The brave new world of India's New Education Policy


India's New Education Policy, which got cabinet approval on the 29th of July, is to be celebrated just for itself. A nation of 1.3 billion people, most of whom are young, which claims its population to be its chief strength, had its first education policy update since 1986.

So the last time Indian Parliament and Cabinet agreed on an education policy just as Microsoft released the first version of Windows (which no one used yet), the Domain Name System for a future Internet was just being finalised and mobile phones took 10 hours to charge for a 30-minute talk time. A country called Soviet Union was engaged in something called a Cold War with the United States of America. The point being, the world has very rapidly changed since, without an education policy update in India.

This anomaly is less significant than it sounds. That the government did not update its education policy does not mean nothing changed in education. A lot changed: Literacy rates jumped (though it's still not adequate) and the student population at all educational levels expanded manifold. India only had a handful of universities and colleges in 1986; state-level legislation and regulation changes encouraging the establishment of privately funded degree granting institutions drove that number above 50,000 today, with more than 850 universities. India built the world's biggest and most successful IT training system in the meantime and went on to power a huge expansion of IT service economy. Extensive experimentation, backed by huge public expenditure, was carried out in vocational education, affecting millions of learners. In fact, that so much happened in India without a clear policy should tell how India really works - cobbling together solutions to emerging opportunities, with little regard to top-down directives!

But that the Indian government could not agree on an Education Policy for three decades also tells other stories. For starters, one may say that India's ruling elite, whose children went to high-prestige institutions and often universities abroad, did not care much about mass education. Besides, education was good business and often a source of cash income: India's broken campaign funding system meant education entrepreneurs bankrolled a lot of parliament members - in fact, they were parliament members themselves! In fact, there was no paradox in the education policy being, at the same time, not worthy of the government's attention (which was busy with economic development, welfare state and occasional skirmishes with Pakistan) and yet the one thing they did not want to change.

Therefore, that it changed - under the cover of the pandemic and without reference to the parliament - tells another story: That India is undergoing a cultural revolution of its own. What came out last week is not a mere administrative document, but really a manifesto. The confusion of its appearance - the document itself is written like a company memo and its style betrays bullet points lifted from Powerpoint slides of conferences - its statements of intent are strong and clear. It provides a lot of details that seem unnecessary - like which departments should a university have - and leaves out a lot expected from such a policy, like what the proper role of private education should be, or, what role international universities would be able to play (rather than pointing to a future legislation allowing 'top 100' universities to operate in India, a policy that may have already failed). It provides a lot of headline numbers, like 6% of India's GDP to be spent on education, but little in the way of timelines or how it could be done. But it barely conceals its revolutionary intent elsewhere, when it engages with language policy in the school system and what the Indian students should learn at the university.

To read this policy, therefore, one has to play hide-and-seek to find those little nuggets of substance hidden behind pledges unattainable: Every Indian government since 1948 wanted to spend 6% of the GDP on education and it's unlikely that this government, in the middle of a collapsing economy, would ever be able to do that. Also, in a country where higher educational qualification means greater probability of unemployment, it's unlikely that more and more people would want to go to college (without some fundamental changes in the economy). The opposition may be breathing fire on the supposed exclusion of English at the primary level (until Year 2 of school) but that's a red herring too. The things of substance lie scattered in the unexpected elaboration about liberal education, the focus on the 64 performing arts (most famously in Kamasutra, but the policy, for the sake of seriousness, refers to Banabhatta's Kadambari) - in summary, its revolutionary attempt to define what counts as knowledge. The neo-liberal coating of the policy - its celebration of American university brands and its faith on university rankings being two examples - barely hides its deeply political intent to remake India and Indians.

In another era, one could perhaps draw comfort in knowing that, like other policies in India, this one would never be implemented. But that may not be true for this government and this policy: It may not know what it's doing but it does it anyway! If the New Education Policy (though, as I mentioned above, manifesto would be a more appropriate description) stands for one thing, it would be to reassert the Indian state within the cultural sphere. Policy analysts, trained to look at the practical details of priorities and entitlements, would easily miss its revolutionary intent to start from first principles.

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