From Swami Vivekananda to Sam Pitroda, many wise men have devoted attention to education and many policy documents and reports have emerged from time to time to reform and refine the education system. Educational reform has to be cyclical and unending by its very nature, but the efforts in India end up with diagnosis and prescription, but no treatment. Therefore, new reform proposals tend to begin with definition of education, the principles that should determine it, the nature of necessary structures and multitude of initiatives which never reach fruition.
The New Draft Education Policy 2019 is not an exception. An exercise, which started in 2015 with wide open-ended consultations down to the village level without a draft, which resulted in thousands of pages of material. The MHRD produced “Draft Inputs” as a guide for further consultations. As Vice Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, I conducted the state level consultations and presented our conclusions at a meeting chaired by the then HRD Minister Smriti Irani. We were generally supportive of the liberal approach to education envisaged by the Central Government, but cautioned against saffronisation of education.
A report prepared by a group of experts led by TSR Subramaniam, a former Cabinet Secretary became controversial as the Government was reluctant to publish it and the Chairman made much of the report public. The Government appointed another Committee under Dr.K.Kasturirangan to put everything in order, but the Committee proceeded to hold its own consultations and wrote its report. This was hurriedly released with an introduction by the former HRD Minister on the day a new Minister took over with the announcement that it was still a draft and that it would be subject to farther consultations before implementation.
Of all the recommendations in the report, the proposal to make study of Hindi compulsory in all states blew up in Tamil Nadu, putting the Government in deep embarrassment and forcing it to withdraw the whole proposal. The fate of the rest of the report is unknown as no machinery has been set up to hold consultations on it.
On the fundamentals of education, the draft adds affordability and accountability to the existing access, equity and excellence, but not employability. Skills development is given as much importance as knowledge to develop manpower for science and technology, academics and industry.
Nearly twenty suggestions on structural changes have been made, ranging from re-designating HRD as Ministry of Education to altering the nature of the University Grants Commission. Many of these proposals were made by the Government on different occasions, but not followed up.
The most significant aspect of the draft is that it envisages a totally liberal education, giving various levels of autonomy to educational institutions. A bold move is to abolish the affiliation system altogether by 2032. All colleges will become degree awarding institutions, independent of universities. Restructuring of undergraduate programme to four years duration with multiple exit and entry points, which was once rejected when it was first introduced in the Delhi University has been revived. Research has been given prime importance in University education and several measures have been suggested to make research purposeful.
Different structures have been suggested for different institutions and funding has been liberalized. Teacher education and use of technology have been given particular importance.
The draft is a virtual menu card of ideas and proposals from which the Government can pick and choose on the basis of its own priorities, availability of funding and acceptability for the general public. India’s cultural heritage has been stressed, but there is no evidence of any effort to “saffronise” education.
Perhaps, as a balance to the suggestion that Hindi should be made compulsory in all states, which has been dropped, considerable emphasis has been placed on English language education. Stressing the advantage of multilingual education, the draft notes that English is necessary to cope with the emerging technologies and knowledge. The answer to the English elitism, according to the Committee, is to teach English to more and more people and widen the elite. This makes eminent sense as the opportunities of the demographic dividend can be utilised only if we have people with proficiency in English. With some states like Kerala shifting from English to the vernacular, the proposal for intense training in English is likely to be opposed.
Inevitably, internationalisation has been identified as an urgent need. Even with the proviso that education will be without profit, foreign universities stand ready to come to India. But the relevant legislation has been stuck in parliament. If the recommendations in the draft are accepted, India will be working with top class universities around the world.
On school education, the draft makes several suggestions to address the myriad problems and challenges. These include: endorsing the Kothari Commission’s (1968) call for establishing school complexes; the term ‘public school’ to be retained only for those institutions that receive government funds; re-organising school education to include early childhood care and learning; dismantling the numerous dubious teacher training institutes; making all BEd degrees into four-year degree programmes located with universities and multi-disciplinary colleges; and revising the Right to Education Act to further facilitate access to quality and private elementary education for economically disadvantaged groups.
The draft is very much in line with the education policy of the United Democratic Front in Kerala, while it is in conflict with the emerging policy of the Left Democratic Front. How this situation will play out is yet to be seen.
Though the draft needs to be flushed out and the details of the new structures have to be seen whether they will do better than the existing ones, the draft has many good features like a liberal education and fully autonomous colleges. These measures will alleviate several of the ills of our education system, If not, with the mindset of the 19th century and the syllabi of the 20th century, we shall be endeavouring to educate our young generation for the 21st century.