The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is historic, addressing the entire canvas of education in India. It gives promise of a more humanistic vision of education, addresses the historically neglected stage of early childhood education, emphasises supporting education in the mother tongue, brings the policy closer to human rights standards concerning the education of children with disabilities and seeks to address some of the long-pending issues related to the career path for teachers.
A half-decade process of consultation and refinement means that it includes many positive provisions that can go a long way towards strengthening India’s education system. The policy, unfortunately, fails to address the deep inequalities in the education system.
Unequal Education Translates to Unequal Chances
While there is a section on equity in education, no tangible strategies appear to have been suggested to address structural issues preventing India’s young citizens from receiving an equal chance to receive the same high standard of education irrespective of their class, caste, creed or geographic location.
Unequal education provisions translate into unequal chances in life that create an unequal India. While steps are being taken, the vision of non-discriminatory, equal education for everyone in line with India’s human rights obligations is missing.
In some matters, the policy might make things worse. The policy’s emphasis on vocational, non-formal, and distance education brings with it the risk of premature streaming of children from marginalised communities and poor families into lower quality of education while keeping the path to tertiary education – and therefore higher-paying jobs – open for those who are relatively better off financially.
Globally, a major challenge with the adoption of vocational education is the unequal value academic and vocational degrees have. It is unclear how this class-based distinction would be overcome through interventions that are only anchored in the school system.
Interventions in the job market and the hearts and minds of people are necessary to change these perceptions – and no real actions in this respect are visible.
Another risk is that vocational education in India currently tends to reinforce gender and caste-based stereotypes. It is not clear how this would become. Indeed, the idea of introducing vocational internships for children under 14 comes close to promoting child labour, despite the stated policy intent of preventing dropout. Finally, one does not sense a commitment to ensuring 21st century infrastructure for imparting 21st-century skills being created in India’s rural schools.
The document is particularly disappointing in its approach to the education of tribal students.
The emphasis on mother tongue education and recognition of dying tribal language in the policy does not translate into any concrete steps to ensure tribal multi-lingual education.
The proposition of opening NCC wings under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence in schools in tribal-dominated areas risks violating the idea of schools as zones of peace in the context of schools in and near the red corridor. It is not clear whether the proposition of introducing early childhood in largely residential ashramshalas is either feasible or desirable.
Children are just too young to be separated from their families. The stated intention to rely on civil society for the education of migrant students is difficult to explain. India’s tribal learners deserve a more holistic strategy for their education.
What Does NEP Mean By ‘Philanthropic Private Participation’?
There is a subtle, but visible, move away from a clear commitment of state responsibility to the public provision to reliance on competition as a model for improving schools.
One of the core principles of the policy is to promote philanthropic private participation in education. It appears to lower the bar in terms of quality of schools to facilitate the opening of new “philanthropic” private schools, “alternative models of education” and “public philanthropic partnerships” in running schools. In doing so, it risks moving away from a universal rights-based norm of quality and the principal role of the state to ensure delivery by bringing in a range of actors.
Notably, the term “philanthropic” is nowhere defined. The education sector has always been defined as being not-for-profit in India with most private schools registered as trusts.
Accordingly, all private schools could be defined as being philanthropic and this amounts to encouraging privatisation of education.
The proposal of protecting parents from arbitrary increases in tuition fees and ensuring safety is welcome, but much more needs to be done to ensure overall compliance of non-state schools and private actors with their human rights obligations.
This includes addressing the proven track record of private schools in excluding children with disabilities, screening students, siphoning off profits and bypassing existing pro-equity regulations like Article 12-1c of the RTE Act.
While greater transparency in the functioning of private schools as suggested in the policy is welcome, it is not clear whether this would be ensured through only disclosure.
Making information available about each private school, recognised or otherwise, in the public domain on the UDISE database is already mandatory. It is not clear why disclosure on another website and greater deregulation would make them more accountable. India needs stronger enforcement, not deregulation.
Real Test Lies In Implementation Of NEP
India has had education policies that were not implemented before. The NEP’s test would be the extent to which it would be implemented.
This is predicated on the availability of adequate funding. The NEP’s commitment to spend 6 percent of the GDP on education was first made by the Kothari Commission over 50 years ago. India is yet to come close to meeting this commitment made before most of its citizens were born.
The policy is silent on how the additional funds would be leveraged this time around and without a financing roadmap, this risks becoming just another good intention on the part of the Indian State.
The policy’s implementation would also be dependent on the political will for its implementation and the government’s capacity to enter into social dialogue with the state administrations, teachers and their associations, parents, and civil society. To be successful, the policy needs to win the hearts and minds of India’s administrators, teachers, students, parents and communities at large who would then support through the process of its implementation.
The text needs to be read, debated (in parliament and otherwise) and owned by the administration.
This is particularly critical given that the policy proposes the creation of a host of newly created layers of (potentially understaffed and under-resourced) government units who would be jostling for space during the early stages of the policy’s rollout. The spilling of functions of the government departments should not result in administrative chaos.
The adoption of the policy by Cabinet is just the first step in a long journey. Only the future will show where it would eventually take us.
(Anjela Taneja leads the work on education, health and inequality at Oxfam India. She is one of the founder members of the RTE Forum, India’s largest education network, and coordinates the Fight Inequality Alliance in India. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)