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The NEP intends to provide an overarching framework for inclusion in education.
The NEP intends to provide an overarching framework for inclusion in education.

Opinion | NEP resonates with idea of inclusion in higher education

  • The underlying tone in the document makes it clear that an inclusive higher education is not just a tool of individual and community empowerment, but also a necessary condition for the success of democracy

Even after more than seven decades of adopting the Constitution of India, equitable participation in quality higher education has not been fully achieved. There are a number of individual and social determinants that prevent a person from accessing and participating in higher education. In the Indian context, these circumstances can be: caste, gender, socio-economic status, special needs, place of residence etc. The inclusion in higher education demands that these circumstances do not impede the educational potential of individuals.

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 deconstructs the core impediments and their multiple dimensions and at the same time understands their interconnectedness. The NEP intends to provide an overarching framework for inclusion in education. This policy also makes clear provisions for increasing participation and accessibility in higher education at different levels. The fundamental principles of NEP root themselves to the core ideas of the Constitution and aspire to ‘build an equitable, inclusive, and plural society as envisaged’ in the Constitution’. Even in terms of education-related decision-making process, the NEP vouches for ‘full equity and inclusion as the cornerstone’ of these processes. At the same time, the movement towards equal access to higher education is also in line with India’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The target 4.3 of the SDGs aims to achieve equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education by the end of 2030.

It would be fallacious to propose that the NEP 2020 is the first document that strives for an inclusive higher education in India. Apart from the education policies of the past, various governments have always tried to create provisions for affirmative action to fulfill the Constitutional mandate. In recent times, the steps taken towards the inclusion of the 'divyang' (people with disabilities) and Other Backward Classes in higher education is a pertinent example. Despite the natural and obvious continuity, the NEP 2020 also makes innovative proposals and creates spaces of significant and substantive departures to ensure accessibility and participation. It can be argued that there are some fundamental ideas, which form the philosophical core behind the provisions for equity and inclusion in higher education in NEP 2020.

Traditionally, the issues and sites of discrimination and exclusion in India have been seen through the conventional paradigm of class-caste-gender. The NEP acknowledges the traditional sites of discrimination, but at the same time comprehends the multidimensionality and interconnectedness of these sites. The NEP clearly realizes that the issues of under-representation cannot be fully addressed with traditional models of categorization. And the policies based on this simplistic understanding fail to provide adequate avenues of access and participation to all individuals. There are many other sites of exclusion that had been largely neglected in the last seventy years because of the compartmentalized understanding of reality that overlooked the intersectionality of the sites of discrimination. Therefore, categorizing exclusion on the lines of gender, socio-cultural and geographical identities, disabilities and vulnerabilities that include victims of trafficking, orphans including child beggars in urban areas, and the urban poor, the policy has broadened the framework of looking at exclusion. Understanding exclusion in education through a broader rubric of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs) is innovative and shows the farsightedness of the policymakers.

The idea of SEDGs is open ended. Therefore, it can easily accommodate other sites of discrimination, which had not been distinguished in the past. The comprehensive understanding of sites of discrimination allows us to find less highlighted hindrances. The issue of place of residence as a site of exclusion in higher education has not been properly recognized by the policymakers till now. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have traditionally been enclaved in and around urban areas, leading to the exclusion of large sections of learners across the country. Education is one of the biggest causes of migration in India and the inability to migrate has excluded many from the higher education system. It is important to note that NEP 2020 has tried to understand this and has made appropriate provisions to address these issues. There is a need to bring the institutions closer to the potential learners. The areas that lag behind in terms of higher educational institutions are also the areas where the concentration of marginalized groups and individuals most discriminated against is the highest. This point has been acknowledged by the NEP document, too. The NEP emphasizes that according to available data, ‘certain geographical areas contain significantly larger proportions of SEDGs’. So, to ‘ensure full access, equity, and inclusion’, the NEP 2020 proposes that ‘by 2030 at least one large multidisciplinary HEI in or near every district should be constructed’.

In India, reservation as a tool of affirmative action has been widely used and continues to be relevant to the goal of making a more inclusive society. Despite the value and usefulness of reservation, the affirmative action policy in higher education needs to employ more tools. Given the multiple sites of barriers faced by an individual, there is a need to look at this issue in terms of output. Therefore, the NEP clearly articulates that the government should ‘set clear targets for higher GER (Gross Enrollment Ratio) for SEDGs’. This output-based philosophy is clearly a move towards breaking the multiple and multifaceted barriers of access to higher education.

The NEP has also tried to address the issue of performance gap in higher educational institutions. There is a concern that the HEIs should work towards reducing performance gaps between students of diverse backgrounds. The students coming from the marginalized sections not only require additional support for access but also for successful completion of their education. The NEP has clearly identified 13 important steps to be taken by the HEIs in this regard. These steps intend to provide facilitative academic space and supportive environment to reduce and eliminate performance gaps. The successful completion of degree with dignity means upward mobility. Several studies have shown that higher education is an important medium for upward mobility. Proposing strict adherence to the principles of human dignity and human rights, the NEP sets a goal for HEIs to become truly democratic spaces, empowering learners and instilling a sense of social responsibility in them.

There are two important issues that should be emphasized to make the process of implementation more effective and efficient. First, there should be a structured mechanism for continuous impact assessment about the provisions of inclusion in HEIs. This becomes important in understanding how higher education is bringing changes to the lives of the marginalized group of students? Second, in the process of implementation, there should be a concerted effort and focused approach for making science, medicine and other technical fields more inclusive.

The underlying tone in this document makes it clear that an inclusive higher education is not merely a tool of individual and community empowerment; rather it is also a necessary condition for the success of democracy. Therefore, an inclusive higher education is necessary to fulfill the promises enshrined in the Constitution of India. And at the same time, this is also a prerequisite for a more prosperous and developed India.

(The author is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal and do not reflect Mint’s)

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