The release of the New Education Policy 2020 on 29th July 2020 was largely portrayed as a watershed event in the trajectory of Indian education. This perception is based on two factors- one, that this is the first long-term vision articulated for the sector in 34 years; two, that it includes several marked variations from the status quo. Among several points in the 60-page document, declarations of intent to increase government spending on education to 6% of GDP (a level of spending recommended since 1968), introduce flexibility in both secondary school and college education, and actively promote Indian languages in school as possibly the language of instruction, have given rise to varied hopes and concerns alike.
However, perceptions aside, the document itself merits careful scrutiny, as do the questions that arise regarding the context within which it has been introduced. The latter concern is a largely political one- introducing the policy while Parliament isn’t in session and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic effectively prevents large-scale debate on it, both inside and outside Parliament.
Absence of Strategy to Tackle Present Education Emergency
In terms of context, another point that merits discussion is the absence of any cohesive COVID-19 related strategy for education. While the policy makes a mention of online education, it does not put forth any plans of action to deal with the immediate education crisis wherein classroom teaching at present remains indefinitely suspended, and those without access to technology are simply left without means to continue their education.
It is possible to argue that such a strategy addressing immediate concerns has no place in a long-term plan such as the NEP, but it is equally pertinent to recognise that the setback faced by the education system due to the COVID-19 pandemic is not a short term one- leaving this unaddressed can, and will, substantially impede any future forward-looking efforts in the said sector.
In substantive terms, the two main concerns relate to medium of instruction and educational outcomes in schools and colleges.
Concerns Related to Language of Instruction
Paragraph 4.9 of the document states, ‘Wherever possible, the medium of instruction at least until Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language’. The paragraph goes on to mention that this shall be applicable in both private and public schools, and that textbooks will be made available in the home language. Here, although the words ‘wherever possible’ and ‘encouraged’ render the intent of the statement suggestive, the proposition itself is highly problematic.
The idea of teaching regional languages/mother tongue/home language is laudable, but making it the language of instruction until at least class 5 is not. Any secondary school or older student would attest to the idea that their education until class 5 need not have been information intensive, but was an indispensable foundation for their later learning. In a country like India, where English is a vehicle for social mobility and gives lakhs of students a window into a globalised job market, removing an early English language education denies to many an advantage that Indians have often had over countries that do not have a large English-speaking workforce.
Also, it is highly likely that while government schools in at least some states will find themselves implementing this idea, many private schools will not implement it to the same degree. This will widen the already existing gap between public and private schools, leaving students from the former at a comparative disadvantage when entering secondary school, college and employment.
The pragmatic need for not just studying English but also studying in English has recently been recognised by the Andhra Pradesh government, which has declared its intention to make English the language of instruction until Class 5 in all government schools. This was done after careful consideration, keeping in mind that there has, in recent years, been a large migration from public to private schools due to parents’ demands that their children become fluent in English. In fact, state government sources have stated that about 95% of parents consulted were in favour of this decision.
Paragraph 4.10 argues that there are real cognitive benefits for students who learn in their home language, implying that teaching in English language makes education relatively inaccessible to students who do not speak the language at home. While this may be supported by research, a basic familiarity with ground realities would reveal that in almost any classroom, in lower classes, teachers do not teach in a rigid fashion in complicated English, but actively simplify and translate concepts into a language that they feel their students will understand. This is done across the board as common practice while still teaching in the English medium.
Concerns Regarding Quality of Outcomes in School and College Education
Paragraph 4.33 states that Board examinations should be conducted twice a year to reduce pressure on students, plus that they will be made ‘easier’ to reduce rote memorisation and the coaching culture. The former proposal is genuinely favourable to students, whereas the latter isn’t necessarily so. The fact that the last few years have seen a steady increase in the percentage of students passing, for instance, the CBSE board examinations in both classes 10 and 12, clearly goes to show that the problem is not as much in the structure and difficulty of the exams, as with the dearth of resources and learning environment provided to those who are not able to clear them. Making the exam ‘easier’ in any sense is going to have no outcome other than quickly increasing the number of students who pass every year, without creating any real improvement in the quality of education.
Additionally, the proposal for offering subjects at two levels (Paragraph 4.34) is worrying, for similar reasons- such a division among students at the school level will negatively impact both learning outcomes and students’ self-esteem.
In a similar vein, while introducing certifications and credits for an unfinished college degree (Paragraph 11.8) the Policy provides apparent relief to students forced to drop out of college. However, this implicitly shifts the onus of effective learning from the institution to the student, breeding a ‘survival of the fittest’ mind-set, which is incredibly damaging to the aim of inclusive higher education. The assurances of such certifications also create a false sense of security, as presently it is wholly unclear what the value of these will be in the highly competitive job market.
Lastly, the proposal to allow flexibility in choice of subjects in Grade 11 will only translate into reality for the vast majority of students if such flexibility is adopted by higher education institutions as well. For instance, unless coveted engineering colleges such as the IITs decide to allow students with subject combinations lacking any of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, the NEP’s articulated flexibility will have no meaning for the thousands of students aspiring to study engineering in India.
The NEP 2020 leaves a number of questions unanswered and expectations unfulfilled. For instance, the Right to Education Act, which was proposed to be extended in scope in one of the drafts of the NEP, remains regrettably unchanged. Also, the document makes no explicit mention of reservations for SCs, STs, OBCs and EWS categories in higher education institutions, using instead the undefined term SEDGs (Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Groups), in the passing. This raises the serious question of what vision the document proposes on this issue, which is a safety net to lakhs of Indian students.
It is hoped that in the course of implementation these problematic and ambiguous provisions will be ironed out, and the final goal of ensuring inclusive, effective and universal education will remain the foremost priority.
Views are personal.
Image credits: Provided by the author.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NIharika Mukherjee is an alumni of Sanskriti School, New Delhi.