On July 29th, 2020, India’s newest National Education Policy (NEP) was announced. NEP 2020 is India’s third NEP, coming after the first NEP in 1968, under Indira Gandhi, and the second in 1986 (revised 1992) under Rajiv Gandhi. Broadly, it makes advances in early childhood education and multidisciplinary education but fails to fully address structural inequalities and teacher shortages. Moreover, its effective implementation is contingent on sufficient budget allocations, agency cooperation, management and data collection.
A Look at India’s Educational Achievement
India often sets high goals for their education system but fails to fully implement reforms due to a lack of investment and administrative failures. Disparities in educational achievement between genders, classes, and castes are still prominent. According to UNESCO, in 2018, the literacy rate for those 15 years and older was 65.8% for females and 82.4% for males. India’s overall enrollment ratio in post-secondary education is about 28.6%. On average, students spend 11.4 years in school. As of 2018, 10.6% of government expenditures were spent on education.
Background on the NEP
Education in India is a concurrent subject, which means that particular educational reforms have to be agreed upon by both the federal government “the Centre” and the state governments. The newest NEP will be facing multiple administrative challenges during its implementation. Traditionally, NEPs are discussed with state governments before being passed by the Union Cabinet. The newest NEP has come under criticism for “bypassing” both Parliament and State government discussion, and for lack of transparency both during its drafting and passage. The NEP is not binding, but rather a comprehensive set of recommendations to guide the next few decades of Indian education.
The last NEP in 1986 focused on teacher education, women’s empowerment, incorporating technology into education, and adult literacy. However, it did not fulfill its goals of increasing the quality and quantity of research output by Indian researchers.
In 2015, India committed to the education development goal expressed in Goal 4 (SDG 4) of the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development, which states that India seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. This year’s NEP focuses on multidisciplinary education in an effort to advance the effectiveness of Indian education.
The NEP and Primary and Secondary Education
The newest NEP will transform India’s current 10+2 model of primary and secondary education, ten years completing the first to tenth standards, and two years in junior college, into a 5+3+3+4 model. This consists of five years in the Foundational stage (ages 3-8), three years in the Preparatory stage (ages 8-11), three years in the Middle stage (Ages 11-14), and four years in the Secondary stage (ages 14-18). Proponents of the change say that the change will bring India’s education system more in line with international models of primary and secondary education and that it will allow educators to tailor subjects and educational goals to the age groups. The change also represents the first time that early childhood education has been incorporated into one of India’s NEPs.
NEP 2020 also proposes changes to board examinations, making them less difficult and focused on critical thinking, problem solving, and skill development rather than content knowledge. Critics of this approach say that implementing examinations in four phases of education (grades 2, 5, 8, and 12), rather than two (grades 10 and 12), will increase the “performance” pressure of examinations that students already face. Additionally, it does nothing to change the examination-oriented culture in India.
Another emphasis is on multilingual education. Especially at the elementary level, NEP 2020 seeks to teach students up to grade 5 in their local language. Proponents of the policy cite evidence that students have stronger retention when they are taught in their native languages. Critics argue that using local languages as the medium of instruction could exacerbate already gaping inequalities that students face when they enter the workforce.
The NEP and Higher Education
The NEP’s sweeping reforms of higher education include a new regulatory system. The NEP 2020 proposes streamlining universities into three types: Research-Intensive Universities, Teaching-Intensive Universities and Autonomous Degree-Granting Colleges. Additionally, higher education institutions (HEIs) will now be governed by an external state-appointed board of governors. The policy also seeks to offer students multiple ways to exit from higher education, offering additional certificates that can be earned after several years in college but before earning a degree.
Critics of the policies argue that the reforms are based on the belief that many of the structural problems in higher education will be solved by reorganization. Over 77 thousand existing teaching posts remain unfilled in central and state universities. There is also a substantial lack of funding to achieve the NEP’s goals of opening thousands of new universities. Additionally, critics contend that universities led by a board of governors will be less likely to respond to teacher and student input.
The NEP also emphasizes the need for multidisciplinary education at the college level, opening technical colleges up to coverage of multiple subjects. While the emphasis on interdisciplinary education is a much needed one, the effectiveness of a liberal arts curriculum and research could be constrained by the lack of a liberal social and political environment.
Lastly, the NEP opens India up to foreign universities who wish to set up campuses there. The move may help alleviate the burden on the central government of funding and administration of some universities.
The NEP and Social Hierarchy
The NEP includes several mentions of special efforts in schools to address caste and gender hierarchies, but they do not go as far as to recommend structural reform. An entire section examines the special considerations of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs), including girls, Dalits, and children with disabilities. It emphasizes the need for continued teacher training tailored to special needs children. Critics contend that teacher training also needs to be tailored towards addressing gender and caste disparities and that the need for reforms begins at the early childhood level.
Administrative challenges to implementation
Major administrative challenges include lack of funding, coordination between different branches of government, lack of a central education management system, lack of data collection, and a teacher shortage. The NEP 2020 calls for education spending to increase from 4.6 to 6% of GDP, which will be rendered challenging by budget strains from the coronavirus pandemic. The successful implementation of NEP 2020 will be largely dependent on the cooperation of the state governments and Parliament, neither of which were consulted during the construction of the NEP. Central management and data collection systems for India’s extensive public school system are either non-existent or insufficient in areas to implement the full scope of reforms. And even after education, a lack of teachers from both a lack of sufficient teacher training and an adverse divide between official and contracted temporary teachers means that even if reforms are implemented, students may still face a lack of effective teaching in their schools.
The NEP 2020 is a document that is telling about the current administration’s vision for Indian education. In areas of early childhood education and addressing educational inequalities, it does offer substantial improvements that reflect the changing social environment. However, how administrators deal with implementation challenges will ultimately determine how effective the policy will be.