New Economic Policy 2020: Against Democracy and Autonomy

(We requested a public policy commentator for his opinion on New Education Policy 2020. As desired by him, we are publishing it as an anonymous opinion piece. -- ED)

On 29 July, 2020, India got its New Education Policy (NEP, 2020) — which replaced the National Policy of Education, 1986 (NPE,1986) – in the middle of an ongoing Covid-19 pandemic which continues to upend the current academic year across educational institutions throughout the world. Given that the NEP was eagerly awaited since the process of preparing it was initiated five years back, the terseness of the final document — only 63 pages long (the 1986 policy was 186 pages long) — surprised many. However, everyone agrees that it was long overdue, particularly in the changed global and national context and in view of significant ongoing transformations, due to technological and other political economy factors, in the job market and education sector throughout the world.

NEP, 2020 is a document with ‘grand visions’ and national aspirations, but with hardly any roadmap or details about how to realize them. There is generous use of the following words in the document — “local” (81 times), “multi-disciplinary/multidisciplinary” (69 times), “holistic” (41 times, to the delight of the RRS affiliates who oppose “liberal” education), “global/globally” (25 times), “flexible/flexibility” (23 times), “autonomy” (21 times), “universal” (20 times) and “creative” (12 times). The document also doesn’t appear to contain anything that directly point towards communalization or saffronization of education, as argued by some critics — unless one interprets the mention of “ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought” as a “guiding light” of NEP,2020, as telltale signs of Hindu revanchism in the space of education. Given the track record of the incumbent government in its first and ongoing second terms, one can’t be faulted for being sceptical of such exercise of “restraint” in the education policy. Nevertheless, the absence of an overtly communal slant to education in the policy document is a welcome relief in an increasingly gloomier landscape of bigotry and hatred.

There is much more in the document that one cannot but agree with. Who can disagree with choosing mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary school, doing away with rigid and early specialization in arts and sciences in high schools, making the education system sensitive to the local context, knowledge, resources and needs, making the  undergraduate curriculum flexible, along with multiple entry and exit points for students, replacing higher education institutions offering single or a narrow set of programs by multi-department, mutltidisciplinary institutions offering the full range of education and setting up of Special Education Zones (SEZs) in regions with large populations of socially and economically disadvantage groups (SEDGs)?

The problem with the NEP,2020 lies in the misalignment of the lofty objectives of the policy with the proposed structure of centralized governance. The NEP, 2020 came under attack from opposition political parties, teachers’ associations and student organizations, for the manner in which it was brought into effect — with the Union Cabinet approving it, during the pandemic and without adequate discussion in the parliament. It has been a familiar ploy of the present government to enact radical changes in policies related to critical areas like privatization of public sector industries, labour laws, environment and education policies etc., using the lockdown and restrictions on social interaction due to the pandemic, as an opportunity to bypass democracy and dissent. This reeks of a deliberate strategy of “shock therapy” that exploits a crisis situation, when citizens are too distracted or constrained to resist, to push through controversial and contested policies — as explained by Naomi Klein in her book “The Shock Doctrine”.   

One of the charges levelled against the NEP,2020, by opposition political parties and powerful regional parties, is that it goes against the spirit of federalism in governance of education. One must note, however, that the process of centralization of governance of education has been going on for quite some time—with the key change being the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1976, bringing education from the State list to the concurrent list and dramatically altering the balance in favour of the Union government. The NPE, 1986 continued the trend.  This centralization is manifest in the NEP, 2020 too; it  contains some of its boldest recommendations with respect to the overhaul of the framework of regulation of higher education — embedding the regulatory in a single umbrella institution, the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), with four separate verticals for regulation (National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC)) for the entire education sector, excluding medical and legal education, accreditation (National Accreditation Council (NAC)), funding (Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC)) and standard setting (General Education Council (GEC)).

One wonders how this centralized system would work in a continent-size country with more than 1.3 billion people, with dozens of different languages, and with different regional histories and levels of economic and human development. How can such an overly-centralized system be sensitive and flexible with respect to the ‘local’ context, needs and aspirations, as vigorously argued (81 times) in the policy? One can hardly discern any role for the states as an equal partner in the creation of the national regulatory framework — instead the states are mentioned in the context of “careful planning, joint monitoring, and collaborative implementation” of the policy. Let us not forget that many states of India are country-sized, in terms of population. To centralize policy at the state-level itself is problematic, given the remarkable diversity within states.  To reduce the role of states to that of collaboration in a policy centralized at the national level is a disastrous move that would cripple the educational outcomes at the individual level and the achievement of social justice at the social level.

This trend towards centralization appears more problematic, when we look at the financing of education in India. While the total expenditure by central and state governments on education hovered around the lowly figure of 3 % of GDP in recent years, the centre’s historically meagre expenditure has declined further from over 0.5% in 2014-15 to less than 0.5 % of its GDP in 2018-19. The overwhelming share (more than 90%) of the total expenditure by central and state governments on education is currently borne by state governments. For example, at present, there are fifty four central universities and more than four hundred state universities. Central universities have traditionally been much better-funded than state universities — creating a two-tier system. The  scarcity of well-funded higher education institutions mean that central institutions are coveted by students and faculty, and intense competition to get admission in these universities have generally consolidated a perception of its students as a creamy layer among college and university graduates, while most state institutions are seen as serving the education demands of the common (wo)man. This two-tier structure therefore goes against the federal spirit and equality for all in education. The trend towards centralization of governance of education therefore runs contrary to objective of running educational institutions in public interests. The NEP,2020 commits to raising the total expenditure by states and centre on education to 6% of GDP, as recommended more than 50 years ago in the first education policy of India in 1968 (Kothari Education Commission, 1968) and reiterated in NPE, 1986, without specifying how much of that additional expenditure is to be borne by the centre. This is particularly critical in the current Indian context, with inter-state economic disparities rapidly increasing in the last few decades with consequent divergence in states’ financial and administrative capacities to follow particular models and standards of education set by the centre.

Another instance of centralization in the NEP, 2020, is at the level of individual higher education institutions (HEIs), in the form of a proposal for granting “graded autonomy” to the HEIs and enabling them to become “independent self-governing institutions pursuing innovation and excellence” (NEP, 2020; Pg 49). The autonomy of the institution is to be achieved, according to the NEP, 2020, through the setting up of a Board of Governors (BoG) for all autonomous institutions, consisting of highly competent and qualified people. The BoG will be empowered “to govern the institution free of any external interference, make all appointments including that of head of the institution, and take all decisions regarding governance” (ibid). The danger in this model is the possibility of imposition of a hierarchical corporate model of governance on academic institutions, with little or no voice of stakeholders like faculty, staff and students in the running of the institution. Such a model allows even greater scope for political appointment of Chairman and members of BoG, with no checks and balances against arbitrary assumption and exercise of power by the BoG, which may work against the long-term interests of the institutions. In such cases, the role of the head of the institution might be re-imagined in the likeness of the CEO of a corporate organization. This will deal a death blow to the existing democratic  models of governance of educational institutions.  

Talking of social justice, several proposals in the NEP appear problematic, even if some of them appear to be progressive on paper. For example, the proposal in NEP,2020 to set up a National Testing Agency (NTA) to administer a common aptitude test for university admissions, seems to be inspired by the standardized exams like SAT and GRE for USA; however there is growing criticism of such tests in USA on grounds that these tests work against disadvantaged groups. It is also not clear how such a common aptitude test will reduce the dependence on coaching centres — its avowed objective — given that elsewhere the NEP allows for ‘diversity’ in school curricula. What else, but coaching, can bridge the gap between the school and the entrance exam curricula? While the language policy in school — use of mother language as medium of instruction at least till Grade V, and if possible, till Grade VIII — may appear desirable, the lack of proficiency in English can severely compromise the prospects of students in the job market. Whether we like it or not, English continues to be the marker of social and economic mobility in a country that is yet to be decolonized. Particularly, for historically disadvantaged groups, access to the English language is critical to overcoming social barriers to improvement; learning English as a second language from the primary level itself is therefore essential. It is also not clear how the students will cope in primary schools where the regional language is different from the student’s mother tongue or if the student’s parents have transferable jobs. Indian society is highly aspirational. Research shows that only 2% of Indians are middle-class by income criterion, but 50% think they are.  One wonders how the Indian society which venerates English as the language of upward mobility will take to such a language policy. In sum, the new NEP has an erroneous supply-side perspective — if there is a ‘supply’ of the vernacular languages in schools, the ‘demand’ will follow. But the ‘demand’ for types of education is likely to be shaped by the conditions of the labour market in a neoliberal economy.

This last aspect is even more critical in the current context when the world is witnessing significant shifts in the labour market. In the wake of revolutionary and disruptive innovations in information and communication technology, artificial intelligence and automation, the labour market has witnessed striking trends in the last couple of decades. These trends — referred to as “job polarization” — involve changing skill-composition of jobs available in the labour market, in rich as well as in developing countries. While the demand for low-skilled and high-skilled jobs has increased, the number of middle-skill jobs has rapidly decreased. The high-skilled jobs are those requiring analytical abilities, problem-solving skills and creativity. People with these qualities are likely to be highly educated and employed in professional, technical and managerial roles in engineering, finance, medicine etc. Low-skilled job are either those involving physical dexterity and manual labour or those involving flexible, interpersonal communications that cannot be easily automated — e.g. food production, cleaning, security and care-giving services, witnessing and bartending, etc. But these have also traditionally been low-paid jobs and require no more than school education.

Traditionally, it has been the industry’s demand for middle-skilled labourers with decent salaries that had sustained the demand for higher education degrees. These jobs included sales, customer support, administration and secretarial support, construction, production, transportation, maintenance and repair and so on. It is the large chunk of these middle-skill occupations, that are routine and rule- or procedure-based, that is being automated away. This has resulted in an “hour glass” economy — with the consequent vanishing of “middle class” in rich countries, making them look more and more like developing economies. The two fastest growing occupations in USA, for example, are food and beverage service workers and personal care aides. These and many other jobs for which there is a growing demand don’t require college degrees and don’t pay much. In the developing countries themselves, the promise of upward economic mobility is increasingly threatened in the face of mounting “skill barriers” to movement of people of from low-productivity, low-income agrarian livelihoods to high-productivity, non-agricultural jobs with decent wages. These trends are unleashed and stand to be exacerbated by the further spread of use of artificial intelligence and robotics on a larger scale in manufacturing and services.

It is important to note that high-skill jobs, that are creative and analytical, will most likely need proficiency in the globally more widely used languages like English. But, even low-skill jobs may require either or both vocational training and communication skills (including certain proficiency in English) in a multi-lingual society like India. It was reassuring to see that NEP,2020 acknowledges this reality at the outset — “[w]ith various dramatic scientific and technological advances, such as the rise of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, many unskilled jobs worldwide may be taken over by machines, while the need for a skilled workforce, particularly involving mathematics, computer science, and data science, in conjunction with multidisciplinary abilities across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, will be increasingly in greater demand” (NEO,2020: Pg 3). The emphasis on vocational education (the word appears 76 time in the document) as well as emphasis on liberal arts, including languages, is a reflection of the dramatic shifts in the labour market prospects and the uncertainty of availability of decent jobs. The flexibility with respect to completion of school and college education (with multiple exit and entry point for students) and choice of curriculum (including between vocational and academic streams) is a reflection of the precarious conditions of employment throughout the world. These parts of the NEP,2020, seem to  be the only pragmatic elements in of an otherwise purely aspirational document with the usual rhetoric of achieving universal access to education, making India a global knowledge superpower, catapulting Indian institutions to the list of  globally top-ranking institutions, accelerating the digital transformation etc. as well as achieving targets set by Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, 2030, and other recommended goals (gross enrolment ratio, expenditure on education etc.)   

In sum, despite some positive prescriptions, which are to be expected in any policy document in the 21st century, and some pragmatic elements, the NEP, 2020, is disappointing in its failure to clearly put forward a roadmap of essential changes to the ailing education sector in India which will ensure social justice by reducing inequalities between regions and social groups. Political forces should oppose this policy for its vacuous commitments and problematic recommendations inimical to federal and local autonomy and organizational democracy in academic institutions.