The current education policy was drafted in the 1980s. It underwent modifications in 1992. But that was when the liberalisation of the economy was barely out of the policy books, the importance of the digital sphere wasn’t recognised beyond specialist circles, the demographic dividend was scarcely talked about and the Right To Education Act was a decade-and-a-half away from entering the statute book. The New Education Policy (NEP), announced by the government on Wednesday, is thus long overdue. It has been in the making for nearly five years and reports of two committees — the TSR Subramanian Committee in 2016 and the K Kasturirangan Committee last year — have informed the final draft. The challenge before its framers was not just to respond to the dynamics of the knowledge economy but also to reckon with a milieu in which pedagogy has become deeply politicised. To its credit, the policy does not bear too heavy an imprint of the deeply polarised political climate in which it has been finalised.
The NEP proposes the extension of the Right to Education (RTE) to all children up to the age of 18 but it is also alive to the criticism that while mandating accessibility, the RTE Act paid short shrift to learning outcomes. It talks about improving foundational literacy and numeracy — deficits in which have been underlined by several ASER reports — and underlines the importance of pedagogical and technological interventions to scale down the learning crisis. It proposes a range of measures that aim “to make education more experiential, holistic, discovery-oriented, learner-centred and enjoyable” — including the move to make the mother tongue or the local language the medium of instruction. It is welcome that children will be given more choice of subjects, and “there will be no hard separation among arts, humanities and sciences”. In higher education too, it does well to envisage the breaking of boundaries between disciplines and transforming institutions “into large multi-disciplinary universities and colleges”.
Yet enormous challenges remain. The policy recognises, for instance, that “vibrant campus life is essential for high-quality teaching learning processes”. But if developments in some of the country’s premier universities — JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia, for instance — are indication, the campus’s promise as a space that nurtures critical thought, political argument and debate is increasingly embattled. The NEP’s claims will also come up against a sharpening fault line — India’s digital divide that has been highlighted and deepened by the COVID pandemic. As an ongoing series of reports in this paper during the lockdown have highlighted, the classroom itself is under pressure like never before. Disparities between the rich and poor, urban and rural, show up strikingly in access to digital tools. If technology is a force-multiplier in some cases, in others it is inaccessible. The looming economic distress is playing out harshly in schools with students dropping out, their parents out of work and unable to pay fees, teachers not being paid their dues. Surely, these are beyond the NEP’s remit but the test of a policy is on the ground — not just on paper. With the largest number of young — and poor — in the world, the task is cut out.
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