The year 2020 has posed unprecedented challenges for educators all over the world. In India, the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have laid bare the structural inequalities entrenched in all levels of education. Students and teachers have been struggling to cope with the enormous digital divide in a predominantly poor country as teaching was moved online; many teachers and other workers in the private education sector have lost their jobs; severe economic hardship of the migrants, who were forced to leave big cities after a countrywide lockdown, has resulted in an escalation of the number of school and college drop-outs.
Amidst such difficult times, the Government of India released the controversial National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, a policy that will decide the fate of education during the coming twenty years. The government had initiated discussions on formulating a new education policy a few years back. The aim was to replace the three-decade-old policy of 1986 and overhaul the entire structure of school and higher education. Two committees were formed and draft reports were released in 2016 and 2019 with the declared purpose of gathering feedback from the public. There was a nationwide debate among scholars, activists and teachers over the various changes suggested in the drafts. Regardless of the sharply polarised opinions, the policy was finalised and published in July 2020 without a discussion in the parliament. The release of NEP has re-energised public debate on the future of education in India. While this ambitious policy is hailed by some for its claims of being ‘futuristic’, others question its vision and raise essential questions about its long-term implications.
The German Centre for Research and Innovation (DWIH), New Delhi in collaboration with the Max Weber Stiftung India Branch Office (MWS IBO) organised a discussion on the NEP on 14 October 2020. The speakers of the virtual session were distinguished scholars of education studies and research partners of the MWS IBO. Shivali Tukdeo (National Institute of Advanced Studies [NIAS], Bengaluru) initiated the discussion, followed by Nandini Manjrekar (Tata Institute of Social Sciences [TISS] Mumbai) and Geetha Nambissan (former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi). Katja Lasch, director of the DWIH New Delhi, moderated the session.
The NEP proposes to introduce structural changes in higher education in India, mobilising a few key terms. The panel analysed these terms in connection with the questions of access to education, inequality and inclusiveness. In this context, we need to keep in mind that since a regime change in India in 2014, the government has been particularly opposed to critical thinking and academic freedom. Social sciences and humanities departments are labelled and targeted, research scholarships are increasingly drying up, and the idea of a public university that promotes democratic, inclusive and critical education has come under severe attack.1 It thus raises doubts when the same government comes up with a policy that claims to ensure vibrancy in education. It is in this context that the speakers drew our attention to the lack of clarity and inadequacies of the lofty terms used in the policy document.
Does ‘Internationalisation’ Promise Greater Access?
The new policy claims to cater to the needs of the twenty-first century. It propagates terms like ‘internationalisation’ and ‘holistic and multidisciplinary education’ as necessary measures for the education of the future. However, if we delve deeper into the jargon-heavy text of the policy, several points appear to be unclear and problematic. This is the first observation with which Shivali Tukdeo initiated the discussion. There has been a long tradition of internationalism and internationalisation of pedagogy in India, promoting an exchange of ideas and collaborations beyond national boundaries. But the kind of internationalisation that the new policy speaks of, Tukdeo explained, is entrenched in a very post-2000s context of global education policy reforms with a neo-liberal inclination. The policy intends to prioritise research and teaching collaborations and student-teacher exchanges with international institutions. Also, the policy declares that foreign institutions will be invited to open campuses in India and Indian universities will be encouraged to branch out in other countries. India is the second-largest country that sends students abroad for higher education, Tukdeo reminded us, adding that the policy wants India to be not only a ‘sending country’ but also a receiving one. There is a clear indication that the government is willing to bring about a flexible legislative framework to facilitate foreign institutions to open campuses in India.
Nandini Manjrekar added her own take on this point. Observing that the policy is pretty unclear on what form internationalisation will take, she conjectured that by collaborations, the approach seems to imply that catchment areas where Indian institutions can set up campuses will be expanded. However, in India, the promise of introducing a foreign investment-friendly regulatory framework could be a matter of grave concern if it leads to extreme commercialisation of higher education. Geetha Nambissan too shared her apprehension that in the name of internationalisation, the higher education landscape might end up having islands of elite institutions, accessible only to a small section of the population.
Does ‘Multidisciplinarity’ Ensure Exchange of Ideas?
The discussion then moved on to other structural changes proposed in the policy document. Tukdeo observed that the policy suggests a profound reconstruction of higher education to achieve a gigantic leap in enrolment. It declares that by 2035 the gross enrolment ratio in higher education in India would increase from 26.3% to 50%. Both Tukdeo and Manjrekar believed that the projected numbers appear overly ambitious, if not bewildering, in terms of feasibility. In suggesting a roadmap in this direction, the policy takes recourse to another catchword – ‘multidisciplinary’ It advises that all higher education institutions should first aim to become multidisciplinary and then gradually increase student strength for ‘optimal use of infrastructure and resources and for the creation of vibrant multidisciplinary communities.’
Over the last few years, many interdisciplinary centres like Women’s Studies departments have experienced severe funding cuts. The NEP’s celebration of multidisciplinarity thus seems misleading. The panelists raised this point. Nambissan mentioned that in post-independence India, some of the finest public universities and institutions have flourished on the back of a vibrant culture of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary exchange of ideas. Such a culture evolved organically and strengthened the struggle for democratisation of education to a great extent. She was least hopeful that inserting the term multidisciplinary in the policy will ensure the strengthening of such a culture in the universities.
The claim of multidisciplinary education becomes even more perplexing with the declaration that all ‘single stream’ institutions should gradually cease to exist. The survival of a university, the policy makes it clear, will depend on its ability to introduce multiple streams with equal focus on vocational training and soft skills along with other streams of science, arts and technical education. After the policy was published, some critics had pointed out that such an ideal aims at preparing a multitasking labour force and does away with the idea of specialised knowledge. The policy, Tukdeo emphasised, also plans to introduce a new and more hierarchised model of higher education. For instance, it proposes to introduce a gradation between research universities, teaching universities and degree-granting colleges. For Tukdeo, this measure signaled a significant departure from the co-existence of research and teaching that is characteristic of the present system. She also articulated her scepticism on how this overhaul would be feasible and if such a reform would eventually lead to a more just and accessible structure.
Is the New Policy Inclusive?
One recurrent theme of the discussion was how far the policy addressed caste and gender asymmetries that plague the education system in India. The section on higher education of the NEP does mention the need for gender balance and equitable access for all social groups. However, the steps to be taken in this direction read more like a list of general statements rather than specific plans. In this context, Manjrekar raised the question of gender gap in higher education, going back to the issue of internationalisation. She pointed out that there has always been an ‘urban bias’ in higher education in terms of funding and endowments from the central government. In recent years, some initiatives have attempted to reform lesser endowed regional colleges and universities beyond the urban areas. But international collaborations have continued to remain a feature of elite, urban higher education institutions. Also, this model of collaboration has been more restricted to the areas of science and technology. Such an urban, STEM-heavy orientation has made higher education more exclusionary. Although the gender gap has narrowed over the years, Manjrekar highlighted, participation of women from marginalised social groups has been very uneven. As of now, the engineering and technology streams have 38% women, and the basic sciences have 40%. But these streams are primarily populated by upper caste, urban women. Participation of Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim women students is still relatively low. Manjrekar expressed her disappointment saying that it was unclear if the new policy would take any specific steps to deal with the already existing gender divide in higher education.
Elaborating the point on disproportionate participation, Nambissan reminded us how underrepresented religious minorities and lower castes have been in the institutions of higher education. The percentage of Muslims in higher education is 3%, and the Dalits or Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) form only 12% and 5% respectively. These groups are already significantly marginalised in university education, and only long-term substantive programmes and policies could ensure greater inclusion. Drawing from her long association with a renowned public university in India, Nambissan elucidated that diversity and inclusion are hallmarks of a university. Various social groups bring new knowledge to the university and make the university more vibrant and culturally diverse. Quite strikingly, the new policy is reluctant even to name the oppressed castes and religious minority groups and prefers using the umbrella term ‘socio-economically disadvantaged groups’ (SEDGs). There is no clear indication if the existing schemes and funds for greater enrolment of the disadvantaged sections will continue or new funds will be allocated.
It is also alarming, Nambissan emphasized, that the new policy claims to encourage research and yet plans to abolish the MPhil degree, which is awarded upon conclusion of the two-year pre-PhD programme at university. The participation of Dalit students in MPhil programmes in universities is greater than in PhD programmes – 17% of the MPhil students come from Dalit backgrounds. Putting an end to MPhil would mean even fewer students will be able reach PhD level. This would be detrimental for research as well as against the principle of inclusiveness.
A Deepening of Existing Inequalities?
The National Education Policy 2020 is a hefty public policy document that has stirred intense controversies and debates over the last few months. The speakers of the panel helped us identify underlying meanings and possible consequences of some of the crucial proposals inscribed in the policy. The NEP, according to the panel, is inherently empty of positive content and is incapable of addressing structural inequalities that have kept higher education a matter of privilege. In a country where higher education is still beyond the reach of the marginalised sections of society, it is worrying that the new policy promotes vague ideas that might end up deepening the inequality rather than ensuring greater access for all. The speakers agreed that the policy will only strengthen the already initiated process of privatisation of higher education, thereby further encouraging the creation of small islands of elite education hubs. Thus, in the garb of grandiose catchwords, the policy will make inequalities in higher education durable.
- Over the last five years, a plethora of newspaper opinion pieces, journal articles and a few books have been published on the idea of the public university in India and how it has come under attack. Let me cite a few that capture the debate succinctly: G. Arunima, “Thought, Policies and Politics: How May We Imagine the Public University in India?”, Kronos, 43 (2017): 165-84; Janaki Nair, “‘Jasn-e-JNU’: What Lies Behind the Calls to Dismantle Public University Education”, The Wire, 22 November 2019; Debaditya Bhattacharya (ed.), The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts (Routledge: New Delhi, 2019).