India last framed a national policy on education 34 years ago. That we have been making do with the same old, same old despite the demands on the sector having undergone a sea change in the interim, speaks tragic volumes for our pace of reforms. But the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) approved by the Cabinet on Wednesday offers a ray of hope. By delivering on its promise of providing greater flexibility and skills to students and greater autonomy to educational institutions, it could prove a game changer.
NEP does good to bring the hitherto uncovered age group of three to six years under the school curriculum, as early childhood care is crucial for the development of mental faculties. As for older schoolchildren, they can look forward to the loosening of several rigid barriers such as those between arts and sciences, plus an emphasis on higher-order skills such as critical thinking. Care however is needed that pushing the mother tongue or regional language as the medium of instruction “until at least Grade 5 but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond” does not translate into yet another assault on English medium schools, through which even the poorest parents try to improve their child’s prospects.
The idea of lower ‘stake’ board exams is very welcome but the requirement for all students to take exams in Grades 3, 5 and 8 is worrying. What is needed is systemic assessment of schools’ ability to deliver suitable learning outcomes, not failure policies that penalise students, and even cause them to exit schooling. Not all new exams however are unwelcome. An SAT-like university entrance test could indeed be more efficient and less traumatic than the current admission processes.
There couldn’t be a worthier goal than 50% GER in higher education by 2035, up from the current 26%. But it will need ramping up supply dramatically, which government alone can’t do. NEP really disappoints here by failing to allow for-profit education. Without this reform others like giving students greater flexibility of coursework alongside multiple entry and exit points for higher studies, will remain underwhelming. On top of this private HEIs are being told to offer more freeships and scholarships – which government institutions should be providing – even as fee caps are proposed. Such overregulation is like poison for the educational ecosystem. In stifling private investment it hurts the students the most. Put their interests ahead of ruinous socialist shibboleths.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.