The draft National Education Policy 2019 (DNEP19) is a must-read document as it has implications for India’s ability to reap its “demographic dividend”. Accelerated economic development is dependent upon the value added by a youthful labour force, which can occur only through appropriate investments in human development, including education. Education is a powerful instrument for reducing poverty and inequality; and it enhances competitiveness in the global economy. Ensuring access to quality education for all is central to the economic and social development of India, according to the World Bank.
The DNEP19 lays out a vision for, and even romanticises, the need for affordable and quality education for all. This is an elaborate draft of 477 pages, with four parts, an addendum — 23 chapters in all. However, it does not address several relevant issues.
I will discuss five issues that the draft must consider incorporating: One, financing of education; two, privatisation; three, technology (ICT) as a leveler and equity enhancer; four, English as a medium of instruction and five, the state’s responsibility in educating the masses. Only the fourth point has been discussed in the DNEP19, and that too mostly by undermining the role and importance of the English language. Given the state of education in India, this report lost an opportunity to discuss the advantages of public investments in elementary and high school education that generate “public good”, as against the university-level policy focus on promoting “private good”.
The DNEP19 targets investments in education to the tune of 20 per cent of the government’s annual revenue. But it forgets to review why India has failed to reach the internationally-recognised level of expenditure (6 per cent of GDP) earmarked for this sector. The current allocation (both Centre and states) amounts to only 3.3 per cent of GDP. This report has appealed to philanthropists and companies to route their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to supplement government efforts, but it forgets that such funds will not be ideologically neutral. The report has also not recognised or estimated the role of private investments in education, and the proliferation of private English-medium schools across India. Reckless and unregulated private schools and colleges, besides compromising on quality, will only increase (not reduce) social inequalities in India.
According to the 71st round of the National Sample Survey, 21 per cent of rural and 42 per cent of urban school-going children are enrolled in private-unaided schools. Adjusting for children aged 6-18 years who do not go to school (non-enrollment and dropouts), there are an estimated 50 million children in private schools. It is of utmost importance that primary education is imparted through public sector facilities and that children belonging to various castes, classes and religions must be taught in such schools to generate a sense of belonging and nationalism. One of the main reasons for the emergence of religious intolerance in India is polices that promote segregated primary and elementary education on the lines of caste, religion, class and language.
The report also fails to estimate the share of income that households spend on education. The financing of each level of education — elementary, intermediate and higher-level — comes with its own set of challenges. For example, the government-aided schooling system prevalent in the state of Kerala is not even referred to as a viable model of institutionalised education financing. Maybe a new “public-private-partnership” model will succeed in achieving the objectives of quality, affordability and equality of access.
Education reform must focus on certain fundamental principles — standardised yet personalised learning, literacy and numeracy, scientific temper, systems that promote both competition and collaboration between schools and ensure equity of outcomes.
In the 21st century, technology is the most secular and equitable source of education across the world. A common example is the knowledge-sharing done by the Khan Academy, used even by Bill Gates (by his own admission). Such technological platforms must be immediately harnessed to impart equitable access at primary, elementary and high school levels and to increase the quality of education. Consider this: It is quite possible that a child in Dharavi, Mumbai or in Rampur, in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, accesses quality education imparted at the best school in US — the Thomas Jefferson High School located in the vicinity of Washington D C. Children all over the world have the same right to education and it must be imparted in an affordable manner to all. Technology has provided a solution which must be used.
I respect the DNEP19 for emphasising the need to protect and promote our culture through the study of classical languages, mother tongues and regional languages. Yet, one cannot deny the income-augmenting character of English in India. Those who are fluent in the English language live in households with three times higher income than those without any knowledge of English. By ignoring this, the DNEP19 has laid out a “language trap”, which will create social inequality and impede economic growth due to loss of the demographic dividend.
The report does not emphasise enough the role and importance of state governments in imparting education to the masses. Special education zones targeting unrepresented groups are talked about; but such a targeting strategy will fail without identifying the states which are laggards in education and reaching out to them.
In the health sector, frequent comparisons are made between states so that the budgetary and policy initiatives are aligned to the best practices and are implemented across states. There is adequate indication that through this report, and possibly through a new bill, “education” will be compromised by being placed under the complete control of the national government. The DNEP19 has not assessed or reviewed the past efforts of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan; rather, it has devoted a whole chapter on how to establish and centrally manage the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog or the National Education Commission. This points towards a centralisation of the education system, which is not only inimical to the economy but also to social harmony.
(The writer is with the US-India Policy Institute, Washington DC)
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