A Pandemic and a Policy: Contextualizing the National Education Policy 2020

The National Education Policy (NEP) has been criticised by many as ill-conceived. The author, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, notes that the problematics of the NEP are particularly devastating for the marginalised who are facing the worst brunt of the pandemic.

Image Courtesy: Express Photo/ Amit Mehra

Although we have heard this time and again, it is worth reiterating that we have been in the midst of a global pandemic for several months, one whose end is nowhere in sight, and one which is likely to lead to far-reaching transformations that are difficult to foresee or predict. Its impact on economies, societies, polities is at present perhaps incalculable. Within India, we have witnessed unprecedented migrations of people in enormous distress, loss of employment on a scale that has not been witnessed in decades, and an overall dislocation whose impact we are yet to fathom.

Surely, an education policy that is meant to last for twenty years needs to take these concerns on board urgently.

While there has been an ongoing discussion and debate on the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP)  introduced on 31st July 2020, some provisions of which are likely to be implemented almost immediately, some of the most pressing questions we are faced with at present will probably remain unaddressed. I rely on interim global studies conducted by the United Nations, as well as on the grim employment scenario in India to open up some dimensions of the complex context within which the implementation of the NEP is being envisaged.

The Scenario in Schools

Policy Brief: Education During COVID- 19 and Beyond, August 2020, issued by the United Nations, draws attention to the present scenario. The global picture is alarming, to say the least.

Currently, it is estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 percent of the world’s student population, up to 99 percent in low and lower-middle-income countries.

The document also notes that the impact of the crisis will be most severe for “those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons …Some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone”.

The text adds: “As parents who lose income make difficult choices, enrolment and girls’ education rates may decline, while child labour, recruitment, and exploitation rise”.

The report draws attention to issues of financing education, highlighting the existence of “massive pre-COVID-19 education funding gaps.  For low-income countries and lower-middle-income countries, for instance, that gap had reached a staggering $148 billion annually and it could now increase by up to one-third”. This is a situation where the propensity to adopt short-term ‘expedient’ financial measures, including privatization, is likely to be extremely strong. This will almost inevitably sharpen educational disparities, perhaps irreversibly, for future generations.

The immediate, sometimes knee-jerk response to the situation of educational deprivation has been to adopt online modes of communication.

In this context, the document notes: Relatively few countries are monitoring the effective reach and use of distance learning modalities. However, estimates indicate variable coverage: distance learning in high-income countries covers about 80–85 percent, while this drops to less than 50 percent in low-income countries. This shortfall can largely be attributed to the digital divide, with the disadvantaged having limited access to basic household services such as electricity; a lack of technology infrastructure; and low levels of digital literacy among students, parents, and teachers.

The document also points out that technology alone cannot guarantee good learning outcomes. More important than training teachers in ICT skills, is ensuring that they have the assessment and pedagogical skills.

A range of financial strategies to cope with the situation are outlined, recognizing that national authorities need to act to mitigate long-term consequences for children, despite constraints on public spending, with interventions in education forming part of the national COVID-19 stimulus packages alongside health, social protection and economic recovery initiatives, apart from tackling inefficiencies, categorically stating that, “Education should not be singled out for cuts, as it was in 2003–2013”.

The document also notes that among the many things the crisis has underlined is that the “essential workers who hold the system together” who provide the most basic social needs and services, need to be supported and reinforced. These include health care workers, caregivers, employees in agro-food and service industries, and of course teachers. Ensuring they receive the support they need will require prioritizing education and training and accelerating changes within education and training.

It also observes the urgent need for intervention. “Preventing the learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe needs to be a top priority for world leaders and the entire education community. This is the best way, not just to protect the rights of millions of learners, but to drive economic progress, sustainable development and lasting peace,” it said.

What is evident is that even a preliminary survey reveals that there have been enormous disruptions in school education that were exacerbated by a severe economic crisis. Unless this is acknowledged, its impact will be to widen, perhaps irreversibly, disparities between those who are already marginalized, and the more privileged learners. Also, to state the obvious, these differences will not be automatically erased but will demand active and consistent intervention, and measures to ensure support—financial, technical, social, and psychological, so that an inclusive educational environment can be created and sustained.

It is indeed surprising that a policy statement issued in July 2020 does not acknowledge the existence of this crisis, nor does it suggest concrete steps to address it.

Omissions Have Financial Implications

The NEP 2020 is an abbreviated version of a far more voluminous draft that was circulated in June 2019. While some of what is omitted may be in the interests of brevity, it is useful to revisit the earlier draft to figure out whether there are other preoccupations at work.

Some of the omissions have financial implications. For instance, the draft document mentioned Mission Nalanda, which was to work out the financial modalities of the system by 2021. This is no longer present in the document.

Also missing are specific, detailed time-bound provisions for improving infrastructure in schools. The draft document stated that: “All schools will also be provided with computers and internet connectivity for pedagogical purposes, infrastructure and materials to support differently-abled students, safe drinking water on the school premises, functioning toilets with running water, separate for girls and boys, and basic handwashing facilities by 2022.” This specific and basic provision is missing in the final version.

Further, while the earlier document, as well as the present policy, are distinctly uncomfortable about caste, the earlier one at least mentioned patriarchy and racism as issues that were to be addressed. Why, one wonders, have these been dropped, in a situation where the Black Lives Matters movement has virtually acquired global dimensions? Have these issues lost their relevance? These and other questions remain.

The Challenges for Higher Education

Let us turn to some of the issues that have been flagged in the survey ‘The Impact of Covid-19 On Higher Education Around The World’ by the International Association of Universities. Let us simply draw attention to some of its conclusions:

  • The Survey results illustrate the important degree of stress and constraint currently experienced by higher education institutions around the world. Results show to what extent it is complicated to avoid complete disruption of the institution activities. While managing at a distance is possible to some extent, it might result negatively on the quality of the activities and increase inequality of learning opportunities.
  • The efforts put in place to prevent a void academic year, with the risk of decreasing private and potentially also public funding, demonstrate the incredible amount of pressure on higher education institutions to cope during the current crisis. Survey responses indicate that the risk for COVID-19 to increase inequality among higher education institutions is present also inside a specific geographical region. There is risk that the COVID-19 crisis will exacerbate already existing inequalities and this is something that the global higher education community has to address through cooperation with other societal stakeholders and national governments.
  • The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for the higher education sector to demonstrate the importance of research and expertise available at higher education institutions around the world. Hopefully, this recognition of the importance of research and expertise of higher education will end the recent trend of expert bashing and post-truth, and move to a post-COVID-19 world in which scientific evidence and knowledge will be again fundamental pillars of society.

Once again, note the anxieties about heightened disparities amongst institutions and learners, the extent to which ensuring the functioning of HEIs through the crisis has been problem-ridden, and the concern regarding financial and state support. Whether the rapid dismantling of existing institutions and their replacement with alternative structures, as seems envisaged in NEP 2020, is the best response remains to be seen.

What lies ahead in terms of employment?

In a recent article,  The Unequal Effects of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Labour Market, India Forum, August 2020, based on data from the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS 2018-19), prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Radhicka Kapoor notes the harsh effects of the shocks on specific groups of workers, particularly the less-educated workers engaged in low paying work arrangements. She says, “Therefore, we can expect the crisis to accentuate the pre-existing inequalities in India’s dualistic labour market, which has been characterized by stark disparities between, at one end, a small percentage of the workforce that is engaged in jobs that offer the stability of income and social security benefits, and, at the other end, a disproportionately large proportion engaged in informal employment.”.

She adds that regular formal jobs are a privilege for a limited few. They are also typically held by those at the top of the education ladder. In 2018–19, graduates or postgraduates constituted more than 50% of those in regular formal jobs. In contrast, most self-employed and casual workers had low levels of education. For instance, 25.7% of the self-employed were not literate and 80% had secondary education or below.

They will bear the brunt of the COVID-19 shock disproportionately.

She goes on to observe that outside of the agricultural sector, which accounts for 42.2% of total employment, the three sectors which cumulatively account for approximately 36% of total employment are manufacturing, construction and trade, and hotels and restaurants. “These sectors have been significantly affected by the pandemic and the lockdown and other containment policies, due to both supply-side disruptions and a fall or collapse of demand….”

She notes that the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that 122 million jobs were lost in April 2020, mostly by small traders, hawkers, and daily wage-earning labourers (around 90 million). ILO (2020) estimates that about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty in India.

We are thus in the midst of a virtually unprecedented economic crisis, whose impact on approximately a third of the population can hardly be visualized. In such a situation, there is an urgent need to revisit the relationship between education and employment, in order to ensure that the NEP is truly inclusive.

This is by no means going to be easy, and there are unlikely to be any quick-fix solutions. However, acknowledging the existence of these issues can be the first step towards addressing them. Imagining that we are living in a pre-pandemic world, and briskly implementing policies envisaged in that context, may not be the best solution.

First published in The Leaflet.
Kumkum Roy is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University