India’s National Education Policy is a positive step – if implemented

System consolidation, regulatory simplification and undergraduate flexibility are positive steps, says Pushkar

August 17, 2020
The Indian Parliament
Source: iStock

India’s much-awaited National Education Policy (NEP), published late last month, has attracted both praise and criticism. Some of that seems to be based on the ideological disposition of the current government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, there is no doubt that the NEP is progressive and promising in many respects.

The document, a draft of which was published last year, lays out India’s vision to develop its education sector in order to emerge as a leading knowledge power. While some of the early controversies are about its recommendation that the medium of instruction in schools be the children’s mother tongue or the local or regional language, the proposals are fairly solid with respect to higher education.

There are at least three aspects of the Indian system that the NEP deals with very well. First is the problem of fragmentation. According to government data for 2018-19, India’s 37.4 million students are served by 993 universities, 39,931 colleges and 10,725 stand-alone institutions.

The last of these offer degrees or diplomas in select disciplines, such as hotel management and catering, management and teacher training. But many colleges also offer degrees in a very limited number of disciplines: sometimes only one or two. That is why 16 per cent of colleges have fewer than 100 students and 48 per cent (nearly 19,000!) have fewer than 500. 

The NEP aims to correct this by moving towards “a higher educational system consisting of large, multidisciplinary universities and colleges”, facilitating “a more multidisciplinary undergraduate education”. The policy calls for single-stream institutions to be gradually amalgamated into larger institutions or “HEI clusters/knowledge hubs”, containing at least 3,000 students.

Second, while this may seem trivial, the NEP clarifies the meaning of higher education institutions and categorises them appropriately. Until now, an institution could be classified as a “university”, “deemed to be university”, “affiliating university”, “affiliating technical university” or various other terms. This created unnecessary confusion, especially regarding the specific set of rules and regulations that applied to each. This practice will be discontinued and all institutions will henceforth be categorised as either a college or a university.

Another important distinction introduced in the NEP is between research-intensive universities and teaching-intensive universities. While the latter are not expected to be limited to teaching alone, in privileging their role as teaching-focused institutions it is hoped that faculty at these universities will no longer feel compelled to publish in predatory journals for career advancement.

Third, the NEP deserves praise for redefining the length and structure of undergraduate programmes. The typical three-year degree is to be replaced by a programme of three or four years’ duration, with multiple exit options within this period. Students will be awarded a certificate after completing one year of study, a diploma after two years and a bachelor’s degree after three. However, the “preferred option” would be the four-year multidisciplinary bachelor’s programme, which includes a research component and would make students eligible for a one-year master’s programme, instead of the usual two-year requirement. It is expected that the multiple-exit option will lend more flexibility to undergraduate education.

There are several other praiseworthy aspects of the NEP, including its mention of attracting reputed international universities to set up campuses in India. However, whether any of this comes to pass remains unclear. The truth is that the document in essence provides a set of recommendations that will remain subject to different kinds of interpretation by the key stakeholders, including the government. For example, while the policy insists on autonomy for institutions, the track record of the current and previous governments is one of consistent and significant political meddling. This will not change simply with the release of a new document.

Moreover, as already pointed out by others, it is far from a given that the document will even be implemented. Writing in a leading national daily, India’s vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu noted that the “landmark” document was “long overdue” and called for the focus to now shift to “its efficient and effective implementation”. But the coming months and years will see whether that actually comes to pass.

Pushkar is director of the International Centre Goa, Dona Paula (Goa). These are his personal views.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A step in the right direction

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