What does the new National Education Policy (NEP) have to say about the future of Indian higher education? Before trying to answer this question, it is necessary to spend a moment or two on the roughly 500-page draft of the NEP (henceforth DNEP) that the new government unveiled on the day it took office. Ever since Kapil Sibal took over as the human resources development (HRD) minister a decade ago, relations between the academic world and successive Union governments have inhabited a triangle defined by morbidity, chaos, and toxicity. For most of this period, there seemed to be no overall policy, only an incoherent plethora of schemes that could be contradictory, overlapping or isolated from each other. Grand Tughlaqian projects predominated, and they tended to assume a clean slate, ignoring the entrenched mess of modalities and institutions already in existence. Abortive attempts to produce a coherent national vision document had only made matters worse.
Against this dismal background, DNEP 2019 appears to offer some hope. It is the first policy document of the past decade that at least looks the part. From the perspective of higher education, its main strength is that it has got its basics right — it appears to have a reasonable understanding of existing problems, and offers a plausible picture of possible solutions that may take us towards a better future. Indeed, the DNEP comes as a refreshing shock to academics long accustomed to policy documents that are rooted in a stubborn denial of basic ground realities.
Beginning with the meaningful decision to drop the delusional techno-speak of “Human Resource Development” and return to “Education” as the name for its parent ministry, the DNEP makes many policy pronouncements that will be widely welcomed in the academic world. The most overarching is the acknowledgement that all education is, and ought to be envisioned as, “liberal” and holistic. There is a strong re-affirmation of the state’s commitment to public education, much needed at a time when privatisation has seemed to be the overriding objective of governments. Also welcome is the explicit assurance that institutional autonomy is not just a polite term for financial abandonment. Finally, the recognition that rampant resort to ad hoc and contractual appointments has crippled higher education and must be stopped immediately will surely bring relief to teachers’ organisations agitating tirelessly on this very issue.
Taken together, the 10 chapters on Higher Education in the DNEP seem to offer a reasonable road map on higher education, preparing the ground for vital discussion and debate on concrete mechanisms and their specifics. The core vision based on a tripartite division of higher education into teaching universities, research universities, and optimally-sized multi-disciplinary undergraduate colleges is sound. The diagnoses and prescriptions for the key areas of governance and regulation are workable as initial starting points, as is the plan to create a National Research Foundation separate from regulatory bodies.
A surprisingly sensible document in comparison to its immediate predecessors, the DNEP nevertheless provokes two kinds of concerns. The first kind are triggered by what it does not say, or say clearly or strongly enough. It is striking that the crucial topics of equity and inclusion do not rate a separate chapter in Higher Education (though they have one in School Education). The persistence of practices of discrimination and exclusion in the face of legislated access for hitherto excluded groups has been at the forefront of public debate on higher education in recent times. It is deeply disappointing that the DNEP has evaded this issue, with the question of Under-Represented Groups (URGs) making no appearance outside school education.
Caste discrimination has long been an important issue in higher education, and has received intense public attention in recent times, from Rohith Vemula to Payal Tadavi. Moreover, national statistics unambiguously establish that Persons with Disability and Muslims are by far the leading URGs in higher education. It is beyond debate that a national policy is needed to deal with this vital issue, and, sadly, the DNEP’s effective silence must count as cowardice.
The DNEP is also silent (or excessively soft-spoken) on another issue that its own blueprint foregrounds, namely the challenge of protecting public higher educational institutions from undue governmental interference. Even a casual reader will recognise that the proposed institutional framework for higher education — with the National Education Commission chaired by the prime minister at its apex — clearly implies even more governmental control with significantly higher levels of centralisation than what is already the case. The DNEP should have included — but does not — a forthright proposal for dealing with this unavoidable problem.
This brings us to the second kind of concerns caused by what the DNEP cannot say. Because it belongs to a peculiar category of potentially powerful yet easily ignorable vision documents, the DNEP cannot tell whether — and to what extent — it will matter. Like the pre-election manifesto promises of political parties, statements of intent in policy can be shrugged off with impunity. Indeed, the DNEP acquires an aura of incongruity precisely because it stands in stark contrast to what governments have done and failed to do in higher education. This is especially true of Modi Raj 1.0, which seemed to have declared war on higher educational institutions across the country.
This incongruity and its uncertainties are magnified by the mixed messages sent to us by the government.
The Kasturirangan Committee responsible for producing the DNEP submitted it to the then Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar, on 1December 15, 2018. It was then kept under wraps for six months until it was revealed on May 30, 2019, the very day that the new government took office. Continuity did not seem to matter because it was not Javadekar but Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ who was entrusted with implementing the DNEP. Now the nation awaits the new born DNEP’s janmakundali to reveal its future. But we already know one of its possible epitaphs: It was just too good to be true.
The writer teaches sociology at Delhi University
— This article first appeared in the June 14, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Too good to be true’