Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

A new education policy

The new education policy will influence our economic, social and political future, for decades to come

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote his infamous Memorandum on Indian Education. Two of the most well-known lines from this document are: “....a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia" and “We must at present do our best to form a class... of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". This memorandum, also known as Macaulay’s Minutes, formed the basis for the English Education Act of 1835, which was personally championed by William Bentinck, the governor general of India.

The direction and the philosophy set by the Minutes and executed by the Act continued to influence Indian education for decades. It’s amusing though to hear in the corridors of education the current state of Indian education being blamed on Macaulay. While the ghost of Macaulay may be lingering on in our society in some ways, it has been decisively exorcised from Indian education policy decades ago.

Let’s briefly look at other policy events in Indian education which had significant impact, akin to the Act of 1835. In 1948-49, the Radhakrishnan Commission submitted its report on higher education, focused on the expansion and improvement of higher education. This was very important for a newly independent nation, to work towards the ideals of a good society as articulated in the Constitution, and the practical needs of governance and economic growth. Soon after, in 1952, a similar function was performed by the Mudaliyar Commission, for secondary education. While action was taken on the basis of the reports of both these commissions, no formal comprehensive policy was formulated.

The definitive education policy event for India was the Kothari Commission of 1964-66, which led to the Education Policy of 1968. The commission’s mandate was “to advise the government on the national pattern of education and on the general principles and policies for the development of education at all stages and in all aspects". The commission went through a remarkable two-year process of deep and widespread investigation, consultation and deliberation before submitting its report. The government then, in turn, went through a similar process of deep deliberation and wide consultation, before coming up with the Education Policy of 1968 (EP 68), based on the report. J.P. Naik, a central figure in Indian education history, was the member secretary of the cmmission. His last book Education Commission and After is a fascinating recounting of this critical phase of Indian education; Malcolm Adiseshiah in the foreword to the book calls it Naik’s mea culpa.

The Union government began a series of nation-wide discussions in 1985, based on a document called Challenges in Education, which was a frank assessment of the state of Indian education. These discussions formed the basis for the New Education Policy 1986 (NEP 86). Philosophically and directionally it developed on the foundation of EP 68. NEP 86 was actually finalized as a policy only in 1992, after a review by two committees appointed by two successive governments. It continues to be the basic policy framework within which Indian education operates.

In the complex governance environment of education in India, this is by no means an exhaustive listing of policy events. Things happen continually, through specific policy changes and through action (or inaction) in the states and at the Union. And, needless to say, policy is only one dimension of the overall dynamic of education; there are many others, for example, action by civil society, research, societal changes. Nevertheless, some key policy events that set basic frameworks, directions and philosophy have very long-lasting and deep impact.

We are at the cusp of another such event. The present Union government has announced that it is going to draw up a new education policy. This may well be the single most important education policy event of the past 60 years. The policy will have to respond to a world that has transformed in the past 60 years, and integrate educational understanding developed in this period. It will also have to revisit and lay out the philosophical underpinnings of our education, while setting the direction for the next few decades. This will take time, but then this government has at least four years ahead.

From what has been shared informally by people within the Union government, the process for coming up with the policy is being deliberated upon. Since the institutional and political memory of 1968 and 1986 is very much alive, we can hope that an equally robust or improved process will be rolled out. While this process is yet to be firmed up (or communicated), the Ministry of Human Resource Development has asked for public responses on 43 specific issues, in the context of the formulation of the policy.

This policy will influence our economic, social and political future for decades to come. So, even those of you who do not think of yourselves as involved in education should engage with the process. Hopefully the process will create enough opportunity for such wide engagement, much in the spirit of 1968 and 1986.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

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