Will India’s National Education Policy take off?

Two years ago, India published a draft of its most ambitious higher education reforms in decades. Then the pandemic hit. Experts reflect on the future of the NEP, which was approved last year, and what the country’s university sector might look like in a decade

October 19, 2021
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As higher education strategies go, India’s National Education Policy (NEP) is not short of ambition.

It sets out to double higher education enrolment, including vocational training, from 26 per cent in 2018 to 50 per cent by 2035.

It envisages turning higher education institutions into large, multidisciplinary institutions with several thousand students, by carrying out widespread mergers and expansion programmes and phasing out single-subject providers. The goal is to have one such large institution in each district by 2040, serving as a higher education “cluster” or knowledge hub.

It also proposes restructuring institutions into three types – research universities, teaching universities and colleges – and recommends extending the length of degree programmes from three to four years. Students will have the option to drop out during the course with “appropriate certification” – a certificate after the first year, a diploma after the second, a bachelor’s degree after the third, and a bachelor’s degree “with research” if the student completes “a rigorous research project” in their major area of study.

A draft of the plans was published in June 2019. Then the pandemic hit. But despite the pressures of a global crisis, the government approved the 20-year blueprint in July 2020 after 12 months of public consultation.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, a former UK universities minister and president’s professorial fellow in King’s College London’s Policy Institute, said at a Times Higher Education event in February that it was “remarkable that in a year in which government departments have been grappling with the unexpected challenges of a global pandemic”, India’s government had “managed to produce an extraordinarily ambitious reform initiative in the National Education Policy”.

However, it is one thing to produce a reform plan and another to put it into action. Throughout the process, one of the main concerns from experts has been whether the government has the funding, support and willpower to actually implement the proposals. The Covid-19 outbreak casts further doubt on the future of the NEP, with the pandemic further limiting governments’ and universities’ resources and their bandwidth for change.

But Pushkar, director of the International Centre Goa, which describes itself as a non-profit autonomous society that brings together academics and creative people from India and around the world, says that the coronavirus crisis has so far not drastically changed the trajectory of the reforms.

“Anybody would have said this [plan] is going to happen only over a period of time. Covid might have slowed things down, but I think slowness was written into the script to begin with,” he says.

“There are some things I don’t see happening even in 10 years.”

However, Pushkar says that some changes have happened already. Some universities have announced new programmes that combine courses in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, while the University of Delhi has approved the implementation of four-year undergraduate courses from the 2022-23 academic year.  

Pushkar says that while the original draft of the NEP was very detailed, the final approved version is “sketchy in parts”. However, he says it is still “a good enough document to work with”.

“If you are really detailed about a lot of things, then you also give good administrators at the university level and at the level of state governments less room for improvising and getting things right. Ultimately the document has to be a set of guidelines,” he says.

But Apoorvanand, a Hindi professor at the University of Delhi and a vocal critic of prime minister Narendra Modi, takes a different view. He is “very cynical about the document and this whole policy”, adding that “we have not felt any change after the ratification of the NEP”.

“Generally, when you announce a national education policy, when you make such a huge change, then you also announce a programme of action. So what is the programme of action? What is the timeline? We don’t know. It is very vague,” he says.

“The NEP makes many statements; some of them sound very pious, some of them sound very revolutionary. But if you don’t have a concrete programme of action, if you don’t make recommendations with an implementing agency, then it all becomes very arbitrary.”

Apoorvanand believes the lofty approach is less about the pressures of the pandemic and more about the way the current government functions. He is also concerned about how the potential changes will be funded, especially after the government slashed the education budget by 6 per cent earlier in the year.

However, school education took the biggest hit, with the allocation for higher education decreasing by about 2.5 per cent. Meanwhile, the new National Research Foundation (NRF) has been handed a budget of 500 billion rupees (£5 billion) to be spread over five years. The NRF, announced as part of the NEP, is designed to provide competitive research funding and to coordinate grants offered by government agencies.

Another strand of the NEP is its emphasis on promoting Indian languages, arts and culture through education. It proposes that higher education institutions adopt regional languages or the local tongue as the medium of instruction in the classroom so students can be taught in their mother tongues as far as possible. Fourteen engineering colleges have already been permitted to teach courses in regional languages.

Mukhtar Ahmad, a former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University, worries about this move.

“Teaching primary education in students’ mother tongues seems to be a good step. But teaching medical degrees or engineering degrees in regional languages is a problem, because you need teachers who can speak many languages and books that are published in many languages,” he says.

More broadly, Ahmad shares Apoorvanand’s concerns of whether the NEP will be put into practice.

“We are apprehensive that this education policy will not be implemented or, if it is, it will not be implemented in the proper way,” he says.

Palash Deb, associate professor of strategic management at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, takes a more balanced view.

“Some changes will be easier to implement than others. For instance, it may not be too difficult to introduce changes such as à la carte subject options, a credit bank system, and flexible entry and exit options for university degrees,” he says.

“But some other goals set by the NEP, such as increasing investment in education to 6 per cent of GDP, improving university governance or attracting top talent to Indian academia, might take a longer time to achieve.”

Overall, he says that implementing the changes under the NEP will be “a complex, long-term endeavour, primarily because it requires consensus to be built among multiple stakeholders, including the central government, state governments, regulatory agencies and the universities themselves.”

Lord Johnson has previously spoken of how much is at stake if the changes under the NEP fail to get off the ground.

“The risk is a more volatile India, one that’s more susceptible to instability, corruption and all the malaise that you get when you have a vast young population unable to find its way in a globalised economy,” he said.

“That would be a real problem and that would turn the demographic dividend into a demographic disaster.”

Indian children dancing
Source: 
Getty

While the NEP is a blueprint for public universities in the country, Pushkar believes it will have a significant impact on the future of private institutions.

“The thing that’s encouraging is that for India’s private institutions the NEP 2020 provides a roadmap. And I don’t see private institutions being affected by the pandemic,” he says.

While public institutions funded by state and central governments are likely to be poorer as a result of the economic challenges of the Covid crisis, most students and families heading to private institutions will still be willing to pay, given how highly education is valued among Indian citizens, Pushkar says. Instead of funding institutions themselves, states will encourage more private institutions to open up, he adds.

Meanwhile, India’s “youth bulge”, which is predicted to last until 2025, also means that the net number of university students is likely to increase, Pushkar says.  

Another aspect that works in private universities’ favour is that they tend to be able to implement changes more quickly and some of them had already started to become more focused on multidisciplinarity and the liberal arts before the publication of the NEP, Pushkar says.

“These universities will simply take off now. They are already there doing these things and now they have the blessings of the NEP and the government. On the other hand, for the bulk of colleges and universities across India, the NEP is still five years away, at least,” he says, adding that the poorest-quality public and private institutions will probably “disappear” because of competition.

Historically, India’s central universities, funded by the central government, have been the most prestigious in the country, while state universities typically have less money and poorer infrastructure. Private institutions are a mixed bag, but Pushkar believes that the number of high-quality private institutions has been increasing and this will shift the hierarchy of Indian higher education.

“When you think of the best institutions today you include some of the Indian Institutes of Technology and central universities. Ten years from now, when you count the top 10 universities, half of them will be private universities,” he says.

Despite the setback from the pandemic, Deb says there is “reason to be optimistic about the future of India’s higher education”.

“For one, I foresee a steady improvement in the quality of research undertaken in Indian universities, both in the hard sciences and the social sciences. While internationalisation may be delayed, eventually Indian universities striving for excellence will move towards the American academic model. This suggests closer integration with the dominant academic paradigm led by universities in the Global North,” he says.

In the long term, Deb says he expects that “greater institutional autonomy will improve the quality of university governance” in India and there will be “huge expansion in enrolment in postsecondary education”.

Pushkar sums up India’s long-held approach to higher education as “aiming high and shooting low”. But unlike many critics, he does not think that such an outcome for the NEP would be a disaster.

“When you look at the idea of Institutions of Eminence, when you look at the NEP, these are documents with very lofty goals, all kinds of fantastic things are there and you feel really thrilled. But if you look at how things work for long enough you know that even if one third of those things come to be, that would be great. If 50 per cent of what they aim for happens, that would be a fantastic achievement,” he says.

“You have to remember the quality of higher education in India is lower than average and it is not easy when most universities are still trying to figure out what it means to be productive as a researcher and where you should publish. So, if what the NEP 2020 does is raise the bar a little bit, that’s an achievement.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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