Is the NEP 2020 really transformative?

Is the NEP 2020 really transformative?

By Samhit Reddy

The National Education Policy 2020 introduces a slew of reforms and also seems to appreciate the importance of education for social and economic development. Unfortunately, it fails to adequately investigate the causes of the miserable state of education in our country and thus to provide feasible solutions. For the sake of clarity, I define education as a preparatory mechanism to create responsibly autonomous citizens. Various social institutions such as work, education and marriage, which are critical for the stability and well-being of a nation have undergone profound changes since independence and continue to do so at a staggering pace, and no individual could be considered to be educated if she lacks the ability to understand and react appropriately to these changes as they happen.

Most shockingly, the NEP lacks even a cursory discussion of why the state has failed so far in its attempts at education and goes on to provide an incoherent compilation of solutions without even a passing reference to the problematic nature of the proposed instrument (i.e. state institutions) in delivering the prescribed solutions. The fundamental problems ailing the Indian education sector arise mostly from the logical inability of the state to perform this arrogated role as educator rather than being merely a problem of outdated curricula or substandard training. Suitable manpower is lacking, and no amount of funding or state backed directives are likely to solve these systemic problems, other than to create newer rent-seeking mechanisms for vested interests.

Two questions that might help guide policymakers are these: what are we training these people for and who are the potential players best situated to provide this training? Given the rapid pace of change in the nature of employment and the knowledge constraints that face any central planner, only an omniscient being could forecast the wildly varying training requirements at the state level. Putting kids through years of mind-numbing training that was designed to supply automatons for industry, operates against the requirements of a radically different world that the pupils are likely to graduate into. It is also important to note that there is no reason why students must go through 15 or 16 years of institutionalised incarceration to acquire the basic tools that they need to function in a society. There needs to be extensive research on the matter to ensure that schools are more than mere day-care centres for children whose parents are at work, and/or job-providing mechanisms to satiate vested political interests. Superfluous declarations on the glory of ancient India notwithstanding, blind duplication of western frameworks ignores the peerless diversity of India and the specific needs of the Indian society and economy.

The increasing role of social media platforms in shaping popular opinion and the proliferation of fake news are inimical to the functioning of our democracy where vested interests in collaboration with corporations could steer political and cultural outcomes while also feigning adherence to democratic principles. This development makes education all the more important and resolutely brings the onus on the individual to be able to tell the difference between the fake and the real, not to mention the fact that effective regulatory mechanisms may be years if not decades away.

Therefore, education must aim to inform the students on the radically dynamic nature of the world they live in, the increasing importance of their own responsibility for their lives, and the diminishing ability of the State to perform its ill-advised paternal role. Without such instruction, it is futile to hope that the graduates will become autonomous citizens who will contribute productively to the economy or society. Continued adherence to the failed notion of state-led education not only squanders the extremely scarce resources of a poor country such as ours but also misleads the public into forming unrealistic and counterproductive expectations from the State.

Our problem is not merely that of absentee teachers or corrupt leadership or lack of funding but a lack of skin-in-the-game of these actors who react to perverse incentives that have been institutionalised over the past 70 years. The apparatus of the state is most suited to provide security and is slow-moving by design in other matters, so no amount of change in leadership or institutional structures can create a modern system of education that is adequately responsive to the changing needs of our economy and society. Once recruited into the government, the employees form unions that constantly lobby to keep their jobs irrespective of the requirements of their respective departments.

In this background, the state needs to thoroughly reflect on its relative strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis the private sector and guide policy only to the extent possible rather than arrogate to itself the impossible task of creating an overarching system of education that continues to rely on government institutions; welcoming problematic foreign universities that are already unaffordable options to most people in their home countries will only complicate the problem. Instead, what is required is the empowering of citizens even in the remotest part of the nation, to whom high quality educational-content (liberal and vocational) can be delivered by limiting the number of human teachers/administrators required to accomplish this task; a substantial reduction in the number of state employees and institutions in the sector is important to prevent them from becoming life-long parasites on state resources.

The signalling value of Indian education is already deeply suspect and any policy prescription must take this troubling development into account: awarding more certificates/degrees that mean nothing, for jobs that don’t exist, is a wasteful use of limited resources. The very assumption that the state could create a large enough pool of competent teachers who could deliver the promises of the NEP, betrays an arrogant complacency on the part of the political leadership (no matter how well-intentioned) that refuses to learn from over 70 years of failed attempts at state-led education. While slogans may increase short-term political capital and provide some respite from hopelessness to the ignorant masses, they will neither prepare them for the jobless future that likely awaits them nor empower them to face the unprecedented uncertainty that is sure to hit them in the future.

By failing to account for the current state of the world and making delusional assumptions about reforms that were likely suitable for the 1980s, we are only spreading false hope that India will be a knowledge-powerhouse by the 2040s. The goal of having multidisciplinary universities by 2040 that mirror US institutions of the 20th century exposes the extreme lack of creativity and a continued slavish adherence to western intellectual hegemony of our policymakers. Without a radical rethinking of our miserably flawed approach towards education, we are risking social unrest on a scale that could devastate both our state and society: the demographic dividend will turn into a demographic nightmare. No army will be able to protect us from the 100s of millions of citizens who will inevitably become disillusioned by the inability of the state to provide jobs. So, it is time that we stopped promising the moon to the impoverished masses and started instilling some realism into our policy-making that would serve the public rather than the political and administrative cronies.

Samhit Reddy is a student of the 9th cohort of Takshashila’s GCPP (defence & foreign affairs) programme.

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.