The cabinet approval for the long-awaited National Education Policy 2020 has brought with it a fair share of criticism. Aiming to overhaul the education sector of the country after a 34-year gap, the policy is not without its fault. Even though it aims at revamping the whole schooling structure with a focus on the future, the issues are too glaring to be left unnoticed. After having set-up in 2017 under Dr. Kasturirangan, the committee took almost 2 years to release the draft for public scrutiny. The issues with the draft were flagged by various key players in the first instance itself, but the center seems to have not taken those into consideration seriously. The final document has still retained most of what was in the draft.
As rightly pointed out by various organizations and people, the issues with the new language policy, the overemphasis on the vacuous idea of merit, the failure to mention reservation, the centralizing tendency of the policy over an item of the concurrent list and so on are still the mainstay of the policy. Beyond these problems, a discussion on the not so evident problems of the policy is warranted.
Online Education, COVID-19, Right to Internet
The spread of COVID and its ramifications have changed the world as we know it. WHO has already proclaimed a need for a new normal. The scientific world is in a frantic search for a vaccine so as to arrest the rising number of deaths. Among the heavily affected is the student folk, with the education sector facing complete or at least partial lockdown in most countries. According to the estimates of UNESCO, more than 1 billion (~68% of total enrolled) students are out of the school. In India, the whole schooling sector has gone into a shutdown relying on online resources to help them keep floating. This has exposed the fault lines within Indian society. A nation imagined as one, celebrated as diverse is but a deeply divided collection of castes. The developmental indices clearly cut through these divisions in the society leaving a lot to be desired for the marginalized. It is in this reality that we are forced to take the help of technology as a learning aid. The digital divide is so stark even though the country was introduced to lower rates of data. The suicide of 2 underprivileged students in the most developed state of Kerala, owing to the lack of technological access reveals the real picture.
While the policy document has apportioned a whole section to discuss the need for ICT and other technological tools in modernizing and enabling equitable access to education, the central government’s approach in realizing the right of citizens to free and unhindered access to the internet has been nothing short of atrocious. Last year alone saw over 100 instances of internet cuts in the country mainly affecting the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Various studies rank India at the list of top democratic countries that have had internet shutdowns. According to Internet Shutdown Tracker, the number of shutdowns this year is at 55 and counting. Jammu and Kashmir, earlier a state, was turned into two union territories with the promise of greater integration to mainland India. But, what has happened instead is further alienation of the people. Frequent Internet suspension in these areas under the pretext of security and safety has rendered the population totally voiceless. The internet shutdown that was put in place at the time of the abrogation of Art. 370 continued for over 5 months which is something unheard of in modern democracies. Even though the ban was partially lifted in January this year, the only 2G network is being made available to the region. While educational institutions all over the country have been using video applications like Zoom and Google Meet to help the students during the lockdown, the students of Kashmir are left out. They are forced to forfeit their studies for a year or more which can translate into huge losses career-wise. It is in this scenario that the education policy is talking about furthering online education. While the draft is brimming with technological terms like artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchains, and other savvy terminologies, the reality points in another direction. With access to even basic high-speed internet curtailed and suspended, the government has no qualms in making tall claims as to using technology to nurture the future generation. The whole question regarding the digital divide is yet another problem that further complicates the issue.
Research and Oversight
Another cause of concern is the proposal to institute the National Research Foundation. The mandate accorded to the foundation is to oversee the funding and mentoring of the research segment of the education and also to act as a liaison between the researcher and the government and industry. This proposal must be read in the context of the government’s intrusion into matters of curriculum, research ideas, and other areas of education. Last year reports had surfaced indicating the government’s intervention in nudging central universities to prioritize research on topics of national importance. It isn’t particularly hard to guess what constitutes national importance to the right-wing government at the center. While the policy talks about devolving more powers to autonomous institutions, the existence of such an overarching body to oversee the various facets of research is alarming. The document reads: “In particular, the NRF will provide a reliable base of merit-based peer-reviewed research funding, helping to develop a culture of research in the country through suitable incentives for and recognition of outstanding research, and by undertaking major initiatives to seed and grow research at State Universities and other public institutions where research capability is currently limited.” The emphasis on empty terms like merit, outstanding research, and the increased focus on state universities is a major red flag. Further, the stress on innovative ideas like interdisciplinarity turns out to be yet another problematic issue. The higher education portion of the document elaborates on the kind of interdisciplinarity that NEP envisages. It is an attempt to fuse modern evidence-based medicine with that of alternative treatment methods that come under the AYUSH ministry. AYUSH has been the pet project of the incumbent government with a major thrust on marketing Yoga at a global level. A multidisciplinary work on AYUSH would now find it easier to get funding, while more genuine projects might face a lack of support.
Without a serious discussion on capacity building to bridge the digital and economic divide and a government at the center that values the rights of the people instead of locking up its professors and teachers in jail on cooked up charges, the policy changes won’t benefit anyone. The policy only helps in furthering the bureaucratic hold on the education sector with governmental oversight which can harm the learning atmosphere of the country and render it biased and parochial.
Safwat Ahsan is an independent researcher.