Updated: August 2, 2021 8:05:16 am
It’s been a year since the National Education Policy 2020 laid out a map for a long-overdue re-imagination of Indian education. Twelve months is too short a time to evaluate a policy which proposes vital shifts in education — from creating a system in which “children not only learn, but more importantly learn how to learn”, to one in which “pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, inquiry-driven, flexible” and in which there is “no hard separation between arts and sciences”. The Covid-19 pandemic has indeed slowed down the implementation of this transition, but some proposals are poised to see light of day this academic year, including an academic credit bank for undergraduate students. In his speech marking a year of NEP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced that 14 engineering colleges across eight states will teach undergraduate programmes in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Marathi from the new academic year. This has the potential to open up technical education to the vast majority of students for whom English remains a handicap. But it is important not to understate the challenge: The government will need to put in significant resources and work in creating such a knowledge ecosystem.
The tension between NEP’s ambition and facts on the ground is evident on other counts too. The call for greater autonomy to higher educational institutions is undercut by the fact that several universities continue to function without vice-chancellors. Last fortnight, the Centre appointed VCs to 12 universities after a delay of months — 10 central universities, including Delhi University and JNU, remain without full-time heads. The NEP asks for the highest priority to literacy and numeracy but the government has slashed the school education budget by almost Rs 5,000 crore; higher education has suffered a Rs 1,000 crore cut. Without financial resources and committed people to take ownership of institutions and policy, it will be hard to walk the talk. While the PM hailed the transition to online learning, the pandemic’s unkindest cut has been in deepening the inequality in access to education. Covid might have accelerated at least one aspect of change. The cancellation of the Class XII board examinations and subsequent challenges for institutes of higher education is a vindication of NEP’s prescription — it is time to let go of the old normal in examinations and university enrolment.
The NEP forcefully lends its weight to the idea of institutional autonomy. But critical thinking cannot be decreed into existence. It needs an enabling eco-system, which is sadly missing. The most recent instance of a Madhya Pradesh police superintendent, acting on the complaints of ABVP, forcing a university to exit a webinar because it disapproved of some of the speakers is an illustration of the shrinking of the campus as a space for ideas and creativity. As the Centre and other stakeholders embark on NEP’s implementation, the promise — and the challenges — are both evident.
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