The fundamental problems with the Indian education system are well-known.
These include inadequate public funding, excessive reliance on high-cost exclusive private schooling that leads to segregation of students on socio-economic status, poor quality learning in schools and significant presence of teachers with no job and social security in schools and higher education institutions.
How well does the new National Education Policy of India 2020 (NEP 2020), unveiled on July 29, 2020, address these problems? Is there a roadmap or strategic insight for transformative changes it promises? Do the political realities on the ground match with or inspire confidence in the lofty ideals that it showcases?
Here is a reality check.
NEP 2020: Repeats 1968 promise of raising public funding
The first National Policy on Education (NPE) of 1968 had made a promise: "The reconstruction of education on the lies indicated above will need additional outlay. The aim should be gradually to increase the investment in education so as to reach a level of expenditure of 6 per cent of the national income as early as possible."
The target of achieving 6% of the GDP (national income) in education expenditure was then reiterated and reaffirmed in the subsequent policy statement of 1986 and its amended version in 1992. Fifty-two years down the line, the NEP 2020 repeats it: "The Centre and states will work together to increase the public investment in education sector to reach 6% of GDP at the earliest."
Moreover, the ruling BJP's 2014 election manifesto had also promised the same: "Education: Public spending on education (to be) raised to 6% of GDP." But in six years since then, the average public spending (centre plus states) is less than half (2.9%) of it - substantially less than the peak of 4.28% achieved in 1999-2000.
Why should the promise of NEP 2020 inspire confidence?
The incumbent Delhi government, on the other hand, has demonstrated that all it takes is political will to fulfil such promises.
A 2019 RBI report, State Finances: A Study of Budgets" shows the Delhi government's expenditure on education increased dramatically to over 20% of its budget outlay since FY15, rising to 25.3% in FY20 (BE) in the year the average spending by states and union territories was 14.8%. The only other state that stood up in the table was Assam, with a history of spending over 20% since FY03.
The real reason for not spending more on education (and health) is the structural adjustment programme (SAP) that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed on India for bailing it out of the forex crisis in 1990s, which led to the 1991 liberalisation push. Public sector and fiscal spending on education were discouraged and private sector became the vehicle of socio-economic progress.
Economist P Geetha Rani of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), renamed NIEPA in 2017, wrote in her 2008 paper, "Economic reforms and Privatisation of Education in India", that post-1991 phase was marked by fiscal squeezing, particularly for higher education; the number of government-added private schools in secondary education declined and private unaided schools started growing rapidly.
This trend to promote private education reached a new high in 2018. A non-existent private university, Jio University, was certified as "Institution of Eminence" by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), along with five existing and well performing ones like the IIS (Bangalore), IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, BITS-Pilani and Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Claims of many other top grade Indian institutions like the other IITs and universities, were rejected.
NEP 2020: Doesn't recognise or address segregation of students
Poor public spending on education means government schools and colleges have poor infrastructure (building, library, labs), large vacancies for teachers and a high presence of low-paid, non-regular ad hoc teachers with no job or social security.
For example, 43% of Delhi University teachers are ad hoc ones with a 4-month contract, which is renewed after a day's break to establish discontinuity in service and they have been teaching for 10, 15 and even 20 years.
The government schools are filled with "shiksha mitra", "nijyojit shikshak", para-teachers and guest teachers - all of them ad hoc and lowly paid - particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. Many of them are untrained and under-qualified. They all are given "honorarium" instead of salary.
Poor public spending also means a high level of segregation of students: those from poor socio-economic background end up in government schools with low infrastructure and low-paid teachers, while those from better socio-economic background attend high-cost, exclusive private schools.
How will the NEP 2020 bring "full equity and inclusion" it promises?
It does not even recognise this problem. The proclamation of "full equity and inclusion" is made in vacuum. Nor does it spell out how it will ensure that. Segregation of students has never really been acknowledged or treated as a problem by successive governments ever since the 1991 liberalisation.
In contrast, the OECD has been constantly red-flagging this problem in developed economies (high and medium income countries that participate in its education quality test PISA) to bring equity and coherence in schooling and end segregation, recognising that all children, irrespective of their socio-economic background, can achieve high levels of excellence and must be provided a level playing field.
NEP 2020: It would bring in more untrained, low-paid teachers
The promise of higher public spending is as illusory as the promise of "providing regular trained teachers at every stage" the NEP 2020 makes. The untrained, lowly paid ad hoc teachers spread all over India precisely because of the central government's programme Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) during 2000-01. (For more read, "Rebooting Economy XIX: How India relies on low-paid ad hoc teachers for schooling children ")
Not a word is said about them, nor is there any mention of regularising or paying these ad hoc teachers better.
The NEP 2020 would end up worsening the quality of education and widen the gap between the socio-economic backward and forward people.
That is because it wants children up to Class III (from 3 to 8 years) to be taught at the Anganwadi centres (AWCs), with the promise of integrating them into regular schools on some future date.
Now AWCs are pre-primary schools (up to age 5) and Anganwadi workers (AWWs) there teach mostly poor children and ensure they get cooked mid-day meals. They are officially called "honorary workers", and paid "honorarium" ranging from Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,500 per month at main centres and Rs 2,250 to Rs 3,500 at mini centres by the central government - after the last revision notified in November 2019.
The states/union territories add their bit to take their honorarium. Those which add Rs 5,000 or more are: Haryana, Delhi, Goa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. That takes the total to about Rs 10,000 per month.
Last counted, India had 14 lakh "sanctioned" AWCs by August 2018, with one ad hoc pre-school teacher each, taking the total number of these teachers to 14 lakh (ignoring vacancies). They are untrained and under-qualified too.
Thus, until 14 lakh AWCs are integrated with regular schools, which may take several decades, the NEP 2020 will actually add to the number of untrained, low-paid ad hoc teachers in Indian schools.
Officially, India already has (by 2018), 11.4 lakh such ad hoc low-paid school teachers (12.8% of total), according to the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) data. That number will now go up to 25.4 lakh (28.5%).
Will NEP 2020 end commercialisation of education?
The NEP 2020 does recognise "commercialisation" of education and promises to end it but only in higher education, not in school education, as if that is none of its concern.
How will it do that?
The document claims by "transparent public disclosure of all financial matters with recourse to grievance-handling mechanisms to the general public".
Coming as it does from a political establishment not exactly famous for transparency or accountability in its functioning over the past six years, this promise sounds unreal.
There are sound reasons to be sceptical because of (i) systematic undermining of the Right to Information Act of 2005 (RTE), routinely denying information and keeping posts of information commissioners vacant (ii) enforcing opaque "Electoral Bond" for political funding from anonymous corporate entities (iii) hosting opaque PMCares Fund that rejects RTI queries about its financial dealings even when the Ministry of Corporate Affairs declared, on May 28, 2020, that it was set up by the government and to which all the PSUs are generously donating and for which the UGC wrote to all central universities in a letter, again, dated March 28, 2020.
Here is more.
Taking strong exception to the workings of private schools in Delhi after the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) found 25 elite private schools in Delhi charging high fees but paying low salaries to teachers, diverting funds and misrepresenting financial statements, the Delhi High Court had asked for regulatory oversight. There is no sign of it until now.
The NEP 2020 does not even talk about commercialisation of school education.
And who will ensure "transparent public disclosure" by private institutions in higher education? The NEP is silent.
Mismatch between ground realities and lofty claims
A new problem has emerged in recent years, particularly in higher education.
There have been a series of systemic, selective and relentless attacks on some of the very best universities in India - JNU, DU, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University - purely for political reasons.
The police entered some of the premises illegally, lobbed "stun grenades", lathi-charged students inside a library, chanted chilling slogans with communal overtones, let anti-social elements enter the campus and beat up students and teachers for hours before being escorted out as India watched videos play out on social media that fateful night helplessly.
No enquiry, no arrests and no action have been taken against those police personnel or those anti-social elements.
On the contrary, dissenting students and individuals have been routinely denounced as "tukde tukde gang", "anti-nationals", "urban naxals", "habitual dissenters" and asked to "go to Pakistan" by many holding high constitutional offices. Several dissenting voices have been jailed, charged with sedition, booked for the Delhi riots or intimidated by police.
For the NEP 2020 then to promise to teach students "constitutional values" (repeated several times in the document) or more specifically about "a democratic, just, socially-conscious, cultured, and humane nation upholding liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice for all", provide "value-based education", foster pluralism, ensure "full equity and inclusion" or "create an effective learning environment" sounds very surreal.
On August 20, 2020 the Attorney General (AG) of India, KK Venugopal, stood up before a three-member Supreme Court bench and said: "I have before me a list of five judges of the Supreme Court who said democracy has failed. I have a list of nine judges who said there is corruption in higher judiciary. Of this, two made statements while in court and seven immediately after they retired. I myself gave a speech..."
He said this while defending advocate Prashant Bhushan in a suo motu contempt of court case in which a three-member bench had already held him guilty and sentencing was to be decided.
What the AG's statement sought to impress is that the constitutionally-mandated democratic order has not been upheld or honoured both outside and inside the apex court.
The Supreme Court is an intrinsic part of India's constitutionally-mandated democratic order and comes to play as the final arbitrator when constitutionality of action/s of political establishments is questioned. The primary responsibility of maintaining constitutionally-mandated democratic order, however, rests with the political establishment, the very one which is seeking to teach students the constitutional values, democratic niceties and inculcate a sense of justice through the NEP 2020 framework.
Preaching without practising does not work, does it?
Is NEP 2020 serious about "scientific advancement"?
A disturbing part of the NEP 2020 is its attempt to promote AYUSH - Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy.
The relevant paragraph needs to be reproduced.
It says: "Healthcare education needs to be re-envisioned so that the duration, structure, and design of the educational programmes need to match the role requirements that graduates will play...Given that people exercise pluralistic choices in healthcare, our healthcare education system must be integrative meaning thereby that all students of allopathic medical education must have a basic understanding of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH), and vice versa."
Has AYUSH medicines been of any use in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic or any other health threat in India? Are people going for AYUSH cure after being infected with the virus?
Ministers and high-profile individuals like Amitabh Bachchan, who ceaselessly promoted AYUSH medication or "Bhabhiji Papad" as a cure for COVID-19 in public, rushed to allopathic treatment the moment they got infected, demonstrating how much faith they have in AYUSH or inanities they proudly promote nevertheless.
The government faced strong opposition for persistently promoting AYUSH cures after the pandemic broke out. (For more read, "Coronavirus Lockdown VII: What India can learn from COVID-19 hit nations ")
A few years ago, it tried to introduce a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners to let them practice and prescribe allopathic medicines. That led to a huge uproar from the medical fraternity and a Parliamentary Standing Committee that examined it, following which it was abandoned.
Now the government is back at it. Why should practitioners of modern medicine study scientifically untested and unproven AYUSH medications? Why should AYUSH practitioners be allowed to practice or prescribe allopathic medicine without regular education and training? And why would AYUSH practitioners prescribe allopathic medicines if they are so sure about what they do?
Dr RV Asokan, secretary-general of the Indian Medical Association, India's largest body of medical practitioners (allopathic), puts bluntly about this paragraph in the NEP 2020: "It amounts to legalising quackery."
It certainly does not sit well with the NEP 2020 promise of promoting "scientific advancement" in any case.
And then, the NEP 2020 also contains a "fundamental principle" to guide the entire education system which sounds tantalisingly dandy: "light but tight' regulatory framework".