Sunday, November 15, 2020
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Govt Medical College, Haldwani. Image by Dr Deanndamon

National Education Policy may seem progressive but come with autonomy, commercialisation and access issues

LADY SHRI Ram College for Women, Delhi, was in news this year for the first cut off announced at 100 percent for admissions in three BA (Honours) courses.

The cut-offs for Delhi University colleges have been steadly increasing for last 10 years.

Even though the number of undergraduate seats in Delhi University has been increased by 4,000, colleges lack facilities and funds, adequate infrastructure and shortage of faculty members.

There are 77,912 faculty vacancies in the central and state universities currently. In the central universities alone, there are 6,688 vacancies, approximately one-third of a total of 18,243 sanctioned teaching posts.

Making higher education accessible to all has been a challenge for India due to high drop out rates at school level, lack of infrastructure and funds besides greater role for private sector that makes it mostly accessible to high income groups.

The New Education Policy (NEP) announced recently proposes an overhaul of the higher education set up. It promises lot of radical changes but experts worry that this may lead to further rise in privatisation, loss of institutional autonomy and higher drop out rates at school level.

There are 77,912 faculty vacancies in central and state universities. Colleges lack facilities and funds but seats are regularly increased

Common Test for Admission

The NEP will conduct common entrance test for admissions across some central universities starting from 2021 on a pilot basis. It will be conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) which holds the Joint Entrance Exam and the National Eligibility and Entrance Test for engineering and medical courses respectively.

“The agency will offer a high-quality common aptitude test, as well as a specialised common subject exam in the sciences, humanities, languages, arts, and vocational streams, at least twice every year,” the NEP states. “These exams shall test conceptual understanding and the ability to apply knowledge and shall aim to eliminate the need for taking coaching for these exams. Students will be able to choose the subjects for taking the test, and each university will be able to see each student’s individual subject portfolio and admit students into their programmes based on individual interests and talents.”

While this proposal may seem progressive, it has raised apprehensions that students would be under undue pressure to prepare for another entrance test in addition to their board exams. Students who prepare for JEE, NEET or CLAT are forced to undergo rigorous coaching but this is also accessible to only those who can afford to pay for it. So, entrance exam for all higher education courses will further alienate the underprivileged.

The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education in India is 26.3 percent but for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes it goes down to 23 per cent and 17.2 per cent respectively, said the All India Survey of Higher Education. GER is number of students enrolled in proportion of population in the official age group corresponding to this level of education. So, if the enrolment ratio is 26.3 per cent, it means out of 100 people in that age group, only 26.3 are enrolled.

While a common entrance test for admission to colleges may seem progressive, it would put students under undue pressure and also increase barriers for underprivileged to get into quality institutes

“Some form of assessment and entry-level sieving and allocation are necessary but limited seats in quality educational institutes raise these barriers. What we are witnessing is inflation of degree and certification in higher education. There is a direct link between the promotion of testing and entry qualification exams and the mushrooming of these parallel educational institutes. They have combined to place enormous pressures on learners and their families. The outcome in terms of the quality of these students and their contributions are also questionable. We need more nuanced, decentralised, and varied ways of facilitating entry-level qualifications,” says Prof A R Vasavi, a social anthropologist who works with Punarchith, a collective that focuses on evolving alternative perspectives and activities related to education, environment, democracy, and society, in Karnataka.

Fix School Before College

The NEP also aims to make higher educational institutions multidisciplinary by 2040. The undergraduate degree will be of either three or four-year duration, with multiple exit options. Students will be awarded a certificate after completing one year in a discipline, a diploma after two years of study, and a bachelor’s degree after a three-year programme.

The four-year multidisciplinary bachelor’s programme, however, shall be the preferred option. It might also lead to a degree ‘with research’ if the student completes a rigorous research project. Institutions can offer different designs for Master’s programmes.

Currently, India’s gross enrollment ratio for higher education stands at 23 percent which NEP aims to increase to 50 percent by 2035. As per the 75th round household survey by NSSO in 2017-18, the number of out of school children in the age group of 6 to 17 years is 3.22 crore.

To improve enrollment ratio in higher education we need to reduce school drop-out rates. More than 87% schools don't comply with Right to Education rules and 9 lakh teacher posts are vacant at the elementary level

Government should have strengthened the RTE, widened its scope and fixed new norms and timelines with more public funding to improve school education if it was serious about education

“To improve enrollment ratio in higher education we need to reduce our school drop-out rates and universalise pre-primary, elementary and secondary education. Around 40 percent of girl students between 15 to 18 years dropout of school,” says Ambarish Rai who is the National Convenor of Right to Education Forum. “The enactment of the Right to Education (RTE) Act made it legally binding for the governments to ensure that education is treated as a fundamental right. However, more than 87 percent of the schools are not complying with RTE and 9 lakh teacher posts are vacant at the elementary level today.”

The NEP fails to address these even after the Sustainable Development Goals promises universalisation of secondary education and lifelong learning by 2030. “The government should have strengthened the RTE, widened its scope from pre-primary to higher-secondary and fixed new norms and timelines with more public funding to improve school education on a war-footing if it was serious about education,” Rai adds.

Vocational Education, Traditional Knowledge and Digitisation

The NEP promises integration of vocational education into all school and higher education institutions in a phased manner. However experts argue that stress on vocational training from the preparatory stage along with multiple exit points might provoke students from marginalised backgrounds to drop out early to take up jobs.

Higher education institutes would also promote “lok vidya” (traditional/local knowledge) and give adequate importance to yoga, AYUSH, and Sanskrit, which can be taught along with artificial intelligence, machine learning and digital learning. However, this might be inadequate.

“Nowhere does the NEP mention the rich corpus of agro-ecological, medical, architectural and a range of artisanship knowledge prevalent in India,” says Prof Vasavi. “There is an urgent need to conceptualise and implement rural post-school learning centres that can cater to the specific needs and knowledge bases of these regions. At the same time, making this a high-quality educational institute should also facilitate opportunities for youth from different regions to access mainstream educational and professional tracts which many urban youth also aspire to.”

It can range from not only medicine and engineering but to the range of emerging knowledge and vocational opportunities. In the context of the challenges that have emerged with the collapse of the capitalist system and ecological orders (expressed as global warming), the alternatives are to be built around new knowledge systems that are ecologically sustainable, socially just and economically stable. “These have to be linked to the new imperatives of post-growth, decentralised and diversity based production and distribution models,” Prof Vasavi says.

Digitisation of higher education and open learning systems have been given much importance in a bid to improve the gross enrollment ratio. The National Educational Technology Forum will also be formed to encourage the use of technology in college education. However, experts worry that RTE might be violated if prioritisation to online education creates a digital divide.

Education should be delivered through peer-learning and teacher-children relations. Online education can be an additional method and not a substitute

“According to NSSO 75th Round Survey, the percentage of households having internet facilities is only 23.8 percent. We also see wide rural-urban divide and gender divide in the consumption of data. Education should be delivered through peer-learning and teacher-children relations. Online education can be an additional method and not a substitute so that equity and quality is maintained,” says Ambarish Rai.

Prof Vasavi feels online courses, especially for marginalised groups and persons, are an insult to the very idea of learning. “Many would require intense and engaged forms of knowledge inputs, mentoring, and the companionship of co-learners,” she says.

Mental health of students in higher education is also a matter of concern. The NCRB data points out that India sees almost one student suicide every hour. However, most of the reported cases are from cities. The NEP mentions counselling systems at every institution for handling stress and emotional adjustments but the scourge stretches far beyond.

“The NEP caters to predominantly middle class and urban orientations and has not reckoned with the immense tragedy that is unfolding across the rural areas. For those who do not commit suicide, the failure to be employed, and the failure to be recognised at multiple levels renders them into becoming disoriented youth and citizens who bear the burden of being failures. These scars account for several forms of anti-social and pathological activities among this group,” says Prof Vasavi.

The Farce with Autonomy

The NEP envisages that an umbrella institute, Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will govern the entire higher education system, except medical and legal studies. It will replace all other regulatory bodies like the University Grants Commission or the All India Council of Technical Education. Under HECI, there will be four bodies: one each for regulation, accreditation , funding and academic standard setting.

The NEP talks about granting graded autonomy to colleges and intends to phase out affiliation of colleges to universities in the next 15 years.

“The affiliation system is present only in India. Due to so many colleges being affiliated to a university, resources are spent more on coordination, administration and monitoring the colleges and very less on improving quality, research and innovation,” says E. Balaguruswamy. “However autonomy comes with its own problems as most private autonomous institutions are not committed to the quality of education or welfare of students and are run on a business model. So the government needs to be cautious and build systems of accountability to ensure integrity and honesty in their functioning.”

The provision of establishment of an independent Board of Governors for every institution, has also sparked apprehension that it would ruin internal democracy of autonomous institutions as teachers and students might not be represented.

The ‘autonomy’ NEP proposes for higher education institutions is nothing more than enlarging the scope for privatisation and removing any regulatory protection that students and teachers can have from commercialisation

“The ‘autonomy’ NEP proposes for higher education institutions is nothing more than enlarging the scope for privatisation of higher education and removing any regulatory protection that students and teachers in these institutions can have from the ravages of such commercialisation,” said a press statement issued by the Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Associations (FEDCUTA).

Move towards Privatisation?

The NEP states that the government will be increasing expenditure on the education sector to 6 percent of the GDP. However this goal has been constant since the Kothari Commission’s report in the 1960s. Moreover, the government has been cutting funding on education constantly. The share of the union budget allocated to education fell from 4.14 percent in 2014-15 to 3.4 percent in 2019-20.

The policy indicates funding through a new category of public-philanthropic partnership though the mechanism has not been clearly defined.

“The government should come out with a strong transparent mechanism to regulate the private sector since most of them invest in educational institutes to earn profit and not for philanthropy,” says Ambarish Rai.

Prof Balaguruswamy feels we need to encourage private sector investment but also have proper control mechanisms in place. “Education is already in private hands since the government lacks resources to invest in the education sector. Around 80 percent of our colleges are privately owned. To reach 50 percent enrolment we have to double the resources invested currently in our education system,” he adds.

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