Tuesday, Oct 03, 2023

Vanilla Or Chocolate Fudge? What NEP 2020 Offers Is A Fatal Illusion Of Choice

Vanilla Or Chocolate Fudge? What NEP 2020 Offers Is A Fatal Illusion Of Choice

Higher education will be enfeebled, commodified and yoked to the market. Except for the elite, young Indians can look forward to a future of semi-skilled wage slavery.

Representative image File Photo

Was going through the oven-fresh New Education Policy 2020 yesterday. Couldn’t help it, as it does put our generation in a watershed moment—along with the entire Indian education system, of course. On the face of it, NEP 2020 looks extremely slick (and mentions “multidisciplinary learning” even more than Modiji mentions Achhe Din in his Mann Ki Baat). It’s like suddenly your old college canteen has become a Starbucks, you can choose Grande or Venti over old-fashioned white cups, brown sugar or caramel cream instead of those deep-fried unhealthy samosas, and feel extremely global about yourself. Maybe you and Elon Musk are having the same coffee too.

Except for the fact of my MPhil degree (which I spent two years writing and one year waiting for the viva) suddenly becoming a piece of paper without any value, NEP 2020 didn’t bring any individual harm to me. Since I am just one year away from my PhD submission—not too frequent a visit to Starbucks, I hope—so it won’t create an existential crisis. But what about those who are like me, and yet to pass through this new world-in-making?

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There’s no denying that there are a few positive aspects to the bill: the gender fund for women students, continuous evaluation instead of a few sacrosanct examinations, and extension of RTE till 18 years among them. But there are also plenty of unspoken lines here and there whose meaning, as it dawns on us slowly, might not exactly retain that feelgood factor over the long term. Especially if you consider the real needs of India. For instance, the foreign university bill. As the name suggests, it promises elite overseas educational institutions opening branches in India. A Harvard for Haryana, a Yale for Yelahanka? Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

But ask yourself: Who will study there? What will be their fee structure?

Think of the millions in India who can’t even afford to study in Amity. What will these universities do except add to the list of ‘world-class universities’ in India where most of us won’t have space? Think of the apparent cut made against elitism in the ‘mother tongue education’ mandated for primary schools—a separate landmine that—and square that against this move in higher education.

Widening and equalising access? Or its very opposite? With the reams of newsprint and millions of gigabytes spent in recent years to pour hate and scorn on the JNU model—a state-funded space for quality higher education accessible to all—there should have been no surprise where we were headed. To Starbucks, of course.

The bill proudly sells the theory of opportunity and choice: you can study fashion designing and physics at the same time to become a fashionable physicist, or a designer inspired by quantum mechanics perhaps. It’s an extremely romantic thought, like having French fries with vanilla ice cream (it does taste good to many) or having a pet dinosaur. “Nothing is impossible if you want it.” But what is the purpose of such choices?

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The bill also says things are a bit easy-going and flexible from now. You can choose when you want to drop out. Got admission in first year but could not continue due to lack of money? Not to worry, here is your certificate in Political Science. Survived two years in college, but the everyday bullying due to your appearance and caste is not letting you continue? Don’t get stressed, walk out with your diploma in Botany proudly. You almost finished your 3rd year, but hey, you are a young Indian woman and it’s that time! The ‘right time for marriage’ and the best possible guy on earth is here. So, go get married without any tension, you’ll still get a degree to show your in-laws. Hell, yeah!

But as a system, we will prefer only a student who has completed the four-year course in some research projects. The apparently liberal graduation program is designed to legitimise and justify dropouts while boosting numbers on paper. The paper tiger, you know? Our national animal.

Who are the people who leave courses in between? What forces them to leave a course that they aspired to complete? Is dropping out really a choice or a sign of individual failure? Or is it the system’s failure to keep its promise to students from marginalised sections defined along all axes—caste, region, economic category, community, gender—young Indians who have actually knocked on its doors?

Instead of addressing the deep-rooted prejudices and forms of discrimination and structural inequality, the unfortunate incidence of dropouts are further institutionalised in the current bill. Can anyone answer what job opportunity my certificate in Political Science, diploma in Botany or three-year graduation in Physics will afford me? Maybe in an actual Starbucks, as a waiter.

The flexibility in courses offered will also presumably boost flexibility in employment, particularly in teaching. You could teach Physics by day, and drop by at the Design institute on the neighbourhood mall’s third floor on the way back home!

Suppose I, from an older ethos that insisted on solid training in one discipline before jazzing it up with inter-disciplinary eclecticism, were to offer my services as a teacher. But now, there are multiple subjects to choose from…my discipline is a mere flavour (‘I like vanilla on Wednesdays’). What if the subject I aspire to teach in future is not chosen by many? Why would the government (being very optimistic here, even hypothesising about a government job) hire a permanent employee for something that has no guaranteed demand?

Result: contractualisation, adhocism.

Your employer will hire you with a package for as long as you are needed in classrooms. After that, you are free to pursue that favourite adventure sport of all young Indians: trying to find a permanent job to make both ends meet.

The bill has another interesting proposition: centralised entrance exams for research! After reading this part in particular, I heaved a big sigh of relief, and thanked my parents that I was born just early enough not to be put through this test.

I always wanted to study human geography, not only geomorphologies on earth but how they shape human life. JNU offers a Masters in Geography, with special reference to regional geography, from the Centre for Studies of Regional Development. So JNU was my first and only choice outside Calcutta. Places like BHU also offer a Masters in Geography but they are famous for their eminent physical geographers. There would be enough peers of mine who would like that. That’s a modicum of real choice. I’m sure this is no exception: universities and departments develop a specialised focus within particular disciplines. What will a sudden homogenisation of syllabi do, particularly at the level of research?

Think of it like this. For my graduation, I get the lollipop of my choice. And for research—where one is supposed to specialize!—you are pushing me towards a more generalised form. Someone please explain to me how this is not a fundamental disaster in thinking. I can think of no other long-term result besides an outright attrition of the whole field.

The New Education Policy is a careful blend of a few progressive assurances and a subtle, yet concrete plan to turn the education system from an equaliser to a service provider. The policy-level changes that were initiated in the ’90’s—of turning education into a commodity that can be bought and sold according to your pocket—has finally completed a full circle.

It took 34 years to come. Now that it has come, NEP 2020 looks the perfect recipe to create a pool of semi-skilled labour, jack-of-all-trades who can be used according to the needs of the market without much resistance. So what if it betokens a retreat on the fundamental goal of human development? So what if it contains zero emphasis on research development, on creating indigenous technology, or democratised knowledge production that will enable India to compete with global powers? At least it promises a “6-per-cent-of-GDP”, like all previous education policies. Psst…where’s the money? Show and tell please. No, ask no questions. Sip your Latte from your Starbuckesque alma mater. If you can step in, that is.

(Dipsita Dhar is a research scholar at JNU.  Views expressed are personal)


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