Education has been seen as a core necessity of individuals, social groups, nations and human society. The modern world views it as a basic human right. Since the formation of the Indian Republic, most landmark commitees or commissions on education have unequivocally underscored the idea of education for all. Many crucial concerns of contemporary education find mention in earlier policy documents too. Yet, a study of previous reports and policies makes it amply clear that the educational journey of our country has been quite uneven, and many genuine aspirations have remained unrealised even after seven decades of Independence.
It would be unfair to claim that our predecessors did not act upon these concerns with reasonable sincerity, at least at the planning level. Yet, in a vast, populous and diverse country of staggering socio-economic differentials, the execution of policy is always a challenge. This is clearly reflected in the recurrence of core educational concerns in reports or policy documents published since the early 1950s.
The last national education policy was created in 1986. During these 34 years, the world has changed in unprecedented ways. Revolutionary alterations in the world's political economy, fuelled by technological developments, have significantly contributed to the dismantling of the barriers of gender, class, caste, culture, geographical distance, and so forth. All this has created a strong sense of aspiration and hope among the people. Rapid economic developments after 1991, the year when India opened economically, have triggered a high demand for knowledge and specialised skills. During the two-and-a-half decades since economic liberalisation, no comprehensive national vision could be conceived to address the gross systemic inadeqacies impeding the momentum of an aspirational and restless India.
This is the background in which our government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has given priority to a broad-based and futuristic national education policy. The framing of this policy has been a mammoth exercise. Two committees undertook the task. Feedback from the grass-roots was meticulously collected and stakeholders widely consulted. The state governments were always a part of the loop. The policy document was vetted and sharpened several times before being sent to the cabinet for approval.
The new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, released on 29 July 2020, is a historic and ambitious document. With an eye on the future, it speaks to all aspects of education during our times. This policy is in many ways radically different from all its predecessors, and it looks at our educational requirements in a new way.
One of the essential as well as fundamental issues that had been left unaddressed untill now is Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). The holistic development of any individual essentially starts with his or her nourishment and nurturing during the early years. The Policy says, "over 85% of a child's cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6, indicating the critical importance of appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in early years.' This idea is based on strong evidence produced by the latest researches in the field of neurosciences and brain development.The early years are the most crucial for the development of the brain. The later cognitive, intellectual and skill advancements are built on capacities unleashed during the crucial early-childhood years. Unfortunately, crores of children are still deprived of quality early childhood care and education due to various socio-economic disadvantages their families face.
With this perspective in mind, the policymakers have reimagined pre-primary edcation and have envisaged to integrate this stage of a child's physical, mental and cognitive developmment with the extant formal schooling pattern. Hence the 10+2 model is proposed to be replaced by a 5+3+3+4 model of ECCE and schooling. Allow me to explain this important change at some length. ECCE shall take place from the ages of 3 to 6 in Anganwadis, Balvatikas and play-schools. This will be followed by Classes 1 and 2 in school. Together, the ECCE years and the first two years of schooling form the first five years of the new model. These five years constitute the foundational stage of education. This will be followed by Classes 3 to 5 (3 years), 6 to 8 (three years) and 9 to 12 (four years).
This restructuring of the whole span of schooling has been proposed keeping in mind the developmental needs and interests of learners at different stages of their physical, mental, emotional and psychological development. This proposed structure is in sync with the age ranges or developmental stages of children. As the policy proposes, 'the overarching goal would be to ensure universal access to high quality ECCE across the country.' This will not only provide nutrition and care for healthy physical and mental growth but will also 'focus on developing cognitive, affective, psychomotor abilities and early literacy and numeracy.' A National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education (NCPF-ECCE) will be developed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). This will focus on several important aspects of ECCE including high quality ECCE teacher prepredness. The manner in which the Policy emphasises ECCE can be gauged from its plan to bring four crucial central ministries together for 'smooth integration of early childhood care and education into school education'. These ministries are: Human Resource Development (i.e. Ministry of Education), Women and Child Development (WCD), Health and Family Welfare (HFW), and Tribal Affairs. Once effectively implemented, as envisaged by the framers of NEP 2020, ECCE will be the biggest gamechanger in education.
With respect to school education, the makers of the policy have given special emphasis on learning to be holistic, experiential, integrative, and enjoyable. The Policy aims at ‘real understanding and towards learning how to learn’. It is particularly anguished about the persistence of rote learning, something that the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 had tried to cure. Rote memorisation and mindless regurgitation in response to questions that are neither analytical nor reflective is nothing but the storing of sterile and unconnected pieces information in the mind. This is cognitively taxing and, more often than not, an exercise in futility. The proposed curricular and pedagogic approach underscores critical thinking and learning based on inquiry, discovery, discussion and analysis.
Furthermore, it does not recognise stubborn distinctions between different curricular areas, and among curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular areas. Art- and sports-integrated education will be important strands in this cross-curricular pedagogic approach. Flexibility in course choices will be another curricular advantage for students. The thought behind this curricular overhaul is to create ‘holistic and well-rounded individuals equipped with the key 21st century skills.’ In a brilliantly written contrarian book, The Fuzzy and the Techie, Scott Hartley argues that technologists (the techies) do not drive innovation alone; it is the humanists and the social scientists (the fuzzies, perhaps coined pejoratively!) who play as much of a role in creating successful business or policy ideas.
Despite a radical curricular and structural redrawing, the outcomes of the new policy cannot exceed the professional capacity and vision of the teachers. Teachers’ capacity cannot be enhanced unless their pre- and in-service education, service conditions, and terms of recruitment and deployment do not receive renewed focus and uplift. The policy treats these concerns in a detailed and sensitive manner. To attract outstanding students to the teaching profession, it proposes a large number of merit-based scholarships for pursuing quality four-year integrated B.Ed. programmes, with special focus on rural areas. It is also proposed to strengthen Teacher Eligibility Tests (TETs) with respect to the assessment of several parameters: subject-content and pedagogy, classroom teaching, passion and motivation for the profession and proficiency of teaching in the local language. These tests will therefore include teaching demonstration and interview components.
In order ‘to maximise the ability of teachers to do their jobs effectively,’ the menace of excessive and arbitrary transfers will become a thing of the past and teachers will not be involved in assignments that have no bearing on their work. Teachers’ professional autonomy will be restored, and a comprehensive ‘merit-based structure of tenure promotion, and salary structure will be developed.’ The policy also envisages that teacher education will be gradually moved (by 2030) to multidisciplinary colleges and universities. A new and comprehensive National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education will be prepared by the National Council of Teacher Education by 2021, in consultation with the NCERT.
The makers of the policy have been as versatile regarding higher education. A distinctive feature of higher education is that it produces knowledge resources through which all education takes place, resources used by society to chart out its progress over time. The concerns of higher education are quite diverse and complex. In order to keep pace and be ahead of others, we need to focus more rigorously on the complex matrix of higher education.
The Committee working on the policy has succinctly identified the role of higher education as ‘promoting human as well as societal wellbeing and developing India as envisioned in its Constitution—a democratic, just, socially conscious, cultured and humane nation, upholding liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice for all.’ According to the makers of this policy, some of the salient problems encumbering the higher education system in India are rigid separation of disciplines, limited teacher and institutional autonomy, lack of focus on quality and relevant research and poor institutional governance.
Recognising these and other problems impeding the effective functioning and progress of higher education institutions in the country, the policy envisions a ‘complete overhaul’ of the system. It was naturally anticipated that revamping of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and educational administration would be recommended by the policy framers. It must be mentioned that the policy lays out a fairly radical reformation of the higher education structure. Multidisciplinarity, flexibility and autonomy are central to this reform. Through these key ingredients, freshness and vitality are accorded to this stage of education. The decision to do away with the adamantine walls between different disciplines and the provision of freedom to exit and enter courses, as these will be credit based, will truly liberate learners. The policy grants them freedom to choose what to learn, how to learn and when to learn. Now, one can opt to study Sanskrit along with Mathematics or Music with Physics. The earlier segregation of streams, rather regimented, did not allow for any formal or institutional interface between the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. This did not allow for a wholesome development of individuals. The Policy’s proposal to integrate engineering courses, at institutions such as IIT, with the arts and the humanities in order to move towards holistic and multidisciplinary education, would surely enthuse every thinking being. This is a holistic approach and should lead to the blossoming of various human capacities—intellectual, aesthetic, social, physical, emotional and moral—in an integrated manner.
On multidisciplinarity, the principal thrust of the policy is to curb fragmentation of higher education through restructuring higher education institutions into large multi-disciplinary universities, colleges and higher education institution (HEI) clusters or knowledge hubs. Though all such multi-disciplinary universities are envisaged to carry out ‘teaching, research, and community engagement’, some would develop as teaching-intensive universities and some as research-intensive ones.
Research is at the foundation of knowledge creation and it plays a key role in sustaining and further uplifting any human society. Research both in fundamental and applied disciplines is essential for progress, especially in today’s fast-developing world. In order to create a robust ecosystem for high-quality research, the policy envisages the creation of a National Research Foundation (NRF). One of the salient thrusts of this Foundation would be to enable a culture of research to permeate through our universities. The Foundation’s main objectives will be to identify priority areas or themes for research and coordinate with different academic institutions and funding agencies in order to ‘ensure synergy of purpose and avoid duplication of efforts.’
While looking at the nuances of higher education and research, the policy framers have been sensitive to the needs of our vast population and the national economy. Large-scale employment creation as well as the creation of higher knowledge is our necessity. Our ever-expanding and ever-evolving economy requires workers and professionals with diverse and specialised skill sets. It is quite disconcerting to realise that despite Mahatma Gandhi’s emphatic underscoring of vocational education, we have not been able to create any effective synchronisation of vocational education and ‘mainstream’ education. We have considered vocational education inferior and ‘meant for students who are unable to cope with the latter.’
The policy aspires to dismantle this status hierarchy and aims to integrate vocational education with mainstream education. Starting with vocational exposure in the middle and secondary classes, ‘quality vocational education will be integrated smoothly into higher education’. This will ensure that every individual learns at least one vocation and is able to develop a sense of the dignity of labour and respect for various vocations. This will also enable us to tap our demographic dividend and address skill-deficits of the economy. The policy envisions that the ‘development of vocational capacities will go hand in hand with development of ‘academic’ or other capacities.’
Highlighting the equal importance of vocational education and higher learning, the American public intellectual and statesman, John W Gardner had made a seminal point in his book, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy; neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
In conclusion, I would like to argue that the New Education Policy, 2020 appears to be truly visionary and comprehensive. Its success, however, lies in its effective implementation. The government will not leave any stone unturned in this national rebuilding project.
(The author is Minister of State for HRD, Communications, and Electronics and IT. Views expressed are personal.)