Can NEP make India a knowledge hub?

N Madhavan | Updated on August 13, 2020

For the National Education Policy to deliver, the challenges that have traditionally plagued the sector must be addressed

The reaction to the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) unveiled by the Modi government has been on expected lines. Those who are part of the ruling dispensation are going gaga over it. They call it a ‘path breaking’ policy that will lay the foundation for 21st Century India. The opposition has serious issues with the policy with some even going to the extent of saying that ‘it would centralise power, commercialise and saffronise education, deny reservation and impose Sanskrit..’ The reality, as is often the case in India, is somewhere in-between.

The NEP has to be welcomed for the sheer fact that it is the first omnibus policy is 34 years. The country has waited far too long to upgrade its education system, which is so out of tune with the needs of the society. The policy’s intent is good. It wants to develop students’ ability to learn rather than just impart knowledge, end excessive focus on academics, identify and support unique capabilities of each student and offer flexibility in choice of subjects as per the child’s talent or interest.

That apart, it seeks to breakdown ‘harmful hierarchies’ between arts & science, vocational & academic, curricular & extra-curricular streams that are in vogue today. It also wants to end the emphasis on rote learning and shift focus to conceptual learning, which helps in building creativity and fosters innovation. The NEP strives to teach life skills, leverage technology, focus on research and put teachers at the heart of the education process. It aims to reduce commercialisation of education and ensure equitable access for all, irrespective of social or economic background. And to achieve all this, it has called for a sharp increase in public spending on education. It is difficult to disagree with any of this.

While some States such as Tamil Nadu have voiced their opposition to the three-language policy, the opposition, to a large extent, is barking up the wrong tree. It should, instead, focus on gaps that could prevent the NEP from successfully making India a knowledge superpower and the government’s ability to implement it effectively. Education, after all, is a Concurrent List subject and current polity is such that getting the buy-in of all the State governments is not easy.

Main-streaming education

The NEP wants to bring two crore out-of-school students into the mainstream and enhance the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from current 26 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035. Experts say this calls for adding many schools and a few universities every week. It will involve a huge investment.

The NEP has surmised that public investment in education to the extent of 6 per cent of GDP would be needed. This would mean an additional spending of ₹6.4 lakh crore in education by Centre and States every year. Today, public spending on education is just 3.1 per cent of GDP. Even during best of times, the governments did not have the resources or the will to spend that sort of money.

The situation today is challenging. Unlike many other countries, India’s financial immunity was weak even as the coronavirus struck. This means the economy’s recovery post-Covid will be long-drawn and hard. Drastic fall in revenues and higher expenditure have forced the Modi government to go easy on fiscal prudence this year. It cannot continue on this path for long. Focus on reining in the deficit will prevent the government from significantly increasing spending on education going forward.

Competitive claims

To compound matters, there are competitive claims from other sectors. Covid-19 has exposed chinks in India’s healthcare armour. These needs to be fixed with a large dose of spending. Security issues are flaring up across the country’s neighbourhood. This will inevitably call for larger defence expenditure.

The States, for their part, are in deeper financial distress, having been forced to borrow and fight the virus. They, too,will struggle to spend more on education. Thus, funding appears to be the biggest challenge when it comes to implementing the NEP. This is not the first time that a committee has recommended a higher allocation for education. A public spending of 6 per cent of GDP was recommended by the Education Commission under DS Kothari way back in 1964-66. But successive governments allowed the private sector to do the heavy lifting in terms of investment.

What we have today is a huge gap between government institutions and private schools/colleges. Such is the quality difference that students from government institutions are seen as second-class citizens in the job market.

This gap needs to be urgently bridged, but the NEP is silent on it. If this does not happen, the policy’s stated objective of reducing commercialisation and ensuring equitable access to quality education irrespective of social or economic background will remain a pipe-dream. What role the private sector will play in the future is also not clear in the policy.

While the NEP puts the teachers at the heart of the education process, re-skilling them and upgrading their quality are uphill tasks. The new curriculum will need a significant change in their mindset. Many won’t make the cut. They should be relieved and quality teachers brought into the system. That is not going to happen unless teaching as a profession is made a coveted one.

Research and innovation

Finally, India can never become a knowledge superpower unless its research base is vastly improved. As Congress leader Shashi Tharoor recently pointed out, India’s investment in research and innovation has declined from 0.84 per cent of GDP in 2008 to 0.60 per cent in 2018. At 15 researchers per one lakh population, India is way behind China’s 111.

The NEP does offer due importance to research, but a culture that fosters creativity right from the school level is not easy and will take time. Most importantly, history has shown us that research and innovation thrive only when the society is open and liberal. Ensuring such an environment is entirely in the government’s hands.

Published on August 13, 2020

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