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National Education Policy, 2020

An Uncertain Future for Indian Higher Education

The National Education Policy, 2020 unveiled finally seeks to usher in major structural reforms in higher education. Among many measures, revamping of the entire regulatory structure to construct a system based on enhancing students’ choice in opting for courses assumes critical significance. This has the potential to obliterate the concepts of time and space associated with a university. This innocuous measure will serve the purpose of fostering competition among the higher education institutions to improve their performance primarily under the surveillance of the National Accreditation Council and other institutions, with a renewed thrust on going online amid the pandemic.

The National Education Policy (NEP) that was announced on 29 July 2020 is only the third education policy the Government of India has brought out since independence. The final version of the NEP as approved by the cabinet is an outcome of more than five years of deliberations and consultations. The draft of the National Education Policy, 2019 (DNEP) was placed before the nation in May 2019. The NEP has been announced at a time when the education sector as a whole is passing through a serious crisis of unprecedented disruption. In this article, I would like to tease out the possible implications of some of the policy measures pertinent to the construction of the regulatory framework as mooted in the NEP ostensibly for the purpose of overhauling the Indian higher education sector.

The Indian higher education system is poised for a total reconfiguration if the proposed regulatory structure with supp­ort from various institutions is installed. Reform of the higher education sector is more of a daunting challenge because of the typicality of the university governance structure. Further, education, which is in the concurrent list of the Constitution, poses challenges in a federal set up to take on board all the states for successful implementation of any aspect of a policy. However, the advent of technology in the realm of education is turning out to be a game changer. There is uncertainty as to how the future will shape up amidst the global- and national-level imperatives the universities have to negotiate with in the post-pandemic era in the context of a new global order.

Higher Education Reform

The NEP recommends that the tempo of expansion in the gross enrolment rate in higher education should be sustained, and it should reach 50% by 2035 (NEP section 10.8) from 26.3% in 2018 but with a change in its composition. Vocational education should constitute at least 50% of learners by 2025 (NEP section 16.5). In the expansion, public and private sector are expected to contribute equally. Affiliation of colleges should be phased out over a period of 15 years. The NEP has suggested three categories of institutions: research-intensive universities teaching-intensive universities and auto­nomous accredited colleges (AC), with provision for transition from AC to the other two (NEP section 10.3) based on their per­formances and plans. All the institutions will be encouraged to become multidisciplinary education and research university (MERU) by 2030. The National Research Foundation (NRF) will fund research and ensure coordination among the research institutions and the higher education institutions (HEIs).

The policy recommendations follow clearly from the diagnosis of the challenges facing the Indian higher education sector. Among many issues listed by the NEP (NEP section 9.3), the issue of absence of teacher and institutional autonomy assumes significance to comprehend the rationale behind the higher education reform. It was argued by the DNEP that excessive micro-management stifled the teachers and suffocated the institutions in exercising autonomy to innovate and flourish. The steady growth in privatisation did not lead to much of an improvement in the quality because privatisation mutated to commercialisation, which is inimical to the delivery of quality education (NEP section 18.2). The NEP observes fragmentation of the higher education system has restricted free flow of ideas within the sector, generating confusions and conflicts in regulating the sector resulting in a serious compromise with the objective of promoting multidisciplinarity in teaching and research. The DNEP observed that the Indian higher education is unduly large in terms of sheer numbers, resulting in smaller sizes of the institutions and suboptimal utilisation of its resources, human and physical (DNEP, p 203). This rendered the smaller HEIs, in particular, economically unviable. The NEP reite­rates DNEP to advocate for adoption of binary accreditation, ostensibly to trim the size of the higher education sector (NEP section 18.4).

Let us see how the NEP seeks to construct a market that will be mainly engineered by state policies and facilitated by the four institutions to be working under the overarching higher education commission of India (HECI).

A Quasi-market for Higher Education

Setting up of a regulatory authority by dismantling the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education was earlier recommended by the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) in 2007 and the Yash Pal Committee Report in 2009. The NEP argues that fragmentation of the Indian higher education system has created fault lines between general and professional education, public and private, centre and the states and national and foreign institutions, with many of them being in
operation without proper approval. These fragmentations have created confusions for the regulators and the stakeholders, rendering regulatory interventions ineffective and enforcement difficult. This has made the present system of regulation and funding unsustainable.

The NEP has suggested setting up of an overarching Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) (NEP section 18.3). This will be supported by four pillars, National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC), the Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC), and the General Education Council (GEC).

The NHERC will focus on “light but tight” regulation, with emphasis on transparency in financial probity (NEP section 18.3). Private- and the public-funded HEIs will be treated equally. Good governance, transparency in financial affairs and financial probity through disclosure will be the major focus of the NHERC. However, it may be noted that accounts may show that no profit is being made, whereas accounting manipulations ensure siphoning out of surplus. After all, subversion of the educational processes is not a big deal in education, and this is a root cause behind poor quality of higher education (Chattopadhyay 2009).

The NAC as a “meta-accrediting body” has been assigned a lead role in developing an ecosystem of accreditation agencies to cover all the HEIs (NEP section 18.4). In the new scenario, the NAC is required to accomplish a huge role of grading quality and screening of the institutions.

The HEGC (NEP section 18.5) will carry out the task of allocation of grants based on a transparent criteria and the international development programme submitted by the HEIs. It has not yet been made clear in the NEP how the grants will be allocated, how much of it will be based on cost of inputs historically determined or to be normatively determined based on some criteria to ensure justice in the allocation of grants across the universities. This has been a long-standing contentious issue with the UGC in the determination of grants fairly and equitably among the centrally funded universities in particular.

The GEC will act as an academic standard setting body to remain concerned with the learning outcomes and quality of education (NEP section 18.6). The professional bodies like Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) will get transformed into Professional Standard Setting Bodies (PSSBs) and they will eventually become members of the GEC. The GEC will formulate National Higher Education Qualification Framework (NHEQF) to be in conformity with the National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQE) to facilitate the integration of vocational education into higher education. The GEC will frame norms for credit transfer and equivalences through NHEQF. The role of National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) has been underplayed because ranking is after all a relative indicator of institutional performance, which makes the ranking of a HEI unstable and unreliable.

University Governance

Reform of university governance is the most challenging feature of higher education reform because it needs balancing between autonomy of the teachers and the departments and strong assertive leadership of the university amid the independent voices that emanate from the various stakeholders within the higher education sector. Absence of technology in the sphere of university functioning, which essentially depends on the agency of the teachers and the students, adds to the challenge of university governance (Chattopadhyay 2009). It appears that the present system of complying with UGC regulations for appraising faculty performance and faculty recruitment will be replaced by what the NEP termed as the Institutional Development Plan (IDP) (NEP section 12.3). The IDP would require the faculty to set their own targets, which would constitute the institutional target to be realised over a period of time regarding publications, research, teaching and curricular design duly approved by the board of governors (BoG) of the respective institutions. The interesting question is whether IDP allows for teacher auto­nomy the NEP emphasises upon. Though the targets are set by the teachers themselves and not by the regulator unilaterally as it is the system prevalent now, it does not give much autonomy because targets are to be set in the context of intense competition among the HEIs to earn a good score by the NAC and compete for funds.

It is possible that the HEIs might be politely reminded that they had already been bestowed with financial autonomy under the Graded Autonomy scheme1 and they can approach the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) to borrow to fund for their capacity expansion. It is, however, well understood that financial autonomy does not reinforce academic autonomy, instead it circumscribes institutional autonomy which permeates to the level of teacher autonomy eventually because institutional performance is an outcome mainly of the teachers’ performances.

If the argument is that a market is being constructed, we need to see how do the providers, that is, the HEIs and the consumer–students are being besto­wed with sovereignty (Jongbloed 2004; Chattopadhyay 2009).

Students’ Sovereignty

The most important dimension of students’ sovereignty is the freedom to choose courses across the institutions and earn transferable credit, which they can now store digitally in what the NEP suggests, setting up of an Academic Bank for Credits (ABC) (NEP section 11.9). Prior to the NEP, the students were already given the freedom to choose a maximum of 20% of the courses online from the offerings of SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds). This has now been enhanced to 40% per semester vide a public notice three days after the NEP was announced (GoI 2020a). This can be viewed as an extension of the existing choice-based credit system (CBCS) as indicated in the “public notice.” The students are now therefore enabled to transcend the time and space associated with the traditional “in-class” teaching. Making students sovereign is neo-liberal in its approach to reform higher education.2 But this would recast the teacher–student relationship with implication for teaching–learning outcome. Nixon et al (2011) based on a study observe a paradox in giving students the discretion to exercise choice with the transformative role education should play. They state (p 206),

If HEIs pander further to consumer choice by allowing students to choose what they find fun, easy, or specially secure and familiar, they risk restricting even further the space where at least the possibility of transformation exists through the complex acquisition of new, especially critical knowledge. However, if they limit choice (as students also claim to want), but in doing so aim for “compulsory” challenge, complexity and difficulty, they are likely to see increased student dissatisfaction and, within the logic of marketplace, find their customers going elsewhere.

It may therefore be conjectured that if extreme forms of flexibility to the students become a reality by policy design facilitated by technology, it remains doubtful whether a thorough understanding of a discipline or a subject area will be feasible in most cases as difficult and rigorous courses will get slighted by the choice exercising consumerist students. There is a central belief every department holds, and a university mission reflects. Exercise of uninhibited choices of courses even to the extent of 40% would dilute the transformative roles that the teachers of a department cherish to deliver (GoI 2020A). To take into acc­ount individual students’ preferences, their future plans and competencies, the existing system does provide a reasonable amount of flexibility, which however varies across the departments and HEIs.

This phenomenon of the growing dominance of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has led to the unbundling of the education delivery (McCowan 2016). Over time, short-term micro courses will be offered with a clear focus on the learning outcomes as desired and demanded by the changing requirements for skill in the job market. Unbundling is the phenomenon of MOOCs, which is essentially a fall out technology. McCowan (2016) argues that commodification and unbundling are linked. It destroys the idea of a university as a space. It limits socialisation of the students so desirable in a country like India to appreciate the diversity and make students sensitive and responsible, which are supposed to be inculcated not only in the classroom and from reading books, but also outside the classroom, in the campus in the course of interaction with the students and the faculty. The idea of a university as a space suffers a gradual erosion (McCowan 2016).

It may help reminding that the students are not the typical consumers. Not only do the students suffer from information asymmetry regarding the courses they desire to opt for, the students cannot buy their degrees either, as they are needed to be diligent and dedicated to earn degrees unlike what happens in a consumption goods market where paying the price ensures acquisition of a well-specified product.

Online Teaching Is a Game Changer

The advent of technology mediated teaching along with the rapid improvement in the internet connectivity has already begun to usher in major transformative changes in the higher education sector. Major disruption in the academic activities triggered by the pandemic has expedited this embrace of technology. The NEP has given a further boost to the process of adoption of technology with all the might and zeal possible to tide over the present crisis of disruption, but most of these changes will remain embedded in the university structure of functioning and delivery. Online teaching transforms traditional “in-class” teaching radically. The averseness of a part of the academia towards open distance learning (ODL) and online teaching is no longer of any significance in the emerging scenario.

Online education obliterates the concept of time and space, which are associated with the “in-class” offline teaching. While classroom teaching is a typical example of a service, online teaching, if digitised and recorded, transforms “in-class” teaching into a digital product, which has the potential to become eternally available and to anybody in the world subject, of course, to the discretion of the teacher and/or the institution. Essentially, classroom teaching ceases to remain confined within the four walls of the classroom with the initiation of online teaching. This has very significant implications for the way the market is shaping up in the wake of an increased thrust for regularising online teaching. Of course, it would not be prudent to argue that “in-class” offline and online teaching are equivalents in terms of their impact on learning outcomes. The issue of quality is debatable and highly contextual. The opportunity for dialogue which shapes the way classroom discussions evolve, and often, it takes a new direction opening up a new vista in understanding will now get somewhat restricted by the options that are available in the popular platforms, like raising hand or by typing in questions without inhibition in the chat box marked Q and A. Though the present trend for webinars indicate active participation, having dialogue in classroom is a different ball game altogether. However, the teachers will now be more prepared for the classroom as transactions become formal and transparent.

Autonomy of Teachers

If we go by what the NEP prescribes, the autonomy to be given to the teachers and the institutions will liberate the HEIs to chart out their own paths and compete for glory in a life-and-death situation. The sovereignty by giving choice will actually make the market highly competitive and more so in the future, with the possible entry of some of the top-ranking foreign universities in the Indian market. Though it is believed that the average cost of online teaching is generally low, with the marginal cost of addition of a student seeking admission being minimal, it need not always be the case if expenses are incurred to provide special assistance to the students who need special help to cope with the frailties of online teaching (The Economist Intelligent Unit 2020).

Otherwise, offering of online courses is generally found to be very lucrative because marginal revenue in the form of fees exceeds low marginal cost for a considerable number of students that can be very high for an institution. The UGC has identified 171 undergraduate MOOCs courses in six subjects of humanities and social sciences. The UGC is inviting “expression of interest” from the HEIs and faculty “to develop high quality MOOCs in these identified areas comparable to international standards” (GoI 2020a).

Quality and Access

Not any time soon India is going to overcome the problem of digital divide unless the government spends massively on building up infrastructure in every district by developing some designated access points where the students can gather to access the internet and attend online classes. It is also to be recognised that a good many number of students will need additional academic support in absence of the regular teacher–student interaction.3 The way some reputed coaching institutions in Kota, Rajasthan have set up “doubt counters” for the students, which are managed by the junior teachers to help students beyond the class hours to clarify their doubts, similar centres/counters will have to be opened up in the not too distant future where online teaching for the majority will become normal and acceptable, albeit perforce.

Inviting Foreign Universities

Allowing the participation of the foreign universities has been an issue for the policymakers. Though DNEP remained silent on this issue, the NEP has raked up this long debatable issue again. The union budget speech for 2020–21 has already announced the approval of the external commercial borrowings (ECBs) and encouragement for foreign direct investment (FDI) in higher education to facilitate the inflow of resources to fund capacity build-up envisaged by the HEIs. The NEP proposes to allow only the top 100 universities, presumably as per the ranking of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) or the Times Higher Education (THE), to enter the Indian market. It may be noted in this context that the universities are not akin to the cell phone factories where quality of product produced by a newly set up factory will be of exactly the same quality as produced by the other existing factories located elsewhere in the world. This is because technology and human capital embodied in the teachers and the students are non-replicable (Chattopadhyay 2009).

The aspects of quality a foreign university can ensure is the course content and evaluation and not necessarily delivery. Learning is a life time experience which cannot be reproduced as the concept of space in a university loses its significance and sanctity.4 If the students can access the classes being conducted in real time in the foreign universities, the quality of delivery is somewhat maintained in absence of immersing in the ambience in the class and learning from peers. Many EdTech companies, what are called for-profit online managers (OPMs), will now enter into collaboration with the universities to manage the logistics of delivery of the online courses as university administration may find it difficult to handle the challenges associated with the MOOCs (The Economist Intelligence Unit 2020).

We are already aware of how competition within a department can take ugly forms in the form of indulgence in unethical practices like grade inflation and dilution of the course content to attract students and appease them. Even Bok (2013) noted this even in the context of the United States. This competition can become a widespread practice much to the detriment of genuine and rigorous scholarship. This is not to deny that this competition will also make life difficult for many indolent teachers who have been rather non-passionate in their conduct of teaching and research over the years.5 The problem is that the serious teachers will have to face the heat of competition and some will succumb only at the expense of excellence, which is not warranted. As pointed out by Bok (2013: 379–80), without values, no institution can survive and achieve excellence. Practices bordering on immorality do not take much time for others to emulate and eventually let it precipitate the decline of an institution over time. There are many instances of this gradual decline of many universities in India.

An Unequal and Bipolar Market

With the possibility of capacity expansion by the best of the universities in the form of online teaching, there will emerge two segments in the market, one with the good quality as certified and accredited and the other populated by the rest. Bok in 2013 (p 148) wrote while conjecturing the long-term impact of new technology,

Some commentators envisage a world dominated by a limited number of famous instructors teaching millions of people via the Internet while rendering superfluous tens of thousands of professors who continue delivering their lectures to steadily dwindling student audiences.

This will lead to different valuation of the degrees in the job market as the higher education market gets further differentiated. The NAC will move towards binary grading over time, which will usher the non-performing HEIs out.

The fees will be determined depending on the accreditation score of the institutions, which is essentially a proxy for the quality of the institutions (NEP 18.14). Linking fees with quality will accentuate the inherent differentiation that exists in the higher education sector and promote higher education as a status good or a “positional good” impeding the process of social mobility unless adequate safeguards are put in place to protect the underprivileged what the NEP defines as SEDGs, the socio-economically disadvantaged groups.

Concluding Remarks

The higher education reform world over has been largely informed by the neo-liberal logic of privatisation, university governance reform in line with the principles of new public management and construction of a quasi-market for higher education under the supervision of a regulatory authority with support from other institutions. Expanding the scope of students’ choice of courses is the primary policy measure in the name of sovereignty, which will foster marketisation of higher education. Though the NEP has recognised the utmost importance of raising public funding to 6% of gross domestic product, it seems unlikely in a federal set-up amid the crisis. However, the government is opening up channels for infusion of more funds through higher education financing agency and from abroad through external commercial borrowings and FDI.

The NEP emits an unmistakable signal of generating competition to rejuvenate the institutions in a state engineered market by giving autonomy to the teachers and the HEIs subject of course to strict compliance with modes of accountability mechanisms as suggested. The NEP seeks to encourage private participation but at the same time curb commercial practices. It will turn out to be a competitive game not all the HEIs will succeed to survive. The NEP is virtually silent about the future of the reservation policies in HEIs, though scholarships are to be provided for the SEDGs. Given the peculiarities of higher education, neither a market in a typical sense can be constructed nor is it desirable if “publicness” is to be nurtured while higher education evolves to be a global good, if not a global public good.


1 If the HEIs belong to the Category I institutions as per the categorisation of the Graded Autonomy.

2 Recognising that education needs to be funded by the state, Friedman suggested construction of an education market by providing financial assistance to the students in the form of education vouchers to construct market and infuse competition.

3 The drop out rate in online courses can be very high (The Economists Intelligence Unit 2020, p 29).

4 The Economist Intelligence Unit (2020) has suggested “online universities” as one of the five innovative future models of higher education which would offer courses “anytime, anywhere, and to anyone.”

5 This is much more pronounced if the students are funded through education vouchers which makes cost recovery a matter of survival for the HEIs.


Bok, Derek (2013): Higher Education in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chattopadhyay, S (2009): “The Market in Higher Education: Concern for Equity and Quality,” Economic & Political Weekly, 18 July, pp 53–61.

— (2010): “An Elitist and Flawed Approach Towards Higher Education,” Economic & Political Weekly, 1 May, Vol XLV, No 18, pp 15–17.

Government of India (2018): Ministry of Human Resource Development UGC (Categorisation of Universities [only] for Grant of Graded Autonomy) Regulations 2018, The Gazette of India, 12 February 2018 (Part III, Section 4), https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/1435338_182728.pdf.

— (2019): The National Education Policy Draft, Ministry of Human Resource Development, https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/Draft_NEP_2019_EN_....

— (2020): The National Education Policy 2020, Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi, https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_English.pdf.

— (2020a): Public Notice: Expression of Interest (UG Course Mapping/SWAYAM) dated 31 July 2020, New Delhi: UGC, https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/­­­­498­­­17­11­­­­­­_Public-Notice-EOI.pdf.

Jongbloed, Ben (2004): “Regulation and Competition in Higher Education,” Markets in Higher Education: Rhetoric or Reality?, Pedro Teixeira, Ben Jongbloed, David Dill and Alberto Amaral (eds), Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

McCowan, Tristan (2016): “Universities and the Post-2015 Development Agenda: An Analytical Framework,” published online 18 August 2016 with open access at Springerlink.com, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-016-0035-7.

Nixon, E, R Scullion and M Molesworth (2011): “How Choice in Higher Education Can Create Conservative Learners,” The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, E Nixon, R Scullion and M Molesworth (eds) , Oxon, UK: Routledge.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (2020): New Schools of Thought: Innovative Models for Delivering Higher Education, A Report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, https://www.qf.org.qa/eiu#:~:text=In%20’New%20Schools%20of%20Thought,institutions%20in%20today’s%20cha­­­nging%20world.https://www.fimpes.org.mx/covid19/images/banners/doctos/HEQatar.pdf.


Updated On : 23rd Nov, 2020


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