The National Education Policy (NEP) document is now up for discussion. The section on higher education starts with the agenda of a “revamp” of the sector to build a “world-class multi-disciplinary” system with a gross enrollment (GER) target of 50 per cent by 2035. Yet, it offers no guidance on what will happen to all these graduates or any analysis of employability.
The absence of data is noted and the concerned national institute, NIEPA, is pulled up. However, the question of how we have produced millions of unemployable graduates is not addressed.
The NEP does offer the vision of India as a cultural, scientific and economic power. The task is of preparing well-rounded and creative individuals, who will also be ready for multi-disciplinary jobs. It says faculty and students will work with the community on real-world problems and also be aware of national issues and concerns of the day. It lists some of the hurdles in achieving this.
They are the usual, except that the “lack of transparent and competitive peer-reviewed research funding” is noted. Missing in this list are the two elephants in the room: The hostile takeover of science and society by competitive exams and coaching classes, and the hijacking of curricula and research agenda by central agencies. A cursory analysis of the first elephant is offered and it is delegated to the National Testing Agency, another MHRD outfit.
The NEP has proposed a consolidation of the 40,000 odd colleges into effectively a three-tier system of 12,000 multi-disciplinary institutions. Colleges (or institutions) are to be classified as type I, which are primarily research institutions, type II, which do both teaching and research, and, type III, which will only do teaching.
There is also an implied hierarchy based on “quality of research” — type I institutions will be role models for type II, and they in turn for type III. Finally, type I institutions must do “cutting edge research” and “become world-class universities” achieving global recognition. As it transpires, type I institutions are largely the existing “central institutions”, the IITs, IISERs, TIFR, etc., and type II are the state universities. Type III are obviously our local colleges, the dispensers of hand-me-down knowledge for the bottom 80 per cent. This is how types become tiers and our higher education system remains a client of global science.
Then there is the National Research Foundation (NRF), tasked with “permeating a culture of research and innovation” and addressing societal challenges. However, its project-proposal based design is similar to say, the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
There is no mechanism, such as innovative curricula or extension units, for tier II or tier III institutions to work on local problems. It has no access or accountability to people or their representatives. Given its “competitive” nature and the absence of state representation, as with DST, funds may largely go to tier I institutions to follow “world-class research”. This will neither permeate to local colleges nor change state agencies or improve drinking water.
A full chapter is devoted to the liberal arts university, which is modelled after the Ivy league universities in the US or large monastic gurukuls such as Nalanda, or the modern JNU. This is a top-down approach to learning. There is no pedagogical vehicle provided, e.g., the case study, which is accessible to the common student. Thus the opportunity of making the lived reality of the public hospital or imported ganapatis worthy of liberal study is lost.
There are other parts — on regulation or governance, etc. — that reflect deep centralised thinking. For example, the pedagogy of social engagement is not interpreted as a systematic probing of the immediate vicinity, for instance, of documenting a taluka bus depot or preparing a watershed plan, but is dissipated and emasculated into volunteerism and “tutoring groups”.
For all the talk of autonomy, the education secretary of the state is not made any more accountable. It is also peppered with many references to 21st century themes of the “new knowledge society” and “the fourth industrial revolution”, while the problems of 19th century shackle us.
In short, the document fails to state clear and measurable strategic objectives of higher education and research, or a plan to achieve them. This will only consolidate an elite-vaad of global jobs and global science as the agenda for higher education. It will also perpetuate the aspirational trap that our youth are in. The vikas agenda once more, will be relegated to social mobilisation, community service and volunteerism, rather than formal academic and professional work. This is precisely why problems such as drinking water or public transport, and sustainability in general, have become intractable.
Indeed, the demands of development are urgent and require the highest intellect and competence and the ability to work across disciplines and agencies. The necessary institutional and individual skills are simply not there. The NEP could have provided a road map to get there, of delicate decentralisation, innovative pedagogies and partnerships between central and state institutions and regional agencies. Moreover, many new challenges, such as climate change, require collaborative thinking and collective action right down to the community level. Rather than recognise the importance of state colleges as our primary agents of change, the report proposes to entangle them in a bureaucratic web of NTA, NAAC, NHERA and others.
Thankfully, the NEP is still a proposal. Parliament should request the committee to rework the three basic instruments along the above lines. Next, bring more accountability to type I institutions, and build more direct linkages between the three types of institutions, development agencies and funds. Lastly, consider a few models of decentralisation of MHRD, DST and other agencies.
Finally, a word to the student. Development is not only about the expectation of better public amenities, but is also acquiring skills, knowledge and agency to deliver them. The next wave of companies will not only have gadgets and equipment to offer, but also developmental services. They will want graduates who are not only competent in their disciplines, but who also understand the broader society, the importance of field work, measurements and documentation. So demand such a training from your college. For that is the future of jobs and the way out of the current aspirational trap.
This article first appeared in today’s paper under the headline: “The aspiration trap”. Sohoni is with Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay. He is currently on deputation to IIT Goa. Dharap is a researcher