NEP 2020 greatly increases the scope of private participation in education, ignores the country’s pluralistic traditions, and furthers the neoliberal agenda of designing a profit-oriented system that serves corporate interests.
It is an intriguing, but by now hardly surprising, fact that on June 24, the Ministry of Human Resource Development finalised a loan with the World Bank as the culmination of a process allowing for its third and final intervention in determining the structure, content and governance of the entire system of school education, from pre-nursery to Class 12, through its Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States (STARS) programme. (The earlier interventions were the District Primary Education Programme or DPEP of 1993-2002 and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan since 2002.)
Just a month later, on July 30, Ramesh Pokhriyal, the Minister for Human Resource Development, told mediapersons in New Delhi that the Central Cabinet had passed for immediate implementation the long-delayed New Education Policy or NEP 2020. Both events occurred amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is showing no signs of abating across the nation. A series of lockdowns, in various stages in States, districts, cities, towns and urban localities, has brought the economy to a halt. Lakhs of migrant workers, deprived of even the barest incomes, returned to their home towns and villages in the most atrocious conditions.
Schools, colleges and universities have been closed since March and examinations have either not been held or are being held or are threatened to be held online, creating confusion and panic among the majority of students.
‘Reforms’ during pandemic
The last thing one would have expected is the Cabinet to pass the NEP without presenting and debating it in Parliament at a time when the people are concerned only with getting their lives back on track and coping with the unprecedented health and economic situation.
But it comes as no surprise, since the Government of India has been utilising the COVID-19 crisis to great advantage by passing several of its “reform” programmes without observing democratic niceties or permitting any democratic resistance.
It has abrogated protective labour laws and collective bargaining, disinvested in the public sector and the Railways, allowed privatisation of the electricity sector, reorganised banks, and cleared environmentally sensitive projects at breakneck speed.
NEP 2020 states that its priority, like that of the World Bank, is ensuring that quality education be made accessible to all children from pre-nursery to Class 12. So, one would be justified in assuming that the World Bank must be providing a hefty grant, or at least a significant loan, to assist in realising this laudable goal.
However, the finalised loan constitutes a mere 1.4 per cent of the total investment required for the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan of which the STARS programme is a part. The Centre and the governments of States and Union Territories would be contributing 98.6 per cent.
Yet, the STARS programme will focus on the whole school approach and teacher education in the Samagra Siksha Abhiyan in the selected “high performance States” of Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan and the “learning States” of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha. It will thereby allow the World Bank to acquire an overarching role in influencing the teaching-learning content, practices and outcomes of the entire system of school education; training and monitoring faculty for implementing it; setting up “merit-based” learning assessment systems to measure achievement based on the above; and formulating and implementing governance reforms to cover the training of educational officials and function as an extensive outreach to train parents to participate in implementing the programme.
This raises the next obvious question. Is the World Bank an international educational institution? If not, why is it being asked to design such a comprehensive programme for quality school education in India? Further, what has been the bank’s experience of earlier interventions in India’s school education system?
The World Bank as an international financial institution creates, regulates and safeguards markets for advancing the interests of international finance capital. It is neither concerned with the educational rights and pedagogical concerns of providing quality education to the majority of India’s children who are deprived of the benefits of such education, nor equipped for that.
From the 1980s onwards, the World Bank has concentrated, particularly in former colonies, on persuading governments to withdraw public resources from education and encourage the entry of private investors and a variety of ‘non-state actors’.
As NEP 2020 itself advocates, this omnibus term may include multinational corporations and corporate investors, non-governmental organisation (NGOs), civil society, charitable and/or religious organisations and even “volunteers”.
Under the garb of being “philanthropic” rather than merely “private” partners, the NEP promotes and commends their initiatives and role in sharing resources as well as in synergising the interaction between the public system and private agencies.
“To further enhance cooperation and positive synergy among schools, including between public and private schools, the twinning/pairing of one public school with one private school will be adopted across the country, so that such paired schools may meet/interact with each other, learn from each other, and also share resources, if possible. Best practices of private schools will be documented, shared, and institutionalized in public schools, and vice versa, where possible,” states the NEP. (7.10)
However, it has become more than evident that with the collaboration of these ‘players’, governments can neither be held effectively accountable nor remain responsible for the state of the education system.
The experience of the DPEP, designed and sponsored by the World Bank, should have made this clear already. Implemented in 18 States and nearly half of India’s districts, it incorporated ‘low-cost’ solutions in government schools to fill the need for greater accessibility and quality. The rapid deterioration of state-funded primary schools (Classes I-V) and the loss of credibility among those who depended most on the system, such as the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), members of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Muslims and other impoverished sections, resulted in the privatisation and commercialisation of school education with the mushrooming of low-budget fee-charging private schools at a faster pace than ever since Independence.
This damaging experience was systematically ignored and the World Bank’s intervention in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan from 2002 onwards only carried it further. The Right to Education Act, 2009, which legislated a quota of at least 25 per cent for students belonging to the Economically Weaker Sections in admissions to private schools, functioned as a Trojan horse that set up privately funded school education as a desirable option and failed to emphasise its inherently defective pedagogical character that fuses quality in education with the capacity to pay.
Yet, the Centre has finalised the third intervention with the World Bank.
Exclusion of the marginalised
Therefore, the government’s claim that it has embarked on a path-breaking direction 34 years after the 1986-92 NEP is misleading. It is only advancing the same strategy as previous governments that followed the perspective and approach of the World Bank model after the adoption of the neoliberal reforms policy in 1991.
Public-private partnership (PPP) strategies, which lie at the core of the World Bank’s approach, do not provide better quality education. They increase the exclusion of the deprived and the marginalised, exploit a highly discriminatory multi-track system of education promoted by the play of market forces and divert from the constitutional goal of establishing a nationwide system of quality education for all.
Although the NEP states that “the aim of the public school system will be to impart the highest quality education so that it becomes the most attractive option for parents from all walks of life for educating their children” (8.9), and the document opens with the assertion that “substantial investment in a strong, vibrant public education system as well as the encouragement and facilitation of true philanthropic private and community participation” will determine government policy, the hackneyed solutions offered by it belie the claim. It says: “To facilitate learning for all students, with special emphasis on socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs), the scope of school education will be broadened to facilitate multiple pathways to learning involving both formal and non-formal education modes.
“Open and Distance Learning (ODL) Programs offered by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and State Open Schools will be expanded and strengthened for meeting the learning needs of young people in India who are not able to attend a physical school.”
It adds: “NIOS and State Open Schools will offer the following programmes in addition to the present programmes: A, B and C levels that are equivalent to Grades 3, 5, and 8 of the formal school system; secondary education programmes that are equivalent to Grades 10 and 12; vocational education courses/programmes; and adult literacy and life-enrichment programmes. States will be encouraged to develop these offerings in regional languages by establishing new/strengthening existing State Institutes of Open Schooling (SIOS).” (3.5)
According to the document, “…. various successful policies and schemes such as targeted scholarships, conditional cash transfers to incentivise parents to send their children to school, providing bicycles for transport, etc., that have significantly increased participation of SEDGs in the schooling system in certain areas…. must be significantly strengthened across the country.” (6.4)
The NEP also declares that to make it easier for both governments as well as “non-governmental philanthropic organisations to build schools, to encourage local variations on account of culture, geography, and demographics, and to allow alternative models of education, the requirements for schools will be made less restrictive. The focus will be to have less emphasis on input and greater emphasis on output potential concerning desired learning outcomes.” (3.6)
Does the much-needed inclusion of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme as an integral part of the school system offer any new directions? For universal access to the ECCE programme, it offers the old idea of strengthening anganwadi centres and equipping them with high-quality infrastructure, play equipment, and well-trained anganwadi workers and teachers.
State governments would be responsible for training those educated up to 10+2 for six months while those with “lower” educational levels would receive training for one year. Anganwadis would be fully integrated in school complexes. (1.5) There is nothing new here, for they would continue to remain under several Ministries such as Education, Women and Child Development, and Health. Their separate functions are still not conceived of as integral parts of a significant and cohesive stage of the education system.
An unexamined proposal for establishing ashramshalas and “alternative schooling” for tribal areas earmarks them for “targeted attention”. The document mentions a plan for “Special Educational Zones” only once and does not elaborate. It is not clear if these are zones, with large populations of the “underrepresented” (a euphemism for the deprived/marginalised) sections, that will be separated from the rest of the system or if they will receive special attention and support.
Serving corporate interests
The World Bank’s strategy since 1994 has been based on the promotion of a model of knowledge adjusted to the requirements of corporate job markets and a market model of education delivery that involves the privatisation, commercialisation and corporatisation of education. The latter model places the entire burden of education on the individual family and fee-paying parents or students. They are the “consumers” who make it profitable for the investor or provider to enter the education market. PPP strategies encourage the transition to a ‘market’ where edu-businesses strengthen their hold over public assets through government reimbursement and voucher schemes.
Governments indirectly further the process by starving and dismantling state-funded education systems through budgetary fund cuts, with subsequent ‘rationalisation’ proposals for the merger and/closure of crisis-ridden schools. NEP 2020 repeatedly endorses these strategies, which will continue to lead to a massive exclusion from education of backward communities that constitute almost 85 per cent of the population. These strategies leave neither access nor agency for S.Cs, S.Ts, OBCs, Muslims, Denotified Tribes and girls, transgenders and the disabled within these already disempowered categories. The proposed creation of “inclusion funds” for them will neither change the commercialised character of the system nor even provide meaningful relief to individual recipients.
NEP 2020 also shares the main features of the World Bank approach to the model of knowledge. It approves of and promotes a perspective that is detrimental to establishing an equitable system of quality education in India. The contemporary ‘merchandisation’ of education requires it not only to conform more closely to the needs of the job market, but also to initiate its own transformation into a new and highly lucrative market. Knowledge as a resource for critically comprehending the contemporary world, societies and value systems is now treated as being “too heavy” for current teaching-learning methodologies and curricula to handle. The “skills approach”, a functional assembly of performance-oriented qualities that signal their own desired level of achievement, now defines the basic unit, module, and topic of learning.
The “learning outcome” too is predetermined. The teaching-learning process is reduced to acquiring procedural competencies that can be “appropriately” graded for different levels. NEP 2020 is firmly committed to classroom transactions shifting “towards competency-based learning and education”. It says: “The assessment tools (including assessment “as”, “of”, and “for” learning) will also be aligned with the learning outcomes.” (4.6)
The proposal for multiple exit and entry points from pre-nursery to Class 12, which begins early with the re-introduction of examinations at classes 3, 5 and 8, is based on the identification of skill levels.
It says: “Specific sets of skills and values across domains will be identified for integration and incorporation at each stage of learning, from pre-school to higher education.” (4.4)
However, depriving students of the “content” of formal learning, which not only develops fundamental disciplines, critical thinking and the creativity to innovate and conceptualise opposition to social injustices and all forms of discrimination, makes a mockery of learning as it cultivates conformism in thought and produces citizens only fit to be cogs in the economic and technological machine.
Regulatory centralisation, as achieved through the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), has been a long-standing demand of private investors.
The loss of democratic freedoms and academic autonomy, with supreme authority being granted to boards of governors of institutions that must compulsorily become autonomous, is a painful reality.
‘Idea of India’
The “vision” of NEP 2020 is “to instill among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds, as well as to develop knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions that support responsible commitment to human rights, sustainable development and living, and global well-being, thereby reflecting a truly global citizen.”
To this end, the entire “curriculum and pedagogy, from the foundational stage onwards, will be redesigned to be strongly rooted in the Indian and and ethos…. in order to ensure that education is maximally relatable, relevant, interesting, and effective for our students.” (4.29)
The document repeatedly makes such exhortations but the “idea of India” and Indianness that is endorsed appears to be quite distinct from what is usually associated with the plurality and diversity of India.
India has always been identified with being open to absorbing and negotiating with philosophical, religious, cultural and technological knowledge from other parts of the world. NEP 2020 states that the “knowledge of India” will include knowledge from ancient India and its contributions to modern India and its successes and challenges, “and a clear sense of India’s future aspirations”. (4.27) This leap across centuries misses the changing experiences of numerous tribal communities; the powerful anti-caste cultural ideologies, monotheistic movements and cults; and the philosophical contestations within various sects of Hinduism.
The political, cultural and technological impact of the exposure to central Asia, the arrival of Islam and the richness and complexity of its intellectual, cultural and sociological consequences that surround us in our daily lives, are also absent.
Equally surprising is the neglect of the period of colonial domination and the decades-long struggle of the people, who, united as a nation, survived the tragedy of Partition and emerged as an independent, constitutional republic. India is far greater, far more expansive, far richer in detail and far deeper in its experience of inequality and oppression than the “Sanskrit knowledge systems” (4.17), theory and literature that NEP 2020 attempts to confine it to.
The policy’s failure to recognise the worth of the totality of our subcontinental history, culture and lived experience immeasurably diminishes the very idea of India.
An education policy that is unable to reflect this sweep of history does itself and the youth of India a grave injustice.