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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Towards a more equitable and inclusive education system

Opinion | Towards a more equitable and inclusive education system

Much of the reaction to the National Education Policy is positive, but there is also unfair criticism

 (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)Premium
(Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Like the holiest of things, the draft National Education Policy (NEP) has now been consecrated through fire. Copies of the NEP were burnt in protest in some places. The protestors issued catchy statements, including, “The NEP is written by corporates, for corporates." Elsewhere, the methods were more sedate, but the sentiments as fiery. In one meeting, a resolution was passed to oppose the NEP because, it argued, “The draft report by privileging privatization and commercialization of education fails to address issues of equitable education and further deepening of democracy by adhering to core values and principles of the Constitution."

Some of these reactions are on known partisan lines, yet puzzling. That’s because what they claim the NEP says is entirely different from what it does say. Let me quote directly from the NEP: “The extremely high overall benefits to society of investment in education—both economic returns and benefits that cannot be monetized—are quite clear. It is also clear that benefits are over and above individual benefits (private returns) on education. Thus, it is absolutely critical that the basis of education in a society be investment in public education. Such public education investment also has direct equity outcomes—those who benefit most from investment in education often do not have the capital to invest into education." These lines are from the chapter on financing. Similarly, in another chapter on public education, it says: “Public institutions will be developed and improved, strongly reaffirming a commitment to the national importance of public education." It calls for public expenditure on education to double to 20% of the overall budget to enable this.

Here is a quote on commercialization: “Private operators who try to run schools as commercial enterprises, vitiating the basic public good nature of education, will be stopped." Here is another: “Heartbreakingly, the teacher education sector has been beleaguered with mediocrity as well as rampant corruption due to commercialization."

And here is one last (long) quote: “The process and the content of education at all levels will also aim to develop Constitutional values in all students, and the capacities for their practice. This goal will inform the curriculum as well as the overall culture and environment of every school. Some of these Constitutional values are: democratic outlook and commitment to liberty and freedom; equality, justice, and fairness; embracing diversity, plurality, and inclusion; humaneness and fraternal spirit; social responsibility and the spirit of service; ethics of integrity and honesty..."

The NEP is full of such statements and action points. Unsurprisingly so, because three of its most important underlying principles prescribe an unambiguous commitment to public education, equity and inclusion, and constitutional values. So, what have these fiery protestors been reading? If they have read the NEP, how can they make these statements?

To be sure, there is constructive critique also. I am extracting some of the salient features of the NEP, with the intent to address some of the issues raised in these thoughtful responses. Knowing these responses is not necessary to read these points.

The NEP envisions the establishment of school complexes (SCs) as the basic administrative unit for public schools. An SC will consist of 10-20 proximate schools, including at least one school which has all classes from pre-primary to 12th standard. The SC will be run and resourced as one unit. This will address one of the most intractable problems facing our school system today—that of very small schools (for example, 28% of primary schools have less than 30 students) and the ensuing sharp constraints on resourcing (such as one teacher teaching all subjects), inadequate physical resources per school, no teachers for special education, etc. Operating as a unit, adequate resources can be provided, which would be used effectively across the SC. The other significant impact would be that the SC will enable the development of a vibrant community of teachers—today, the teachers are structurally isolated.

The NEP places greater emphasis on equity than quality. This is not because quality is not as important. But because all educational history tells us that quality follows equity, but equity doesn’t necessarily follow quality. To ensure equity and inclusion, the policy proposes decisive and comprehensive action on many fronts: A commitment to improve and expand public education, address the causes of exclusion, and actions for the inclusion of specific disadvantaged groups.

An autonomous National Research Foundation (NRF) will be set up, be governed by a high-quality independent board consisting of outstanding researchers, educators and other professionals. Its budget will be 20,000 crore per year, or about 0.1% of gross domestic product. The NRF will develop and support a vibrant research ecosystem. It will do this by developing capacity, fostering culture, and funding projects through a rigorous peer-review process. The NRF will drive a research revolution across our institutions (including state universities), and not just in a few “islands of excellence".

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.

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Published: 03 Jul 2019, 10:08 PM IST
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