Draft National Education Policy 2019: Many More Reasons to Worry than Just ‘Hindi-imposition’

Cover image of Draft of National Education Policy 2019 of Narendra Modi Government

On 31st May 2019, the Draft National Education Policy - 2019 [revised, original] was submitted to the Ministry of Human Resource (HRD). The committee, headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan, was constituted on 24 June 2017 and had to seek five extensions before it finally submitted the final draft. This new policy is “built on the foundational pillars of Access, Equity, Quality, Affordability and Accountability” as mentioned several times in the report and also in the press release.

Now, the controversy over the “Three-language formula” received attention in all circles of the domestic media because of the widespread protests in the southern states, especially in Tamil Nadu, which saw it as the imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states. The contentious paragraph P4.5.9 (on page 84) in the 484-page draft policy was amended and a revised draft was brought out which omitted the “controversial formulation” of the three-language formula. But in the words of Dr. K. Kasturirangan, there has only been a change in this formulation, and the policy stands completely unchanged. Yet, the coverage of, and the public discussion about this very crucial policy, which will directly impact generations of Indians to come, has been limited to this linguistic controversy. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to highlight the most important as well as the most problematic aspects of this policy. This policy proposes some radical changes in the realm of school education and continues the detrimental policy changes in the higher education sector. Attention will be given to the proposed changes in the schooling system, as this has received relatively more attention. The ideological underpinnings behind the policy and  will also be pointed out in this article.

The new Draft National Education Policy 2019 “envisions an India centred education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society, by providing high quality education to all [emphasis in the original].” The term “India centred” is important since it points to the overall direction of majoritarian cultural nationalism which this policy gives a fillip to. As for “equitable” and “high quality”, both cannot be met together and the emphasis on assessment, accreditation, and ranking is a strong step towards a competition-based and commercialised education system, which can never lead to an affordable, accessible and  egalitarian education system. Eminent educationist and social activist Anil Sadgopal says: “The basic idea that has been peddled through all these reports is to eliminate chances of knowledge production and create low wage opportunities. For example, there are around 700 universities in the country. Instead of strengthening them, the policy proposes that the top 200 global universities will be invited to establish their campus in the country. Are these universities known for their knowledge production or research? Certainly no! They want to invite universities which have been ranked by business institutions. Will they create individuals who will serve the society as envisioned by Dr. Ambedkar and Phule?”

A Committee Report Summary released by PRS Legislative Research mentions that the draft policy “provides for reforms at all levels of education from school to higher education. It seeks to increase the focus on early childhood care, reform the current exam system, strengthen teacher training, and restructure the education regulatory framework. It also seeks to setup a National Education Commission [or Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog], increase public investment in education, strengthen the use of technology and increase focus on vocational and adult education, among others.” Among the most important reforms proposed at the school-level is the restructuring of school education along the lines of 5+3+3+4, which would begin with three years of pre-primary schooling and continue till class 12. The policy lays strong emphasis on “Early Childhood Care and Education” and proposes to extend the provisions of the Right to Education [RTE] Act from age 3-18, from the present, age 6-14. It proposes the setting up of “School Complexes” comprising multiple government primary schools (class 1-8) and one secondary school (class 9-12) that are geographically proximate. This is proposed for consolidating small schools with inadequate student enrolment, teachers, and resources so that resources can be shared by them all. However, no additional physical infrastructural changes are suggested. This is one of the major drawbacks of the policy: the over-reliance on Information and Communication Technology [ICT] as the only solution to all kinds of problems in our education sector as a whole. For example, the lack of physical infrastructure, regional imbalances in economic development and connectivity, poor access to education for children belonging to socio-economically marginalised groups like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Religious Minorities, a severe lack of trained and qualified teachers and non-teaching staff etc. are all considered to be taken care of by ICT only. Basically, in order to bypass the fundamental problems determined and reinforced by the political economy and social structures of our society, it focuses on technology as the only solution, much like all the mainstream neoliberal developmental policies in India and globally as well.

Some of the most problematic suggestions include introducing the semester system for classes 9-12, flexibilization of the Board examinations across the last “8 semesters” of school, flexibilization of curricula and teaching processes as per regional requirements, and the introduction of the concepts of assessment, accreditation, and autonomy in the schooling system. All these are undeniably a move towards the commercialisation and de-regularisation of school education, which will be fatal for an equitable and accessible quality-driven schooling system. It seems they are extending to the school education system, what has been resisted by students and teachers in the Higher Education sector for years.

In the realm of public higher education, the policy proposes to continue the push towards  centralisation and commercialisation, which has been the hallmark of the previous Modi regime. The most explicit of which is the setting up of a National Education Commission or Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog which will be headed by the prime minister himself! It proposes setting up different bodies for regulation, accreditation, funding, standard setting, etc. which will make it easier for the government to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC), something it tried to do by introducing the Higher Education Commission of India Bill in 2018, which saw massive condemnation and protests throughout the nation. It pushes forward the agenda of administrative, academic and financial autonomy, which has been attacked by students, teachers and social activists, as a move towards privatising public higher education and reducing the financial responsibilities of the State in funding higher education. The classification of universities into “research universities”, “teaching universities” and colleges offering undergraduate courses, which really amounts to creating a few “world-class” institutions and condemning the rest to fend for themselves or shutting them down altogether, are all part of this agenda The policy echoes the concept of “graded autonomy”, which was pursued by the previous government, such as restructuring undergraduate courses into four-year programmes along the lines of the failed Four-Year Undergraduate Programme. This was implemented in the University of Delhi in the year 2013, only to be taken back after a year of widespread protests.

The policy is very contradictory and full of rhetoric on equality, quality, access and all other of its “goals”. In some places it seems as though the drafting committee actually wants to improve the education system of India, for example, its suggestions on increasing public expenditure on education to 6 percent of GDP (a decades-old suggestion) and 20 percent of all central and state government expenditure (from 10 percent at present as per the document itself), reducing the control and influence exercised by the government and the bureaucracy over  higher education institutions, stopping the practice of hiring teachers on contract basis and making their jobs permanent (by giving them tenure) etc. There are suggestions of progressive nature as well, for example, its focus on liberal arts, social sciences, and languages, doing away with the separation of knowledge into water-tight “streams” which keeps children from gaining a holistic view of their complex world and society. Also, its focus on research and increasing funding for research etc. However, in most places, it reads like a document full of politically-correct right-wing populism relentlessly pushing forward a regressive, Hindu-chauvinistic, and cultural-nationalistic agenda, and carefully pushing forward the neoliberal agenda of de-regularisation, liberalisation, and commercialisation of education. Although the document boasts of widespread grass-roots consultations with relevant stakeholders, a look at Appendix VII reveals that in fact, it has consulted organisations directly affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and those sharing its ideology of Hindutva, like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal and Bharatiya Shiksha Shodh Sansthan as  part of its network of educational organisations, if they can be called educational and not indoctrination organisations. For equal representation purposes, it consulted many religious bodies of other religions also. This is not all, it consulted most of the leading voices of organised Capital in our country, like Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), etc. One needs to keep these in mind in order to know whose interests this policy intends to serve. It is not those of the poor and socially-oppressed and the marginalised majority of this country, but of the Sangh Parivar and the big corporates at home  and abroad. Although these are only suggestions, we will have to wait to find out which of these suggestions the government takes forward and which it discards. To the credit of the drafting committee, their job couldn’t have been easy, as they tried to balance the vision for a more liberal and equitable education system in the future, with the present considerations of making the policy acceptable to the ruling dispensation and monopoly capital, something fundamentally irreconcilable, which is clear in the numerous contradictions from the first to the last page of this document.

(Adhiraj Nayar is a postgraduate student in Development and Labour Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is a Left-wing activist working with youth and migrant labourers.)