New Education Policy – Good intentions but miles to go

The Draft National Education Policy, 2019 attempts for equitable and inclusive education for every child. It has been in the public domain since the last few months. While the policy is all-pervasive and encompasses all stages of education, I have examined mainly the higher education component of it.

Quantum Leap in Education Spend
The intent to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education from 26% to 50% by 2035 and in school education from pre-school to secondary level to 100% by 2030 holds much promise. Similarly, the doubling of public spending on education from 2.7% to 6% of GDP has been a long pending need. However, the policy does not adequately address the subject of financing of the sector.

Ushering in Liberal Arts Education
The move to have five model Liberal Arts Institutions with one major and another minor specialization in the 4-year undergraduate programme and a teacher-taught ratio of 1:30 are stepping in the right direction. The policy also intends to make NAAC independent. We as a country have totally ignored continuous faculty development which is such a critical function in all developed countries. The poor quality of teachers in higher education, barring exceptions, leads to poor teaching outcomes. We need far too rigorous efforts in this direction than what an overarching policy document could have addressed.

Enhanced Focus on Research Universities
India spends only 0.69% of its GDP on R&D and a small proportion goes for research in Universities. The classification of higher education institutions into three categories, namely, research university, teaching university and undergraduate college is a good step. All such institutions will hopefully move towards greater autonomy – academic, administrative, and financial.

There have to be concerted efforts to build a research culture and develop optimised knowledge delivery models. Creating the National Research Foundation with an annual grant size of INR 20,000 crore is another worthwhile idea provided its functioning does not become bureaucratic.

Integrating Skills & Apprenticeship
It is heartening to have 50% of all seats in higher education for vocational skills by 2025, along with a compulsory vocational subject from class 9 till 12. This would require an active collaboration with the industry. Given the state of educational attainments at primary and secondary levels, not just the core subject or domain education but ‘employability skills’ must be made an integral part of all secondary and undergraduate studies.

In addition, a semester-long industry apprenticeship must be made compulsory at the undergraduate level, so that students learn to soil their hands and learn the hard way.

Propelling Entrepreneurship
SME, entrepreneurs and start-ups are the backbones of any industrial economy. While the policy is silent in this regard, at least a semester-long compulsory and full-credit course on Entrepreneurship Studies must be introduced in all professional undergraduate courses, followed by incubation of projects. This would enable more students to get into the mindset of entrepreneurship, set up businesses and create jobs.

Leveraging Technology
It is high time that we should herald the death of the ‘distance’ if the shortage of teachers and quality of delivery are to be addressed meaningfully. The draft policy speaks about the formation of the National Mission on Education through Information and Communications Technology. MHRD-led institutions have done some work on this in the past. Leveraging technology, we can surely solve the challenge of India’s scale and geographical spread.

Equitable Governance
The policy also mentions an apex National Education Commission that would develop, implement, evaluate, and revise the vision of education in India on an on-going basis. While it is encouraging to see the resolve to reduce multiplicity of regulators and creation of National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA), greater clarity is required about the residual roles of UGC and AICTE. In addition, merit-based staffing, capacity building and inculcation of a culture of equity and fairness are essential for the proposed regulator to succeed.

An opportunity to Transform India
Once approved by the Cabinet, the New Education Policy 2019 represents an opportunity to transform India, if implemented in letter and spirit. However, if there is a half-hearted approach with cracks in its implementation, it would remain an old wine in a new bottle. In this country, we are sitting on an unexploited goldmine of demographic dividend. We as a nation need to make a clear choice.

(The author – Jayant Krishna is senior fellow, CSIS & ED-Policy, Wadhwani Foundation)