEP extols the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 that says, “Everyone has a right to education.” More specifically, it calls upon Article 26 of the UDHR that “education shall be free in elementary and fundamental stages,” among other crucial observations pertaining to the role of education in strengthening human rights, and fundamental freedoms. On the other hand, the draft flags benefits of investing in education in terms of “return on investment” (ROI). An extremely reductionist approach, this attempt to valuate the ROI of education is completely antithetical to the UDHR principle.

To quote from the draft NEP, “This Policy unequivocally commits to raising investment in education substantially— including a significant increase in public financial investment, as also in philanthropic investment.” This does not provide any details of the extent of increase in investment. The 51-year-old goal of spending 6% of GDP towards education finds a solitary mention (p 406) and is conditional upon improvement of India’s tax–GDP ratio. Instead, the draft NEP suggests gradual increase “from the current 10% of overall public expenditure in education to 20%, over a 10-year period.” This 10% increase in government expenditure on education as a share of total government expenditure (centre and states) is hardly sufficient to address the significant shortfalls in terms of basic inputs, such as teachers, and more critical aspects such as governance systems and implementation gaps.

The earlier national policies of education (NPEs) had envisaged raising public expenditure on education to 6% of the GDP. Though it is now over 60 years since the first NPE, the goal has remained elusive, with expenditure levels stagnating between 3% and 4%. Given that this goal has been pushed back, it is likely that the backlog of requirement would be very different. As already mentioned, the correct approach would be to undertake a requisite unit cost analysis. The Subramanian Committee report as well as the MHRD’s document had mentioned the goal of 6% without delving into the operational aspects. However, a near-complete omission of this goal from this latest draft is a clear testament to the government’s intent: to not be held accountable to realising a long pending goal, particularly at a time when the draft NEP also mentions the Prime Minister’s call to a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The draft NEP suggests an annual 1% increase would bring public expenditure to 20% in 10 years from the current 10%. The policy draft also mentions that additional one-time expenditure would be needed for all levels of education. In order to drive this, the draft NEP identifies two trends: the increasing size of the Indian economy and improvement in the tax-to-GDP ratio. Table 1 provides an overview of the estimated additional expenditure as a proportion of the total public (government) expenditure that may be required. These are based on the 2017–18 (budget estimate) figures.

Clarity on the responsibility of the central and state governments is critical. As per the draft NEP, current expenditures by the centre will have to double for public investment on education to rise to 20% of overall public expenditure, and this will largely come from tax receipts. Given that the states shoulder almost 75% of the overall education spends, it is suggested that all states allocate at least 20% of their overall spends to education.

It is worth noting that, as per the draft NEP, public expenditure is not restricted to funds allocated by governments, but also those deployed by public sector corporations as part of their mandated corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in line with the Companies Act, 2013. Another mechanism identified to increasing spending on education is dedicating specific revenue streams (cesses). Education cess was specifically introduced as a supplement to the government’s own spending and not as a substitute. However, increasing reliance on the cess with rapid withdrawal of the government’s own spending created a gap in financing. Moreover, cesses are not shared with the states and this is a challenge since most of the education spending is at the subnational (state and district) level.1 Education cess therefore needs to be scrapped and instead budgetary allocation on education through tax-financed outlays must be restored.

Another worrisome endorsement in the draft NEP is the push to private sector players to finance public education, at almost all levels: school, higher, technical, research and innovation. To cite from the draft NEP,

This policy calls for the rejuvenation, active promotion and support for private philanthropic activity in the education sector. All sources of philanthropic activity will be encouraged … “Philanthropic” is used by the policy in its broadest sense to include public-spirited funding on a not-for-profit basis for any educational endeavour. This includes philanthropy by individuals (whether large or small scale), corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds of corporates, and community mobilisation of funds. (p 405)

The draft NEP encourages the private sector by way of establishing new grant-making private institutions acting as aggregators, promoting “direct intervention” by not-for-profit private entities, and allowing state governments to set up philanthropic institutions.

This heralds a shift in the outlook of the government to move away from public provisioning to amorphous notions like “not-for-profit, public spirited private funding.” How can we possibly expect any private entity to act as the government that is mandated to provide all with basic entitlements such as education?2 Also, the constitutional safeguards that apply to public institutions do not cover private establishments, thus making these private arrangements unaccountable and unreliable.

The draft NEP identifies sources of philanthropic funding to be: business, industrial corporations (to include corporate CSR as well as public sector undertakings’ CSR) and alumni of higher education institutions HEIs and local communities (to include religious institutions). In the context of governance too, commercialisation of education is a matter of concern. The proliferation of low-fee private schools, teaching shops and coaching institutes have made an impact on and changed the landscape of the education sector.3 The latest draft policy seeks to address this by putting in place “light but tight” regulatory mechanisms, both for higher and school education.

Concluding Remarks

The approach in the NPE 1986–92 was on education for all. It laid special emphasis on education for equality and removal of disparities by attending to the specific needs of the marginalised. This entire thrust is missing from the draft NEP. Furthermore, the new policy needs to be wary of treating access, equality and quality as discrete and segmented components of universalisation of education. Access without quality results in dropouts, especially amongst children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections; consequently, this affects equity. J P Naik had described equality, quality and quantity as the “elusive triangle” of Indian education. Dealing with this metaphorical triangle requires a holistic understanding of quality not in isolation, but in consonance with access and equity.

Unlike the earlier policies on education, the present policy is being framed against the backdrop of the RTE Act, which mandates free and compulsory elementary education as a fundamental right through the 86th constitutional amendment, and its consequential legislation. The suggestions made in this document to modify (and dilute) the RTE Act require greater scrutiny in order to ensure education of reasonable quality for all, based on principles of equity and non-discrimination.

The apprehensions of Mohamed Ali Currim Chagla in 1964, India’s Education Minister (1963–66) remain as real today as they were half a century ago. We are still struggling to ensure that the schools students go to are not (in his words) “hovels,” with untrained teachers and bad textbooks, and no playground. He had asserted that, “The compliance intended by our constitutional fathers was a substantial compliance” (Jha and Parvati 2014). Unfortunately, poor judgment on the part of politicians and policymakers may continue to be major roadblocks in achieving this substantial compliance. The search, thus, continues for a national policy that would offer India far-reaching, universal solutions for addressing her challenges in the education sector.

Notes

1 The T S R Subramanian Committee report makes a specific mention of special financing mechanism to be sought for ECCE/Preschool education but this is missing from the MHRD report.

2 There are rare exceptions, such as the Azim Premji Foundation and Tata Trusts, that have supported and fostered non-government and medium- to long-term sustainable solutions for quality education, education reforms and addressing governance and implementation bottlenecks.

3 Refer to relevant sections in Subramanian Committee report: para 9.30.1, p 197, para 9.30.10, p 199, para 9.4.2 p 170, para 9.21.3, p 190.

References

GoI (2016): “Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy,” Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, Chair by T S R Subramanian, report submitted on 7 May 2016.

Jha, Praveen and Pooja Parvati (2010): “Right to Education Act 2009: Critical Gaps and Challenges,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 13, pp 22–23.

— (2014): “Assessing Progress on Universal Elementary Education in India: A Note on Some Key Constraints,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 16, pp 44–51.

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019

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