Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | Our national education policy is high on goals but low on realism

The new National Education Policy (NEP 2020) is the third overhaul of India’s education system in the life of the Republic. Unfortunately, notwithstanding various policy measures, what we have is a shambles of an education system: one where students achieve perfect scores in history and literature at school, but PhD theses are, in a great many instances, embarrassing documents attached to unemployable graduates. It is unlikely that weighty terms—“social and emotional skills" and “holistic education"—can ever be substitutes for careful attention to the historical and structural issues that afflict the Indian education ecosystem.

Let us leave aside the largely performative dimensions of NEP 2020, such as its putative inspiration from “ancient Indian knowledge". For, this might lead us to the tricky question of why such knowledge has not rid us of some of the worst forms of social discrimination in the world. Neither is it worthwhile focusing on the formulaic laundry list of supposed characteristics for success in the modern world. Performance is politics. Let us, instead, stay with the substantive issues.

The language conundrum is one. There is great merit in valuing Indian languages, including Sanskrit. However, the recommendation that students be instructed in a manner such that “by the end of grade 9 they can speak about science and other subjects both in their home language and English" carries very little conviction. The Indian state spends pitiful amounts on education and it is unclear how the devaluation of Indian languages as a result of national and global forces can be addressed by devoting resources to bolster the performance of politics. Would the most educationally deprived benefit from being able to express mathematical formulae in an Indian language? Or instead, would it be better to devote scarce resources to better train teachers, provide infrastructure for schools and resources to students? Given the country’s socioeconomic disparities, it is not difficult to imagine whose children are most likely to be the subjects of such arbitrary experiments in instilling “civilisational" pride.

The mostly anti-learning board examination system—and the coaching culture around it—is sought to be tackled through continuous evaluations involving “state school examinations in grades 3, 5, and 8". Continuous evaluation is an important tool, but in those systems where the fundamentals of pedagogy are more or less in place. In a wildly uneven system such as ours, the immediate need is to attend to the basics of teaching methods, inflationary grading, school infrastructure and outdated curricula. There is little value in evaluating continuous failure.

Barring a handful of professional institutions, our higher education system neither produces employable graduates nor capable researchers. This is the outcome of a lack of proper training of both teachers and students, the neglect of regional universities, and an exaggerated deference towards teachers that inhibits the development of a critical attitude.

The structural problems faced by the university system are extremely unlikely to be solved by the establishment of a centralized administrative body, the noble but utopian goal of erasing distinctions between arts and science education, multiple exit options at the undergraduate level, creation of large multidisciplinary institutions, and allowing foreign universities to set up local campuses. The problem isn’t with the form of the university system—and it is entirely unhelpful to hold up Ivy League colleges of the US as models to emulate—but, rather, the content.

The MPhil programme, for example, has been fundamental to training future researchers in a system primed towards rote learning rather than independent thinking. In many western countries, this degree is no longer offered. But it is necessitated in India by the weak educational experience that precedes it. Its demise will be a blow to an already debilitated university system and further diminish our research capacity.

There have been two kinds of prominent responses to NEP 2020. The first suggests that it is another tool to dislodge an older “Nehruvian" intelligentsia through the emphases on Indian languages and Sanskrit. The second is adamant that the crisis of education can best be addressed by greater privatization of education, with the state funding (poor) parents to send their children to private schools of their choice.

If the NEP were as systematic a document as to change the fundamentals of India’s social structure, it would be remarkable indeed. It might even have been an object of admiration if it had discovered an easy way of ushering in social and economic change. Unfortunately, this is a chimera. Our most likely future is the continuing decline of an educational system that requires transformations in content and not form.

As for the view that the State should get out of running schools, we need look no further than at the “effectiveness" of private healthcare during covid. The lack of an efficient public health system has cost us dearly. As writings on state schools in Himachal Pradesh and Kerala have shown, the State can do enormous public good if it puts its mind to it. An educated State is the key.

Sanjay Srivastava is a British Academy global professor at University College London, and a sociologist at Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.

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