NEP 2020: The mirage of inclusive and equitable quality education for all

Saqib Khan

The National Education Policy (NEP) remains an important action-plan for education and provides a direction to the development of education in India. Education comes under the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution and state governments are its key stake-holder. However, the Union Cabinet recently approved the NEP 2020 without adequate deliberation in both Houses of the Parliament or with the state governments. The NEP 2020 broadly includes the points from the 2019 Draft, but also departs from it in some respects. This note briefly highlights some of the important reforms suggested in both school and higher education by the Policy and the issues therein.

With regard to school education, an important change brought by the Policy is the new pedagogical and curricular structure replacing the 10+2 system with 5+3+3+4 design: the initial 5 years foundational stage (3 years of pre-primary school for ages 3-6 plus 2 years of Grades 1 and 2 for ages 6-8), 3 years of preparatory stage (Grades 3, 4 and 5 for ages 8-11), 3 years of the middle stage (Grades 6, 7 and 8 for ages 11-14) and 4 years of secondary stage (Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 for ages 14-18). Thus, the new component of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) or pre-primary school has been added in this curricular structure by the Policy.

While the inclusion of ECCE in the curricular structure is a welcome move, two points must be kept in mind with regard to the new structure. First, the inclusion of ECCE in the formal structure will entail massive infrastructural improvement in terms of anganwadis, pre-school sections, teachers and staff. It remains to be seen whether the government will be committed to this increase and actually make it happen. Second, while the Policy emphasises the need to ensure universalisation of education from pre-primary to secondary level, it remains silent whether the Right to Education (RTE) Act would be extended to include the pre-primary and secondary education under it. The 2016 NEP Draft had recommended that the early childhood education for children from 4 to 5 years of age should be declared a Right. Similarly, the 2019 Draft had suggested free and compulsory ECCE as well as secondary education. The NEP 2020 makes no such commitment.

The second important change in school education is the no hard separation between ‘curricular’, ‘extracurricular ’, or ‘co-curricular’, among ‘arts’, ‘humanities’, and ‘sciences’, or between ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ stream. Only time can tell if this “no hard separation” would really empower students (as the Policy says) or make them what is popularly called “jack of all trades, master of none”.

Third, with regard to the three-language formula, the NEP 2020 says that it will continue to be implemented. However, it has dropped the reference to Hindi (as mentioned in the 2019 Draft) and says that no language will be imposed on any State. The three languages learned by children will be the choices of States, regions, and the students themselves, so long as at least two of the three languages are native to India. Now here the Policy attempts to hierarchize languages and puts Sanskrit on a higher pedestal. Devoting a whole paragraph, it says that “Sanskrit will be offered at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula”. However, the fact that only 24,821 people listed Sanskrit as their mother tongue (according to 2011 Census) in the whole country belies this over-enthusiasm for Sanskrit.

In higher education, the Policy suggests consolidation and shift to large multidisciplinary universities, which is certainly a step towards centralization. In addition, the emphasis on multidisciplinary Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as a ‘one-model-fits-all’ is questionable. The question the Policy does not go into is: how will the multidisciplinary aspect tackle the challenges facing the HEIs like lack of access, teachers, research in colleges and universities. The aim also seems to be towards a three-tier higher education system with Research-intensive universities, Teaching-intensive universities and Autonomous degree-granting colleges.

The Policy suggests a major reform in undergraduate degree with multiple exit options and appropriate certifications: a certificate after 1 year, a diploma after 2 years, a Bachelor’s degree after 3 years, or a Bachelor’s with Research after 4 years. The Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) had been tried in places like Delhi University (DU) few years ago and saw intense protests against this move. A four-year degree programme makes it easier for students to apply for a master’s course in countries like the US. Besides the four-year undergraduate programme, the discontinuation of MPhil is another reform by the Policy that has the imprint of ‘US link’ (most US universities do not offer MPhil). While the Policy rues lesser emphasis on research at most universities and college in the country on one hand, it does away with MPhil at the same time. Since most HEIs in India do not have compulsory research at the Master’s level, MPhil used to give a grounding to students in research and research methodology, and prepared them for the next stage, i.e. PhD.

Following the 2019 Draft, the NEP 2020 suggests entry of foreign universities in the name of “internationalization” and says that a legislative framework facilitating such entry will be put in place. The attempt to open the doors for foreign universities were also made during the UPA rule (in 2007 and 2010) as well as by the NITI Aayog in 2016. Though the Policy suggests the operation of top 100 universities in the world in the country, it has globally been seen that most HEIs entering a foreign market are not prestigious universities, but rather low-end institutions seeking market access and revenue; top universities are unlikely to build full-fledged branch campuses on their own. Together with this, the cost of education in such HEIs is an important concern and it would certainly be out of reach for a large section of the Indian population.

Lastly, it is surprising that the NEP 2020 discusses financing of education- one of the most crucial factors to implement any policy- in the last part of the document (in fact on its second last page). A lot is being said about the NEP 2020’s statement that the “Centre and the States will work together to increase the public investment in Education sector to reach 6% of GDP at the earliest”. However, too much should not be read into it. The statement is merely a reiteration of the previous NEPs. Public expenditure on education is one area where there has been continuity between the Draft NEP 2016 as well as the NEPs of 1986/92 and 1968. The earlier NEPs too had emphasized the need to raise the outlay on education to at least 6% of the GDP. In fact, the NEP 1986/92 had observed the consequences of inadequate investment in education as very serious. However, this target was never met & actual expenditure on education has remained consistently below 6%. Any significant increase without the government funding playing a big role is highly improbable. The 2020 NEP, by making no concrete and specific commitment to increase public investment on education and calling for promotion of ‘private philanthropic activity’ in the education sector, is a step towards reduced commitment and role of government in education. 

With such an agenda of reforms, it remains to be seen whether the goal of “inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030” cited by the 2020 NEP can be achieved.

The author is Independent Researcher.