NEP skirts quality issue in college education

Thomas Sajan / Titto Idicula | Updated on October 02, 2020 Published on October 02, 2020

The National Education Policy does not focus on creating an assessment system that develops analytical and creative skills

Indian colleges are up for a major reform given that revamping the collegiate education is one of the major priorities of the recently approved National Education Policy (NEP). The new policy says the undergraduate degrees will be of 3-4 years of duration with multiple exit options; and the four-year programmes offer ‘a degree with research’ if the student completes a stipulated research project. The policy envisions the gradual phasing out of ‘affiliated colleges’ through a system of graded autonomy.

The Modi government’s educational reforms, inspired heavily by the contemporary Western models, are expected to be a game-changer for the Indian colleges. Are the proposals a sign for ‘the great things to come’, or just a frivolous macro-level change?

Transforming Indian colleges

Quality learning takes place when students and teachers spend a considerable amount of time as co-learners, setting aside their traditional roles. The college systems in Europe and North America, as models worth emulating, are effective as a result of the incorporation of academic practices such as analytical learning, the proximity between students and teachers, and research-based instructional strategies. Examinations rarely involve memory-testing, but are instead used as a tool to measure independent thinking skills.

The colleges in India severely lack a quality learning and research environment, except for select “elite colleges”. Even after periodic syllabus revisions, the college classrooms have ended up in the same trap — students find themselves relying on low-quality guidebooks, and teachers, often at the expense of deskilling themselves, are forced to deliver exam-oriented lectures. The real tragedy is that it happens in spite of a talented pool of young PhD holders and research scholars working as faculty members in many colleges.

As Rakesh. R, an alumnus of the University of Hyderabad who joined the collegiate service in 2012, puts it, usually, young and vibrant academicians, many of whom have strong research credentials, are soon disheartened by a system that leaves no scope for any creative intervention. Their scholarly perspectives are often blunted by years of ‘academic rituals’ like exam-oriented teaching, outdated grading practices, and the mounting administrative work.

Traditional examination formats remain largely intact, and memory-testing through a whole bunch of short descriptive answers continues to underpin the evaluation system in India. During examinations, a typical undergraduate student has to answer around 25 questions in three hours.

A drastic change must take place in the examination pattern. The number of questions must be reduced and replaced by fewer but creative questions testing a student’s analytical ability along with subject knowledge.

The students should be given a chance to think independently and arrive at logical conclusions based on the facts they have learned. The NEP proposals have in it very little to address such academic concerns.

Using mother tongue

The NEP’s proposal to use mother tongue/local language as a medium of instruction should, however, be lauded as a welcome step forward, provided it is accompanied by grassroots-level initiatives to promote academic writing in Indian languages. The development of an academic vernacular language discourse is a way to maintain scholastic rigour while ensuring social inclusion.

Some field-level experience of one of the authors at a pioneering community college initiative jointly instituted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Kerala’s poverty eradication mission ‘Kudumbashree’ has also contributed to this understanding. The enrolled students in the post-graduate diploma programme were mostly middle-aged women resuming studies after up to two decades, and often hailing from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. They had extreme difficulties in picking up academic English. The course materials were translated into Malayalam and the students were trained to write dissertations about familiar contexts in their mother tongue.

The results were great. The majority of the students produced good empirical studies and three books were published out of their dissertations by the State Institute of Languages.

Small steps do

The NEP 2020 neither addresses the fundamental issues involved in the learning process of students, nor provides a nurturing environment for teachers to pursue their research endeavours. Building an ample research infrastructure may not be an immediately attainable goal for many Indian colleges, but introducing research-oriented teaching and ensuring a modern examination system are feasible goals. The Centre should keep in mind that embracing Western models without imbibing their essence would not help in raising academic standards.

Rather than implementing big-bang reforms, it would be better for India’s college system to introduce small steps and correct its foundational issues.

Sajan is a social anthropologist trained in Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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Published on October 02, 2020
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