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August 25, 2020

Development Strategy|Governance & Politics|Social Justice

Education for the Future

By Nitin Desai






We need to liberate education from political control and give institutions the autonomy needed to innovate for the future


About a month ago the Government approved the New Education Policy (NEP). Universal quality education is most important  for the future of India.  Its basis for economic prosperity is widely recognised, particularly now as we move towards a knowledge economy. But the social role of education is much more than that of producing high productivity workers. One must therefore welcome the NEP statement that “The purpose of the education system is to develop good human beings capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy, courage and resilience, scientific temper and creative imagination, with sound ethical moorings and values.”


Whether the changes proposed in the NEP will help to achieve this laudable purpose depends on whether they tackle the widely recognised deficiencies in the present system of school and higher education which in summary terms are:

  • Poor outcomes in terms of education attainment,
  • Excessive political control in the management of educational institutions,
  • Inadequate public spending on education.


The most important change the NEP proposes is a move from the 10+2 school system to a 5-3-3-4 system by incorporating three years of pre-primary education into the schooling plan.


The first five years  of flexible, multilevel, play/activity-based learning  will accord “the highest priority to achieving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy by all students by Grade 3”.  The key to this lies in the ambitious goal of providing pre-primary schooling for all children. The NEP seems to be counting on converting Anganwadis, to which poor families have access, into pre-primary schools by providing them with “high-quality infrastructure, play equipment, and well-trained Anganwadi workers/teachers.” However, upgrading 13.8 lakh  Anganwadi centres and training the 24 lakh workers and helpers to become kindergarten teachers is going to be a formidable challenge.


The description of the subsequent stages is more or less what it has always been except for a strong emphasis on introducing vocational education in all schools when students are in grade 6-8. Thus, the NEP promises that “Every student will take a fun course, during Grades 6-8, that gives a survey and hands-on experience of a sampling of important vocational crafts, such as carpentry, electric work, metal work, gardening, pottery making, etc.“


There are other proposals for quality improvement the most important of which is the proposal to improve teacher training by shifting it away from standalone training  colleges, which are mediocre and often corrupt, to universities. The most controversial proposal is that “the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language.” The Supreme Court has ruled that parents have the right to choose the medium of instruction irrespective of the mother tongue of the child.  A recent estimate suggests that the proportion of children studying in English almost doubled from 12% to 23% between 2007-08 and 2017-18.[1]


The promise of autonomy for school education seems less than credible.  Most schools are controlled by the Central and State Governments directly and recruitment, postings and  transfers of teachers are a matter of political patronage. The principal in nominal charge of the school has little authority over teachers and enforcing any sort of discipline or performance standards is very difficult.


There is a window of opportunity in the NEP proposal to set up school complexes, which is partly a response to the spread of schools with few students and only one or two teachers.  This complex would connect schools over a compact geographical area and be governed by a committee of parents, teachers and other stake holders. This could be the beginning of a drive to reduce political interference in school management. But will our political class agree to do this?


The NEP proposals for higher education seem to be aimed at containing the proliferation of private universities that offer a limited range of courses in subjects with attractive job prospects. The aim of the NEP is to create “large, multidisciplinary universities and colleges” and improve the link with research by establishing “a National Research Foundation... to actively seed research in universities and colleges”. There are some references to greater independence for higher education institutions with what the NEP calls “light but tight” regulation by one umbrella Higher Education Commission of India. But the NEP has nothing credible about how quality improvement can be secured, particularly in existing universities lumbered with poor quality staff and intense politicisation.


On the matter of public expenditure on education the NEP reports two numbers- that it amounts to 4.43% of GDP and 10% of total public expenditure.(Para 26.1 of the NEP).Both numbers cannot be right as total public expenditure is only around 26-27% of GDP. But besides this confusion about the numbers, the NEP does not present any proposal for achieving the long-standing goal of public expenditure on education getting to 6% of GDP. In fact, with the drive to prioritise expenditure on defence and internal security and the political pressures to expand direct benefit anti-poverty programmes, public expenditure on education will continue to fall short of the 6% target.


How much of a constraint will this be? The percentage of population falling in the school and college going age-brackets is coming down and is expected to decline from 39% in 2011 to about 30% in 2031. The major financial challenge will be the required infrastructure for 73 million kids  who have to be provided with  pre-primary education and the 25 million additional university goers when the proportion of the relevant age-group going in for higher education doubles to 50%.


There are elements in the NEP like the universalisation of kindergarten enrolment, the emphasis on vocational education and the shifting of  teacher training to universities that are good for our future. But, how do we get from here to there, given the rather poor state of school and higher education now and the large inherited stock of poorly qualified teachers?


The biggest gap is the absence of any proposal for the liberation of education from political control. Nor is the talk of autonomy and flexibility sufficiently credible. The NEP misses out on the reforms which are  essential for nurturing our democracy and benefiting from India's diversity and to provide the innovative educational system we need for our future.



[1] India's Search for Link Language and Progress towards Bilingualism, Leena Bhattacharya, S Chandrasekhar, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, April 2020

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