New Hope New Direction

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The draft of the new education policy is now being circulated among the states for their inputs. The aim is to ensure india’s demographics result in a dividend by raising the bar on education in schools and universities

THE New Education Policy (NEP) intended to match the economic growth and social development goals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, was expected to be out by end 2015. Looks like it would now get delayed by a year, and implementation could take place just before the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

With Prakash Javadekar moving in as the new Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister, the deadline for accommodating suggestions from the public to the policy inputs (“Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy-2016”) placed on the ministry website has been extended to mid-September. And thereafter, it would be sent to state chief ministers for final suggestions.

PM Modi is keen that the NEP should address the aspirations of the new generation and be up to date. He wants to ensure all-inclusive quality education that emphasises social justice and accountability.

The policy inputs reiterated the government’s commitment on a new NEP “to meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement to quality education, innovation and research, aiming to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge and to eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics and industry.”

DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDEND

But more than that, the policy makers and economists see the new NEP as the instrument for exploiting the emerging ‘demographic dividend’ of the country. Demographic dividend is the opportune advantage of a country’s population dynamics when the young and economically productive population emerges the largest segments of the total population.

The Modi government does not want to miss this great opportunity to transform India. It needs the right type of manpower properly educated and trained to enter new technological areas being opened up under initiatives like ‘Make in India’, ‘Digital India’, solar energy enterprises and the like. And the new NEP is a crucial component of that concern.

The government has already set up the Ministry of Skill Development, the nodal authority to train 500 million youth for various employment opportunities by 2020. The training also has to cover skilling the excess manpower in India’s farm sector to facilitate their redeployment in manufacturing.

Explaining the elaborate work already undertaken by the HRD Ministry in framing the new NEP, Prakash Javadekar said: “The government set up 13 teams for school education and 20 teams for higher and technical education. In all, 29,000 suggestions running into lakhs of pages were received. The T S R Subramaniam committee has compiled it into a 200-page summary.”

Subramaniam, a former Cabinet Secretary, stirred up a controversy soon after submitting the compilation in May by insisting that it should be made public almost immediately. He seems to be under the impression that his compilation should be the final policy draft. Whereas the then minister Smriti Irani and the government wanted his summary to be sent to the states for fine tuning.

It is evident that the Modi government is keen to ensure that the NEP has the widest appeal and approval. Vested religious interests and leftist elements posing as defenders of secularism have already mounted a strident campaign that the new policy would be nothing but an attempt to “saffronize the education sector”.

They are offended even by the policy input paper referring to the need for a ‘value based education system’ in the country and acknowledging inspiration from India’s ancient knowledge transmission heritage beginning with the Vedas and streaming down to Buddha, Chanakya, Vivekandanda and Mahatma Gandhi. The new NEP also strives to link up India’s knowledge heritage with the European Renaissance and expansion of the modern knowledge system.

Dismissing the saffronization charges, the new HRD minister stated that education ought not be reduced to a BJP versus Congress feud or be subjected to party politics. He said the draft policy would be open for discussion and assured that the aim of the new policy would be to “raise the quality and encourage innovation” through education.

BACKGROUND

Education reforms in Independent India have a long but tardy history. Country’s first education minister Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, rightly advocated a uniform educational system with strong central government authority to address the problems of illiteracy and backwardness. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru overlooked the illiteracy issues but focussed on higher education, culminating in setting up the modern Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).Nehru’s neglect of the education sector has been famously commented upon by Sam Pitroda, technology advisor to two prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Pitroda remarked that had Nehru diverted the funds of just one of his mega steel plants to primary school education, illiteracy and abject poverty could have got eradicated in the first two or three Five Year Plans. He said it is sad that it did not happen.

The first full-fledged NEP was put in place by Indira Gandhi in 1968 after the Kothari Commission recommendations. The policy called for fulfilling the constitutional stipulation of compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14.

Indira Gandhi’s NEP also advocated teaching of Sanskrit to all school going children as it is the mother language to almost all present day Indian languages, and remains the strongest pillar of the country’s culture and heritage. Now if the Modi government’s NEP mentions Sanskrit, it would be a ‘communal’ and ‘saffron conspiracy’ for the secularists.

The NEP of 1968 had also called for education spending to increase to six percent of the GDP. But things didn’t move much even during Mrs Gandhi’s time as there was no seriousness in the implementation of the policy.

The Rajiv Gandhi government brought in another NEP in May 1986, harping for “special emphasis on the removal of disparities and to equalise educational opportunity,” especially for Indian women and weaker sections. But corruption scandals and controversies like the Shah Bano case diminished his overall impact, including those in the education sector.

ADDRESSING SHORTCOMINGS

Many points in the new NEP policy inputs seek to pick up on the earlier aspects left unimplemented. The raft of measures suggested for the new NEP tries to address the significant shortcomings in the education system.

It says, “Though India has made significant progress in terms of enhancing access to and participation in all levels of education, the overall picture of education development in the country is mixed.”

The school education sector is in disarray. Rural schools continue to be primitive, often functioning in the open or under the trees. Money sharks dominate in urban school education.

The Indian higher education system is one of the largest in the world. But the quality of universities and colleges and the education they offer are far from satisfactory. The number of high-quality institutions is limited. For higher education and professional courses, the elite invariably send their children abroad. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged the situation in a 2007 address thus: “Our university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair...In almost half the districts in the country, higher education enrolments are abysmally low and almost two-third of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters”.

Apart from seeking to reinforce all levels of education, the new NEP inputs highlight the issue of “inclusivity”, one of the basic weaknesses of the education structure so far.

This refers to the lack of adequate opportunities available to students from the economically and socially backward classes who do not get what they deserve from the current education system. The present structure is ill-equipped to extend necessary support to students from the economically and socially deprived groups.

The curriculum will specifically cover issues of social justice (like gender, social, cultural and regional disparities) and their means of redressal but with an express emphasis also on ‘unity in diversity.’

The NEP promises to address them through policy interventions broadly into preschool and adolescent education, curriculum development and examination reform, teacher and faculty training, lifelong literacy, higher education and long distance learning. It aspires to formulate a common national curriculum in

science, mathematics and English. More emphasis will be placed on practical components within science subjects from grade six upwards.

In other subjects there will be a framework curriculum to be moulded by individual states. Concentrated efforts are suggested to make Information and Communication Technology (ICT) an important part of the education and teaching cycle. In trying to bring a new NEP, the Modi government is attempting the first major overhaul of the 1986 NEP. It would pave the way for fully exploiting the country’s demographic dividend.

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