Education reforms need of the hour, but consensus must for its success

The New Education Policy unveiled by Modi 2.0 is a policy initiative whose time has long gone. But as they say, better late than never – after three decades of carrying on with an education system that has been unable to keep pace with the requirements of life outside the academic environs, in whatever occupation one chose to or accidentally landed in.
But one may argue that it was the same old system that threw up intelligent intellect and leadership material that many large corporations in the world are having people of Indian origin at the top or very near the top. Those are exceptions to the rule, those who rose despite the system. It is a pity that none of the thousands of colleges in the country and hundreds of universities rank prominently high in the world.
Yes, the education system the country has followed, in its multitude of versions across the country in different states, has been straining to serve the purpose and is crying out desperately for an overhaul.
It is in this context that Modi 2.0 came up with the New Education Policy, but in a seemingly unilateral manner leaving the decision to the criticism that the states, which are also important stakeholders, were totally ignored in the whole process. For, education reforms can be effectively carried out only with the help of the states so there needs to be a consensus over the policy.
This is the first challenge the policy must overcome if it wants to transform the system to meet the specific needs of the new India that aspires to become a global superpower.
As one examines the policy for its practical relevance to the youth and enables the huge armies of educated youngsters coming out of varsities are employable. It is after 1986 that a comprehensive overhaul of the education policy has been undertaken by any government, save for the odd tinkering done in the early 90s.
There is a crying need for a thorough overhaul – if we see the sorry state of primary education and the failure of higher education to help fulfil the aspirations of the masses as also prepare the students for a life after varsity by equipping them with the necessary skill sets.
When viewed from this perspective the NEP seems to stem the rot – and attempts to end rote learning, improve analytical and mathematical skills of all, a four year degree system to strengthen the overall personality and arm the students with all the skills to excel in the world outside, whatever be their chosen walk of life (this was tried out in Delhi university and scrapped in 2014).
Also laudable is the idea to give flexibility of choosing disciplines at the graduation level as opposed to the present system of segregating the sciences from the arts and commerce and vice versa.
Then, there is the suggestion to allow foreign universities from setting campuses in India.
Now this could be music to the ears of those who can afford, earn, and flaunt a foreign degree, but this could essentially make the higher education sector ruthlessly commercialised.
Of course, the NEP does propose a Higher Education Commission of India, to oversee the education across the country, to deal with this issue as well.
But the very idea of a single national entity to monitor and supervise higher education in India is bound to be resented by state governments, which may be dominated by private and vested interests in the education sector. It must be remembered that education is in the concurrent list, wherein the states and central government both have responsibility and power to deal with the issue.
Hiking the government spend on education to 6 percent of the GDP is a welcome decision, even though higher allocations would only give a further fillip to the education sector.
But when framing a nation-wide policy on a subject that is under concurrent list, there are bound to be differing interest groups, different perspectives and differing needs that may vary from region to region, state to state.
Which is why, the well-intentioned policy overhaul is also riddled with controversial suggestions – especially when it touches the language issue, always a raw nerve when it comes to the non-Hindi speaking areas that view any move from the BJP led NDA government with suspicion. The NEP’s suggestion of mother tongue as medium of instruction till class V is one such issue that is already being viewed with apprehensions, notwithstanding the strong clarifications to the contrary. Besides, this mother tongue or regional language medium of instruction would place students from these schools at a disadvantage vis-à-vis students coming from expensive English medium schools.
In India, English has become an aspirational language and is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a language that is associated with success – whether in getting a job or going abroad or moving up in life in general.
So now the poor, whose only chance of learning English is in school from childhood, will have to work hard to attain the same fluency from Class VI onwards. So, the system will deprive the poor of equal opportunity at this stage itself.
Adding to this is the fear of Hindi imposition, as it could be promoted and emerge as language that one could opt commonly all over India – feel language activists who see in this a ‘discreet move to impose Hindi’.
RSS and BJP leaders are at pains to dispel this notion, but it refuses to die down.
Other than the language issue, the NEP has sparked off fears that it could spur rapid and rampant privatisation of higher education that could rob the poor chances of acquiring quality education.
Already, the people are burdened with high school fees in institutions that have made education an out and out business proposition. Even in states where regulations are in place, the government is unable to reign in the private educational institutions from fleecing the parents, even during the ongoing pandemic.
The NEP, if it can tackle this issue, would be doing the parents, the most important of stakeholders in the education sector, a massive favour.
Framing a policy is one thing, but its effective implementation is the key. It remains to be seen as to how the government can get the states on board with the policy framework, especially in areas where they feel that their rights are trampled upon.
New Education Policy snapshot:
·  Ensuring universal access to school education at all levels- pre school to secondary.
·  Early Childhood Care & Education: The 10+2 structure of school curricula is to be replaced by a 5+3+3+4 curricular structure corresponding to ages 3-8, 8-11, 11-14, and 14-18 years respectively.
· A National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy will be set up by the education ministry.
·  The school curricula and pedagogy will aim for holistic development of learners by equipping them with the key 21st century skills.
· Vocational education will start in schools from the 6th grade, including internships.
· Mother tongue/local language/regional language as the medium of instruction at least till Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond. Sanskrit to be offered. No language to be imposed on any student.
· 3.5 crore new seats will be added to higher education institutions.
· Introducing broad-based, multi-disciplinary, holistic undergraduate education with flexible curricula, creative combinations of subjects, integration of vocational education and multiple entry and exit points with appropriate certification.
· Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will be set up as a single overarching umbrella body the for entire higher education, excluding medical and legal education.
· All professional education will be an integral part of the higher education system. Stand-alone technical universities, health science universities, legal and agricultural universities etc will aim to become multi-disciplinary institutions.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes in the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] ; Twitter @kvlakshman