India's New Education Policy: What Should We Expect?

Indian Government is in the process of drafting a New Education Policy, which is expected to bring about significant change in education at all levels. 

This would be the third time the India has had a 'New Education Policy'. 

The Three Education Policies of India

The first, in 1968, was really a conscious acknowledgement that education is an important subject worth the attention of the Central government in Delhi. It recommended an uniform school system across the nation, universal non-discriminatory access, the 10+2+3 system that India follows today. The NEP 1968 put emphasis on instruction through mother tongue, which, in case of India, was many and varied, and set up the three language system - State language plus English and Hindi - that most Indian schools follow today.

The Second, in 1986, was designed to update India's education for the Information Technology age, and there was a lot of emphasis on technical education at all levels. It did help that Education was redefined as a Concurrent subject, where both the Central and the State governments can have a say, rather than a State subject, as it originally was, in 1976. It also expanded the conversation to adult literacy and women's empowerment, helped set up a number of 'model schools' and established an elaborate programme for mid-day meals and universal education to expand access to education.

As India approaches the New Education Policy in 2016, the challenges and opportunities are very different from that of 1986. One could point to the rapid globalisation since the 1990s, of which India has been a major beneficiary, and the expansion of Indian cities and growth of per capita income. However, the biggest change perhaps is the way India views its population: In the 1980s, it was viewed with alarm, and there was population control drives; however, as India moved from 'planned economy' to 'market economy', the population growth has come to be seen as an opportunity and India has come to expect a 'demographic dividend'. Education has come to be seen as the enabler which channels the power of the growing population into economic growth and prosperity.

The Expected Controversies

However, despite the economic imperatives for a fresh look at education, the New Education Policy is also bound to be controversial. This is primarily because of the social agenda of the party in power. The stated ideological goal of the ruling party is to redefine India as a Hindu state, and this is likely to seep into a New Education Policy drafted under their watch. For example, there will be some battles over the Three Language system: While the government ministers have talked about 'tolerating India's diversity', others, including the Chairman of the Committee in charge of drafting recommendations for the policy, the former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian, insisted that India's diversity needs to be accepted, rather than tolerated. These ideological battles will come into play on the question of three language system and university autonomy as the policy gets finalised.

The Indian government took great pleasure in announcing itself to be the 'most open economy' in the world recently, after it opened up certain sectors, including pharmaceuticals and defence, to foreign investment. Though an open economy would invariably demand an open education system, this is not likely to happen. If anything, the New Education Policy is designed to enhance the Government control over appointments, curriculum and functioning of the institutions, and not reduce it. The current Central government, and various state governments, in the recent months, have openly intervened in the appointments, over-ruling the University boards in some cases, and tried to influence what is being taught even in the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), the most autonomous of all Indian institutions. That government action, driven through once in a lifetime reforms, is woefully inadequate in enabling an education sector fit for the rapidly changing economic and political circumstances of our time has not dawned on the policy makers.

The recommendations of the Subramanian Committee is still not in the public domain. The government has announced that it is now the process of gathering the views of the State Governments, and only after these have been collated, the drafts of the policy would be made available to general public. This is anachronistic, as the Committee was set up in the first place to consult all stakeholders, including the State Governments, and create draft recommendations: The lack of public information about the recommendations is rather typical of governance in India, and is bound to feed speculations about ideological and political motives of the Policy.

Foreign Universities: What Should They Expect?

Despite these apprehensions, one sector that may be bullish about this New Education Policy is the Foreign Universities. Successive Indian governments have explored the possibility of allowing foreign institutions in India for over two decades, and it is reasonable to expect a definitive statement now that the whole education sector is being looked at with the intent of reform. However, the outlook is not that rosy: The Indian government views the Education Policy as much a part of its social agenda as the economic plan, and the social and conservative considerations are likely to take precedence. 

Some highlights of draft recommendations published in the Indian newspapers point to a policy shift to allow the Top 200 universities of the world to set up campauses in India. We do not know how the government will define 'Top 200', and whether there will be additional conditions, like the corpus to be invested in India or restrictions of repatriation of surpluses, on these campuses. While we wait for the policy to be finalised, it is worth pointing out how dated the approach sounds: Foreign campuses are out of fashion, Top 200 universities are not the keenest on foreign forays and while India is a very attractive market, the biggest in education, the Government, short of closing down the whole of the 'most open economy', can do little to stop students to go abroad to seek education or to pursue degrees on the cloud. 

Common Sense is Uncommon

The conversation is not what it should be: Unconditional and even incentivised access for Top Research Universities of the world, both for campuses and collaborative ventures to help build research capacity in India; an open policy, with well-defined safeguards, to invite universities from all nations to set up teaching campuses in India, to augment Higher Education capacity and to introduce competition in the Higher Education sector; and finally, a well-defined policy towards education on the cloud, and distance learning, that encourages lifelong learning and allow greater flexibility of the capacity of the workforce. But, this, perhaps, is too much to expect out of a Government Policy.


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