The Promise of the New Education Policy ; Walking Towards a Mirage of Quality Education?

Shereein Saraf

Associate, Quality Education Mandate

Source: Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 from Pexels

Introduction to the Education Policy Landscape in India

As a response to colonial education, Mahatma Gandhi, in the 1930s, proposed the model of 'basic education' that focused on local knowledge and craft to develop capabilities. Cut to the present day, where vocational skills have gained significance in debates around education and employability due to technological innovation, climate change, and the changing nature of work.

To this end, on July 29, 2020, the central government announced the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, replacing the 34-year-old National Policy on Education (NPE) of 1986. With the schools closed and children out of their physical classrooms due to the pandemic, a reformist policy promoting universal access to quality education is welcome.

The New Education Policy 2020, reflecting the Sustainable Development Goal of Quality Education, is a bold step to reconfigure the Indian education system at all levels, from pre-schooling to higher education, aiming for securing the world leader status by 2040. It seems ambitious enough for a nation that ranks 35 out of 50 countries in the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index 2019, curated by the Economist, and 131 out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index 2020.

The foundational lacuna in the Indian education landscape continues to be a challenge even after more than seven decades of independence from colonial rule. Education, a state subject until 1976, later became a part of the concurrent list, enabling the central government to legislate as need be. As a result, a landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, enforced from April 1, 2010, ensured free and compulsory education for all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years and specified minimum but stringent norms for elementary schools.

But with the new policy, the government undermines the standards laid out to keep checks and balances by promoting private sector partnerships in the education space. Further ahead, the policy draft affirms expenditure on education to reach 6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as recommended by the Kothari Commission 1964-66.

However, since then, the budgetary expenditure on education has been stuck at the piecemeal levels of 2% to 4.6%. (Refer to figure 1) Governments, elected in and out of power, have seldom tried to change this trend. Even the Budget 2021-22, released after the New Education Policy promised a revolutionary shift, failingly allocated a scant 3.5% of GDP, which amounts to INR 6000 crores less than the previous budget, to the Ministry of Education, comprising the Department of School Education and Literacy and the Department of Higher Education.

A part of the reasoning for lower allocations this year could be the economic downturn and a rising fiscal deficit. But the argument that the education sector would need a push to rebound enrolment and attendance rates to pre-COVID-19 levels in the coming academic year is compelling enough.

Addressing Challenges in Early Childhood Care and School Education

The most adversely affected section of students is, without a doubt, the toddlers and those studying in primary school. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2020, which surveyed 52,227 households and 8,963 teachers, about 70% of students enrolled in government and private schools did not receive any learning material during the reference week of September 2020. Moreover, only half of the schools received any form of training to conduct remote teaching-learning activities.

This evidence points to the prevalence of two infrastructural issues. One is the inadequate physical infrastructure of schools serving the low-income segments; second is the lack of proper training for school teachers to shift to ICT-based solutions to impart education amid crisis. While the New Education Policy envisions training teachers by developing a National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education (NCPFECCE), it underestimates the graveness of the current state of teachers' abilities.

However, it does bring a broad scope of reforms to the table. Firstly, it transforms the academic structure from a 2+10-year system to a 5+3+3+4-year scheme, adding another three years of pre-schooling or Anganwadi schooling. The medium of teaching, as it suggests, would be the mother tongue such that introduction to education seems familiar. Learning through a foreign medium, Rabindranath Tagore believed, compelled students to cram rather than master the subject. His idea of a sound education was that the medium of instruction at school and during higher education remain consistent.

Although the teachings of Tagore ensure access to early education to weaker socio-economic sections residing across different states speaking different languages, it raises an ecological fallacy for we live in an increasingly globalized world. Denmark and South Korea, which have some of the best schooling systems, ensure students study their mother tongue. Despite this, English is the medium of instruction, at least in private schools and higher education.

Neglecting English as the primary language would lead to added costs of translation of resources to regional languages. This issue would further become a pain point while transitioning to higher education by forbidding access to the abundance of journals, publications, and resources available globally, in the English language.

Ensuring Enrolment, Attendance, and Literacy

The Right to Education Act achieved its target of nearly complete enrolment in primary schools. Moreover, the Mid-day Meal Scheme ensured high attendance, bringing attendance at rural schools at par with urban schools as parents sent their kids to school, relieving them of the responsibility to feed them. (Refer to figure 2) On the other hand, it assured children of adequate nutrition.

It would be challenging for the new policy to create an environment for students such that they remain willing to attend school when incentives, like the Mid-day Meals, were put to an end.

The literacy rates in India show a gender-gap and an urban-rural divide. (Refer to figure 3) It would be essential to focus on cognitive skills and ensuring constant feedback from students rather than practicing the current system of one-way learning. Sharpening reading and mathematical aptitudes from early education would prove beneficial for a child's overall development. Furthermore, there has to be a shift to an inclusive grading system, considering all aspects of holistic development from academics to sports, as the policy suggests.

The Lack of Inter-disciplinarity and Academic Freedom in Higher Education

Transitioning from secondary school to higher education remains a hindrance in seeking quality education and employability skills. The attendance rates, when compared to the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) - defined as the ratio of the number of persons currently enrolled in the level of education to the number of persons in the corresponding official age-group, show a steep decline with a higher level of education. (Refer to figure 4)

The New Education Policy sets a target of increasing GER from 26.3% (in 2018) to 50% by 2035. According to the calculations of Kapil Viswanathan, Vice-chairman of Krea University, and Rishikesha Krishnan, the Director of Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, doubling the enrolment ratios would require establishing at least one new Higher Education Institution (HEI) each week for the next 20 years.

These targets are, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, challenging to achieve. To combat this, the government intends to attract foreign universities to set up their satellite campuses in India. The backlashes to such a proposal are manifold. For one, foreign universities, even in the past, have not shown much interest due to the constraining regulatory frameworks around the land, infrastructure, curriculum, and fees. Even if the government decides to fully-fund a university to set up their campuses in India, which seems to be a remote possibility given the current budgetary allocations, will these prestigious institutions be interested. A case in point is Singapore, where Yale University set up campus with National University Singapore (Yale-NUS College) but only when all was state-funded.

A welcome change is the option to enter and exit from a four-year graduation programme, divided into certificate, diploma, bachelor's, and multi-disciplinary bachelor's degrees, enabling flexibility in higher education. To achieve so, an Academic Bank of Credit will allow storage of digital credits earned by each student. Moreover, the M.Phil. programme will become redundant as an additional year of research would be added to the four-year bachelor's to obtain a research degree. This schema follows international standards of higher education and allows for inter-disciplinarity of the curriculum.

The government also intends to establish a National Research Foundation, supporting research and innovation by funding peer-reviewed research and incubation in universities and colleges. Thereby, the policy addresses the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and, at the same time, vocational skills and development.

But there has to be a mentality shift. The textbook-knowledge-intensive higher education is not equally relevant for students who wish to pursue academic research within institutions or skilled jobs within the industry. It would be imperative to endorse the relevance of vocational training at par with university education. These seismic shifts would require no less than an extensive injection of monetary support from the state, especially to create jobs for all and encourage entrepreneurship.

Finally, a bone of contention both at the school education and higher education level is the over-centralization of power. While the long-run goal for schooling is to align all state boards, it would be hard to achieve given the diversity of academic frameworks and variety of languages. Similarly, a single regulatory body would replace the various higher education councils such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), and the Medical Council of India (MCI), to name a few. This proposal would take away academic freedom and autonomy of institutions leading to bureaucratic fallouts. The Print, in its piece, dated February 27, 2020, revealed that nine out of 23 Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs) did not have a full-time chairman, contradicting the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) guidelines. In the past years, Vice-Chancellors of central universities have shut down students' voices at campuses due to power concentrated at the center.

From Mirage to Reality

The above presents a bird's eye view, scratching the surface of the sixty-six-paged New Education Policy 2020 that tries to address every facet of the current education scenario. The document at large identifies as a vision, a roadmap for the next several decades to come, avoiding answering one of the central questions of 'how' to implement these proposals on-ground.

Like any other policy, the New Education Policy has to sieve through bureaucracy and political backlashes if it intends to implement the policy in its enormity. Only if the political leadership determines to do so will the country reap the benefits of universally accessible and affordable education.


Shereein is an economics enthusiast interested in questions related to development economics and political economy. She has completed her undergraduate studies in economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, researching about the gender within the workforce and inequity in agriculture. She will be pursuing her Masters in International and Development Economics at Yale University this fall.

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