Draft National Education Policy – Seductive Sophistry in RSS’ Service

The declared vision of the draft National Education Policy (DNEP) prepared by a committee chaired by the former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr. Kasturirangan, is ‘…an India centred education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society, by providing high quality education to all.’(Emphasis in original) But the policies recommended in DNEP will not provide high quality education to all. Instead, they will increase the degree of exclusion that is already such a defining feature of the education system in India.

There are three basic features of DNEP that it is unable to camouflage despite its clever attempts to do so. These are: complete commercialisation and corporatisation of education; enormous centralisation of the education sector in terms of policy-making, regulation, evaluation, assessment and financing; and a communal slant that assigns to one strand of ‘Indian’ traditions a privileged status, while showing no commitment to the constitutional values of secularism, social justice, democracy and federalism.

In direct opposition to treating education as a basic human right to be guaranteed by the State, the DNEP makes recommendations that turn education completely into a commodity, to be bought and sold. Further, it not only takes forward with rapidity the process of privatisation and commercialisation of education at all levels, which are already under way in the neoliberal regime prevailing since the early 1990s in India, but also seeks to corporatise the education sector. Along this path, the DNEP makes several seemingly grand but essentially empty declarations with no related operational commitments. Its recommendations – both with regard to school education and with regard to higher education – notwithstanding some reasonable remarks on pedagogy, some of the ills of the present education system, teacher training and so on, run counter to inclusive and equitable education at all levels.

At the school level, its call to close down small schools on grounds of non-viability and to create larger school complexes, containing within one campus a whole gamut of institutions from those delivering early childhood care to those providing instruction from classes 9 to 12 will imply much longer distances and more expenditure for children to attend school, and will result in reduced access for the Underrepresented Groups (URGs), especially girls. When it comes to higher education, the DNEP proposals are even more drastic. It calls for closing down the system of affiliation of colleges in a given territory to a university, and recommends only three types of higher educational institutions (HEIs): (i) universities focussing primarily on research, (ii) those focussing primarily on teaching and (iii) stand-alone, autonomous colleges empowered to grant degrees without any affiliation to any university. It also insists that individual HEIs of each type should be large with several thousands of students and have a multiple of disciplines. The call to close down the system where a number of colleges in a region are affiliated to a university in the same region completely fails to appreciate the mutual benefits that the university and its affiliated colleges derive from this system and its positive impact on the quality of collegiate education. Moreover, it centralises HEIs geographically, thus raising the private cost of education for the individual students who may have to travel a considerable distance to reach the HEI and may in fact have to bear the costs of residential accommodation in many cases. It talks breezily of reducing the current number of HEIs which is close to 50,000 to a fifth of this number in a decade or so.

The DNEP swears by “autonomy” whereby each HEI becomes an autonomous, degree-granting institution and moves rapidly to a situation of academic, administrative and financial autonomy.  But this does not imply commitment to democratic functioning of HEIs. In fact, DNEP means quite the opposite of this. It sets up a corporate model of management for HEIs. It is the autonomy of the “Board of Governors” and the “CEO” of the HEI that DNEP celebrates. It makes no proposal for democratic participation of teachers, students and non-teaching staff in the running of HEIs. It wants as little regulation of HEIs, especially private ones.

DNEP sets a target of a gross enrolment ratio (GER) at the level of tertiary education by 2035 of 50% from its present level of 25.8%. It seeks to achieve this not by expanding brick and mortar HEIs but primarily through mass open on-line courses (MOOCs) and open digital learning (ODL). It pays no heed to evidence that shows the weakness of MOOCs. Digital learning cannot be a substitute for class room interaction between teachers and students. It can only be a supplement. The stress on MOOCs and ODL derives directly from the implicit view of the DNEP that government cannot find the money to finance the order of expansion envisaged in the GER target of 50%.

This is the crux of the issue. Within the neoliberal regime, the State is committed to low levels of the “fiscal deficit” which is defined quite simply as total expenditures minus non-debt receipts (thereby delegitimising government borrowing). The fiscal deficit target, moreover, must be achieved not by mobilising the resources from the rich and the corporate sector, but by drastically pruning expenditure. DNEP implicitly accepts the fiscal constraint thus defined and refuses to specify where the financial resources for its grand plans will come from. By default as well as through some explicit remarks, DNEP expects the share of private funding of education to be substantial, but since it also wants education not to be driven by profit, it makes the comforting but absurd assumption that such private finance will come through philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds!

Not only is DNEP committed thus to privatisation, corporatisation and commercialisation, it is also in favour of centralisation of an extreme kind. The supreme body here is the Rashtriya Shiksha Ayog (RSA) which will be chaired by the Prime Minister and will consist of some Union ministers, senior bureaucrats of the Government of India, a chief minister or two, and a small number of select “educationists”, all to be nominated essentially by the Prime Minister. The RSA will, in turn, make all appointments to the new decision making bodies in higher education that will, regulate HEIs, assess them, give them grants and fund their research, respectively. Out goes any pretence of “cooperative federalism”, not to speak of democratic decentralisation!

In addition to its commitment to commercialisation/corporatisation and centralisation, the DNEP is also quite willing to go along with communalisation by privileging one strand of so-called Indian traditions, the one favoured by the ideologues of Hindutva.

To sum up, the DNEP has three main thrusts: corporatisation and privatisation; centralisation as against federalism and the rights of various linguistic and cultural nationalities; and a communal reading of India’s composite traditions and history.