Can the National Education Policy 2020 change India’s educational landscape?

Y Udaya Chandar

The previous National Education Policy was framed in 1986 and modified in 1992. In the three decades since then, significant changes have taken place in our country and elsewhere. The education sector had to adapt to suit the 21st century, and a new education policy was necessary. The current government initiated the process of formulating the policy through consultation for an inclusive, participatory and holistic approach. A Committee for drawing up the draft National Education Policy was instituted with Dr. K Kasturirangan (former chairman, ISRO) as the chairman. The Committee submitted a draft of 484 pages to the Ministry of Education in May 2019. The Draft National Education Policy 2019 (DNEP 2019) was uploaded on the MoE website and also on MyGov Innovate portal to elicit the views/suggestions/comments of all stakeholders, including the common man. Several meetings were held at various levels to finalize the draft. A meeting on Draft NEP 2019 of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education was conducted on 07.11.2019. Strangely, there was no debate in the parliament on this draft. The new National Education Policy 2020 was launched formally in 2021. The final NEP 2020 has 63 pages.

Education in India is a state-run system; it falls under the government’s domain at three levels: federal, state, and local. Up until 1976, education policies and implementation were determined by each state separately. The 42nd amendment to the constitution in 1976 made education a ‘concurrent subject.’ From this point on, the central and state governments shared formal responsibility for funding and administration.

In the 2011 census, about 73% of the population was literate– 81% men and 65% women. The National Statistical Commission surveyed literacy to be 77.7% in 2017-18–84.7% men and 70.3% women. In 1981 the figures were 41%, 53% and 29% respectively. In 1951, they were 18%, 27% and 9%. As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012, 96.5% of all rural children in the age group 6 to 14 were enrolled in school.

While quantitatively, India is inching closer to universal education, the quality of its education has been questioned, particularly in government-run schools. While more than 95 % children attend primary school, just 40 % Indian adolescents go to secondary school (Grades 9-12). In January 2019, India had over 900 universities and 40,000 colleges. 

It seems as if the Indian education system is galloping quantitatively. But for all practical purposes, it is dead and lifeless.         

Industry leaders, especially from IT, have often said that only 5% of the country’s engineering graduates are fit for employment and only 7% of the MBA graduates. If we must describe higher education in present-day India, one sentence is sufficient: ‘It is in shambles.’

The Indian education system is stuck in a peculiar situation. Students want certificates and jobs without studying or learning. Teachers want salary, increments and promotion without teaching. Many do not even know the subject they teach. The IT stream is slightly better as the students are interested in learning as most of them want to migrate to the US after their degree.

According to NEP 2020, there are 1,08,017 schools with only one teacher in this country. There will be a similar number of one-room schools. Instead of suggesting solutions for such gigantic problems, NEP 2020 indulges in day-dreaming, “We will have the highest quality teachers, ” “We will create excellent infrastructure for the schools conducive to good learning,” “We will provide nutritious breakfast and mid-day meal to the pupils,” and so on. For the most part, the NEP document is unrealistic.

In addition to the 40 CSIR laboratories and a few premier research institutions, like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru; TIFR, Mumbai, 16 IITs and 5 Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), there are more than 900 universities in India. The number of Higher Education Institutes (HEI) is increasing each day, mainly because of political pressure. There are not enough suitable candidates in the country to fill the faculty positions in these institutes. Thus, they remain highly sub-standard and the students who pass out from them remain worthless.

The most horrifying fact is that our nation, home to more than 1.3 billion people, has had no Nobel laureate in science since CV Raman was honored in 1930. Three other Indian-born scientists have won  the Nobel – biochemist Har Gobind Khorana (in 1968), astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (in 1983), and molecular biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (in 2009) – but all of them were honoured for work done entirely outside India. 

India’s spending rates on education are low and insufficient, and private firms do as poorly as the government. In terms of corporate expenditures on research and development, India is ranked 43, compared to China’s 13. Currently, science research in India is full of red tape and corruption.

An overemphasis on academic qualifications by the University Grants Commission (UGC) has resulted in a number of university teachers registering for Ph.D. programs, but it is not the passion for research, but the passion for climbing the career ladder that motivates them. As a result, the quality of most Ph.D. research is sub-standard.

Roughly 60 to 70% of India’s population is rural. The foundations of learning are laid here, but today, their educational systems are acutely poor. As a whole, our nation is lagging far behind developed countries. Though some learning centers, such as the IITs and the IIMs, continue to deliver high-quality education, several flaws and gaps mar the system. Standards are falling in these institutions too due to the indiscriminate opening of new IITs and IIMs in response to political pressure.

Many choose to teach only when they cannot secure a highly paid corporate job or a decent government job. As a result, teaching has become a ‘last resort’ career. Further, if one earns a Master’s degree in the humanities, the only venue for him is teaching at the college or high school level. There are no other openings available. The same is true for students who earn an MSc in science. Where does an MSc Biology candidate go? At best, he might seek a junior lecturer’s job at a junior college teaching biology to a disinterested lot. There are very few research jobs in India and certainly not enough to employ all the MScs the universities are churning out.

Students seldom study and apply technology at the primary and secondary levels. Technology-based education is an absolute need for the country. The Industrial Revolution, a prosperous and exciting event that spread throughout Europe and the US in the 18th and 19th centuries, left India behind only because we were poor in the subject of technology. Even today we do not produce anything associated with modern technology that is visible to the average consumer. Instead, we produce items that advanced countries have already used and thrown away. 

Teaching may be noble, but it does not pay! This has led to a dearth of quality teachers. This shortage of qualified, trained and experienced teachers has led to the predictable state of low quality students emerging from new-generation institutions and these students will become tomorrow’s teachers. Teaching requires knowledge, communication skills and patience, and the current crop of teachers lack one or all of these qualities.

Even when a person wants to join the teaching profession, because he/she is passionate about teaching, it is not easy to gain entry. There is a 50% caste-based reservation for all government-employed teachers, including those at the university level. The other 50% positions are, in effect, ‘reserved’ for the relatives of politicians and people in influential positions. It is also possible to buy a teaching position, even if you have no knowledge of the subject or talent for teaching. The truth of the matter is that new teachers often enter the profession through dubious routes. One bad person employed in this work has the potential to produce an untold number of ill-equipped graduates over the course of a career.

People play politics to become Dean, academic counsellor, chairman of a board of studies, member of a management council or be named vice chancellor. The policy makers truly have nothing to do with academics. They devise and implement policies that make the pursuit of academics increasingly a joke.

An engaging submission to the Supreme Court has revealed that a whopping 2,556 current MLAs and MPs from 22 states are accused in criminal cases. It is these lawmakers that formulate how the country has to be educated. 

Many university vice-chancellors are appointed based on caste equations and political connections rather than on academic attainment or administrative capability.

We still have school without classrooms. Science students do not know whether they have laboratories or not. The focus is on promoting students to the next class. People with close contact to local political leaders run most of the private schools in the country, and their aim is not to strengthen the quality of education but to make money.

Copying in the examination hall by the examinees is another menace the system has acquired. Sometimes this is done with the knowledge of the invigilators. Institutes allow ‘mass copying’ to get good results, so that more admissions take place the next year.

Both teachers and students use their institutions as stepping stones to a career in politics. Teachers indulge in ‘office politics’ in the hope of climbing up the organizational ladder. They form groups to pass time and decry the work of other teachers. In some universities, this has reached dangerous proportions. Selfish teachers invite students to join their politics. Students’ political lives also ripen in hostels, where they have nothing much to do. Most Indian political parties have ‘youth wings’ that attract these students.

In many colleges and universities, teachers bunk classes just like their students. They skip classes until December, since the examinations are not until March. The students are also happy with this. In January, the teachers realize that a lot of syllabus remains to be covered, so they rush through. They leave the remaining portion for the students to read and learn on their own. In many institutions, there is barely a system of ‘assignments’ and where it exists, the teachers hardly look into the submitted work.

Many institutions require their students to attend a minimum number of classes per year to sit for their final exams. In reality, this does not happen. Some teachers do not record students’ attendance at all. The students too are happy. A standard provision exists that allows students to submit a ‘medical certificate’ to excuse absences. The students produce these certificates obtained from phony medical practitioners.

Another aspect of our higher education system is the fraud surrounding Ph.D. dissertations. The dissertations are copied time and again. Even the dissertations submitted by Ph.D. scholars lack originality. The clever ‘scholars’ get hold of a dissertation submitted a decade or more ago, copy it, and submit. If the student is on good terms with the ‘guide’, the latter will call a friend to serve as the ‘external examiner’, and the candidate is assured of receiving the doctorate. These professors perform this ‘service’ on a reciprocal basis.

Many scholars are weak in data analysis using modern statistical techniques. They are good at working the percentiles only. In such cases, scholars persuade statistics students to do the work. The examiners also do not pose data analysis questions as they too are poor in the area. In any case, hardly anyone collects data from the field; they fabricate it sitting at home.

Regarding research, the NEP 2020 committee is satisfied with just recommending a ‘National Research Foundation’. They have allotted very little space for this vital arm of education. India spends 0.69% of its GDP on research while USA spends 2.8%, Israel 4.3% and South Korea 4.2%.

In most universities, there is a stipulation that associate professors must publish one or two papers on worthy topics in reputed journals before being promoted as professors. Some associate professors approach ‘writers’ to handle this task for a good price. Post-graduate students are also required to submit a thesis for their degree. These students are notorious for submitting papers written by someone else a few years prior. In any case, no one reads these, including the concerned professors.

Technology is seldom applied in our education system. India does a paltry job of providing technology and technology-based education. Some admitted to B Tech courses drop out, often due to their inability to absorb the technical material taught.

It is not known what exactly can be done to make India ‘technology-friendly’. The NEP 2020 Committee should have dwelled into this aspect, but they have not. The world, and especially the developed world, is becoming more and more technology-oriented, and the distance between us and the developed world is increasing in this area. To narrow this gap, we should lay emphasis on technology over perfecting English in our good private schools, at the very minimum. If we put greater focus on technology in government-run schools, there is nothing like it.

It is time for educationists and leaders to strengthen our industry–institution collaboration. Today, the interactions between industry and India’s educational institutions are minimal, whereas the developed nations have thrown open their universities and research facilities to industry and vice versa. In our case, the industry has no faith in the students’ technological capabilities or the teachers guiding them. Neither party trusts the other, and both think that, at best, their interactions are a waste of time. 

Most public and private universities around the world depend on their alumni, both financially and for input regarding the changing requirements of their curricula. This is totally absent in the Indian context. In most of our institutions, including the IITs, there is a 15–25% shortfall in faculty hiring. The freeze on new full-time appointments, combined with the increasing number of part-time and ‘casual’ teachers, has left the academic circuit demoralized.

So worthy academics should sit down and analyze what is to be done to lift Indian higher education to the desired standard, or better yet to a ‘world-class’ standard. Otherwise, it will keep declining until we reach the point where nothing will help.

The author is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army. A passionate student of Sociology with a PhD in the subject. An Author of many books. He can be reached at [email protected]

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