The importance of education in social and economic development requires little persuasion. Education facilitates knowledge and skills, widens and sharpens the mind and contributes to individual as well as social development (Menon 1984). The nature of education and its benefits in enhancing economic and social welfare across society elevates it to the status of a public good necessitating a balanced approach with focus on quality and equitable access (Denison 1970 cited in Tilak 1979). India since independence has contentiously strived to make progress in education. Indian literacy rate grew to 74.04 precent in 2021 from 12 per cent at the time of independence in 1947. Despite this progress, the level is well below the world average literacy rate of 84 per cent, and India currently has the largest illiterate population. Apart from the state-wise discrepancy and urban-rural divide, there is also a wide gender disparity in the literacy rate in India: effective literacy rates (age 7 and above) in 2011 were 82.14 per cent for men and 65.46 per cent for women (Ansuman 2013). In 2009, India passed the ‘Right to Education Act’ which stipulates compulsory and free education to all children within the age groups of 6-14 years. More recently the New Education Policy was drafted by the Government of India 2020 (National Education Policy, henceforth NEP). The policy explicitly states the following in the introductory paragraph:
Education is fundamental for achieving full human potential, developing an equitable and just society, and promoting national development. Providing universal access to quality education is the key to India’s continued ascent, and leadership on the global stage in terms of economic growth, social justice and equality, scientific advancement, national integration, and cultural preservation. (Government of India 2020b).
The need for such a detailed revaluation of education policy can be traced back to the continued high levels of illiteracy (around 25 per cent), low levels of high school attainment (about 15 per cent of Indian students reach high school, and just 7 per cent graduate), and concerns about the quality of education despite having the largest number of Higher Education institutions in the world (Sheikh 2017). The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20 shows improvement in Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education at 27 per cent, but it remains low by all account. The GER for male and female was 26.9 per cent and 27.3 per cent respectively. The report pointed that out of 38.5 million students enrolled in higher education, only 14.7 per cent were from Scheduled Castes and 5.6 per cent from Scheduled Tribes. Interestingly, the report also shows that higher education, which was dominated by the public sector, has become the preserve of the private sector. Nearly 80 per cent (78.6) of colleges in India are run by the private sector, accounting for 66.3 per cent of the total enrolment. Of these, around 65.2% of colleges are private-unaided and 13.4% private-aided (Government of India 2020a). The Government of India has adopted the NEP 2020 in order to: address issues of enrolment, especially in higher education with the Right to Education Act; ensure Equity in educational attainment, including gross enrolment among gender, socio-economic groups, regions; and ensure Quality of education as well as research and Infrastructure both physical and human. Such a policy is a continuation of previous policies adopted by various governments to improve the educational system.
Despite the claims of the Policy to address issues of quality, access, and inequality, critics have pointed out important limitations and a faulty approach to education. Broadly, they argue that claims to evolve a new and far-sighted policyare a continuation of the centralisation and commercialisation of education that coincided with economic liberalisation in India. We argue that while the present NEP has serious limitations, particularly with regard to centralising tendencies limiting access, the lacunae can be traced back to an approach that views education in instrumental and ideological terms for economic and political objectives. In this sense, the postcolonial education policy in India has never been able to extricate itself from its colonial raison d’être discourse.
Prospect: A new roadmap?
The NEP 2020 is a major milestone in Indian education that introduces some radical innovation such as providing equal treatment to private actor and foreign players vis-à-vis state-funded school and higher education by the Government of India and restructuring the management of education. The policy sets an ambitious target of 50 per cent gross enrolment ratio in the relevant age group by the year 2035 and increase spending on education from the current 10 per cent to 20 per cent. The stated objective of high-quality education is premised on restructuring the educational system beginning with extending school education to pre-school (3+) from the present class 1 (6+ years), structuring school education into foundation, lower and upper primary and secondary years. The Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) would act as Early Child Care and Development Centres (ECCDCs), providing guidance and support services till 4 years (Government of India 2020b). Such a proposal is laudable as it seeks to strengthen care, nutrition, health, early development of sensory activity, language skills, and socialisation for children below 4 years (AIFRTE 2019). The policy continues with a multi-lingual approach to education, which is essential for India, and proposes strengthening the language component at the curricular level in both schools and universities. The policy also proposes introduction of vocational courses from Class 9 as optional subjects, division of liberal courses like social sciences and natural sciences and technical or vocational courses at +2 level. To bring about inclusion in school education, the government will utilise Open Distance Learning (ODL), NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling), e-learning for drop out, and create Public School Complex as the basic unit of management (Government of India 2020).
At the level of Higher Education Institutions (HEI), the new policy proposes two categories of universities: research oriented and teaching oriented. The policy also proposes autonomous colleges instead of the affiliated colleges system that traces back to the colonial period. Drawing on the Anglo-American models of public funding in higher education, the policy envisages new funding of HEIs according to courses taught, number of students, and research output (AIFRTE 2019). The HEIs would have institutional autonomy to facilitate innovation and a new set of regulatory bodies, namely National Higher Educational Regulatory Authority regulating the establishment of HEIs, NAAC, and licensed accreditation institutions would give accreditation (Government of India 2020b).
Retrospect: Issues and Challenges
Despite the innovative interventions, there remain serious concerns about the stated goals of quality, access, and inequality. Although the draft mentions that only ‘not for profit’ trusts would be allowed to establish and administer educational institutions under a new public–philanthropic partnership, critics are wary that given the predominance of private sector in education, existing laws that allow private institutes to make profit will create exclusive educational enclaves for the rich and allow the state to withdraw from its constitutional obligation to ensure equitable education (AIFRTE 2019). The restructuring of educational management has also led to significant disconcert. The AIFRTE, in its response to the draft bill, has rightly pointed out that academic autonomy requires public funding as without it, marketisation and political interference will be unavoidable (AIFRTE) 2019). The proposed National Higher Educational Regulatory Authority (NHERA) providing a ‘single window’ for establishing an HEI, undermines India’s federal structure proposing centralisation. The policy also promotes over-centralisation not only in curricula but also in preparation of textbooks, not giving sufficient flexibility for local reality. Interestingly and intriguingly, the policy provides for multiple parallel education boards with multiple series of textbooks at the school level. Critics argue that it may give free hand to commercial concerns to meddle with the school system and would allow private religious-political boards to severely interfere with the secular and scientific nature of education.
In terms of ideological orientation, concerns have also been raised about the uncritical glorification of India’s ancient education system. Congruent with the ideological disposition of the incumbent regime, the glorious Indian past draws on an idea of ‘Hindu India’ listing great personalities of knowledge belonging to the ancient period completely silencing the intellectual, artistic, architectural, technological achievements through the centuries especially the medieval period. As the AIFRTE (2019) response to the national education policy draft notes, ‘no personalities from the arts, architecture and music, the great philosophers, poets and painters, the rulers who patronised this flowering of cultural and philosophical plurality of the medieval period of our history, find their place in the Draft’. One such issue of concern is the projection of Sanskrit as the basis of the country’s ‘cultural unity’ and the imposition of it at all levels in schools and universities.
Institutionally, many of the proposed plans are unclear, such as extension of school education to include pre-school training and require strengthening of Anganwadi centres with money, training, infrastructure. The (AIFRTE 2019) response points to another potential lacunae in the curricular framework of early childhood training involving parents, Anganwadi workers and low-cost, locally made tools as it may widen the gap between the privileged and the poor and incorporation of religious prejudices or majoritarian biases in the present framework of National Curriculum Framework. Academics and critics have also expressed concern about the scheme of vocational education in schools and introduction of liberal arts, as it may lead to children from poorer backgrounds or disadvantaged sections being pressurised to take vocational courses, while children from well-off sections would pursue courses that enable social mobility as well as haphazard ‘mixing’ up of liberal arts and sciences.
Overall, the policy proposes to impart flexibility in the rigid educational structure and marks a break in terms of proposed course flexibility, introduction of vocational courses, and incorporation of pre-school training. The policy is however marked by certain incongruities that can be understood in terms of tension between centralisation and federalisation, marketisation and state, quality, access, and social justice. First, the stated objective of the policy to achieve ‘High Quality Education’ does not find elaboration about what this term signifies. The achievement of high-quality education is intrinsically tied to issues such as access, infrastructure, and vision. It is in these grounds that the policy remains opaque. As the (AIFRTE 2019) response letter asserts ‘how we can hope to reach high quality education without the sound social foundation created by universalising education and until the State takes full financial and functional responsibility for such education, and unless special provisions are properly implemented through the policy of Reservations in admissions and continuing participation, research and fellowships, appointments and promotions in education, and all forms of employment, for the socially and educationally backward castes and other depressed sections.’ Further the emphasis on ‘output’, i.e., pre-determined ‘learning outcomes’, rather than ‘inputs’ in the policy is problematic as it may undermine the quality and infrastructure in the quest for formal outcomes.
Second, the policy asserts for multiple boards and diversity at the lower levels but becomes highly centralised at the higher levels of education. The possibility of multiple boards could make way for religious and unscientific education. The present system of one central board at the all-India level and state board in each state responsible for designing curricula and textbooks, undertaking evaluation at different levels, and issuing appropriate school certificates was devised after much deliberation and functioned effectively. In contrast the policy assumes a highly centralised tone. Recommendations such as of National Testing Agency (NTA) as the supreme body for all entrance eligibility and admissions, centralised entrance exams like NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) effectively transform education from a subject in the concurrent list to a union subject.
Third, the policy explicitly makes an argument in favour of market while retaining a significant regulatory role for the state, possibly to facilitate such transformation. For example, the policy proposes a National Research Foundation (NRF) that will fund to develop research capacity. The NRF will directly identify and select researchers and support their research, and funding would be individualised. Similarly, the conceived Rashtriya Shiksha Ayog (RSA) as the regulator of all education, from kindergarten to research with government control, without adequate norms, can be very dangerous. The RSA will directly oversee the functioning of all central bodies related to education, including the National Research Foundation, the National Higher Education Regulatory Authority, Central Education Statistics Division (under NUEPA), National Repository of Educational Data, National Testing Agency, Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation, Multidisciplinary Education and Research Institutes or Indian Institutes of Liberal Arts, and General Education Council, etc. Importantly the policy provides autonomy to all public and private professional institutions to determine their fees.
Fourth, the proposed changes in education policy, while emphasising quality, does not adequately emphasise access. Reading the draft policy gives the impression that despite mention of social justice, the underlying premise is based on education as a private good for individuals to meet the demands of the market. The draft terms education a ‘quasi-public good’ and hence recommends reduction/withdrawal of state funding to facilitate entry of private capital both domestic and foreign. It recommends total freedom, i.e. institutional autonomy, for private managements with no regulation of high fees for students or faculty wages, and no commitment to implement social justice measures for the disadvantaged (AIFRTE 2019).
The longer history of educational challenges
The NEP 2020 is a watershed not only for the significant change in the education management but also an implicit ideological shift in the long-cherished idea of elimination or reduction in disparities and inequality through public investment. The present policy does not appear to be based on an evaluation or analysis of previous policies or inequalities that characterise education in India. However not everything is abrupt. The policy shift towards private players in education and vocation-oriented education catering to the manpower needs for the economy, have a longer genealogy. In the 1990s, the University Grants Commission (UGC) brought out a report on Funding of Institutions of Higher Education that highlighted inadequate government funds and fiscal resources. This was ironic as economic liberalisation was supposed to give fillip to economic growth with increased levels of capital, increased private investment, and availability of more resources as a result of disinvestment in public sector undertakings (Tilak 1995). Thus, it was a change in attitude of the government in funding higher education.
The state always had a dominant role in funding higher education. State funding of education was justified on various grounds, beginning from education being a public good to protecting students from profit seeking; regulating standards; facilitating research; and protecting non marketable disciplines (Tilak 1995). The state invested in education primarily through two mechanisms: subsidies in higher education and funding higher education institutions (Tilak 1995). But as a conscious policy choice to reduce attention to higher education occurred with liberalisation (Tilak 2012). There was a strong tendency to neglect higher education, focusing rather exclusively on elementary, and more particularly primary, education. It was widely felt that the goals related to elementary education could be achieved only if there was a cap on the expansion of secondary and higher education. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Human Resource Development 1993-94 stated “The higher education system in the country is now sufficiently developed to meet the nation’s requirements”. The unmet demand for higher education is not considered economically viable (Tilak 2012). A drastic decline in public expenditure per student in real prices was recorded both in general higher education and technical and professional education (Tilak 2012).
The attitude towards higher education underwent some transformation as the model of economic development was reconsidered in 2000s. The development model of transforming India into a knowledge society, an Information Technology (IT) superpower required strengthening institutions of higher learning (Tilak 2012). It was recognised that enrolment ratio in higher education had to be raised to at least 15 per cent by 2012 and to about 30 per cent by 2020. Accordingly, allocation to higher education was scaled up and major expansion was planned with setting up of 30 new central universities, 6 Indian Institutes of Management, 7 Indian Institutes of Technology, 20 National Institutes of Technology, 4 Indian Institutes of Information Technology, nearly 2,000 colleges of engineering and technology, 1,300 polytechnics, 400 undergraduate colleges, and many other institutions. However, the private sector was expected to play an active role in the expansion through various modes of public-private partnership (PPP). According to Planning Commission’s estimates, 88 per cent of the funds required for the expansion of higher education were to be generated through different modes of PPP (Srivastava and 2010). Centralisation was introduced through National Commission on Higher Education and Research in place of the UGC, All-India Council for Technical Education and All-India Council for Teacher Education for improving accreditation mechanisms (Tilak 2012).
Interestingly, the promotion of education through PPP model was vague. Beyond repeated instances of delivery in PPP mode, articulation of specific models was absent, and it was a mechanism for privatisation (Srivastava and 2010). The assertion of PPP to initiate privatisation of education was congruous with the wider strategy of ‘reforms by stealth and gradual informalisation through non implementation (Jenkins 1999; Mahmood 2017). In school education there was increased private management of recognised secondary schools as the share of government and local body schools declined. Private unaided schools increased from 15 per cent in 1993-94 to 24 per cent in 2001-02 and further to 30 per cent in 2004-05 (Srivastava and 2010). Evidently the strategy of strengthening education through privatisation has its own contradictions, with increasing numbers of children entering education, particularly from poorer groups and by ensuring elementary education coverage under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Universal Elementary Education) (Srivastava and 2010). As Tilak (2007) notes, this was at odds with what one would expect if the state is committed to strengthening its role. It is worth noting that private-aided schools have been a long-standing institutionalised form of PPPs in education from colonial times. These schools are privately managed, but majority of their funding comes from state grants-in-aid from the state. There has been criticism of government funding of private-aided schools on grounds of equity as state budgets are diverted to private-aided sectors, which are not generally attended by the poorest children.
The changes in educational policy towards market could be contrasted with prior educational strategies. Menon (1984),as a member of the Planning Commission of India, highlighted the high drop-out and inadequate financial allocation to education despite the quantitative progress in education as enrolment at the primary stage (age 6-11) from 10.5 million in 1947 to 72.7 million in 1981, and enrolment for engineering and technology degree and university education from 3000 to 33,000 and 1 lakh to 22 lakhs between 1947 and 1981. Explicit were the concerns about inequality, access, and funding constraints. Menon (1984) points out the money required for the additional 50 million children during 1985 would exceed Rs. 10,000 crores, whereas during the Sixth Plan the investment for elementary education was a measly Rs. 900 crores (Menon 1984). Such shortage of investment in education meant that while overall rate of literacy went up from 16.7 per cent in 1951 to 36.3 per cent in 1980, the number of illiterates actually increased by 138 million. The inequality between literate and illiterate, when mapped onto gender differences, has male literacy around 47 per cent and 25 per cent among women in 1981, while the age demographic division reveals that 110 million illiterates are in the 15-35 age group (Menon 1984).
The response to inequality in access in the 1980s was sought not purely through the market but through more effective implementation of the 10+2+3 system, emphasis on recruitment at the end of the higher secondary stage rather than at the end of the first degree, locating +2 in the school system rather than colleges, and so on. There was also a suggestion to introduce vocational education related to local needs at the +2 level as well as decentralisation. Importantly, the focus of education policy was on improving access and diversity (Menon 1984). Thus, the discomfort with the education policy and the limitations of the strategy to expand purely quantitatively – in terms of the numbers of schools, teachers, colleges, universities, investments, etc. – using as the basic pattern the system that existed before the time of independence and the dysfunctional nature of education system was evident.
Incidentally, the issue of access and inequality was much more predominant before the 1980s, and the strategies of the government were directed at reducing inequality in educational opportunity. Inequality in educational opportunity played out in terms of regions, gender, caste, and class (Tilak 1979). Such disparities in turn affected the inequality in education in different stages, namely Inequality in Educational Opportunity (IEO), Inequality in Educational Attainments (IEA), Inequality in Occupational Attainments, and Inequality in Returns to Education (IRE) (Tilak 1979). The inequality in education was particularly evident in terms of participation in education among Harijans (Dalits; low castes) being less than non-Harijans. Interestingly, the subsidization policy of the government, in favour of backward castes, was not able to address the problem as it was not able to compensate for “foregone earnings”, or support the “urban-oriented” high-cost education for poor Dalits (Tilak 1979). There was also inequality in terms of differences in per pupil expenditure, school buildings, libraries, quality and quantity of teachers, and other similar objects.
Changing discourse on education
The debates around education evident in various policy documents show the changing discourse around education since independence. From the early 20th century, there have been several high-level commissions set up to provide policy orientation towards development of higher education. One of the earliest was the Sadler Commission (1917-19), also known as the Calcutta University Commission, which established the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) to define the general aims of educational policy and coordinate between various provinces and universities to prevent duplication and overlapping in the provision of education (Ansuman 2013).
The first major policy rethinking occurred in the mid 1960s with the Kothari Commission. The Commission (1964-66) examined various aspects of education at all levels and gave a comprehensive report which became the basis of the National Policy on Education, 1968. It introduced a common (10+2+3) structure of education across India (Ansuman 2013). It was noted that while the achievements were impressive in themselves, the general formulations incorporated in the 1968 policy did not, however, get translated into a detailed strategy of implementation, accompanied by the assignment of specific responsibilities and financial and organisational support (Ansuman 2013). Over time, the absence of detailed strategy, persistent problems of access, quality, quantity, utility, and financial outlay assumed massive proportions. The most important recommendations of the Commission regarding expenditure on education was never realised.
In 1985, a comprehensive appraisal of the existing educational scene was made. National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986 was put in place. The preamble to the NPE 1986 noted that education had an acculturating role as it refined sensitivities and perceptions that contribute to national cohesion, a scientific temper, and independence of mind and spirit thus furthering the goals of socialism, secularism, and democracy enshrined in our Constitution of India (Ansuman 2013). Evidently, the role of education was perceived much broader than purely economic and with a normative vision. But the normative vision about education altered with economic liberalisation. The role of education was viewed more narrowly as from input-centric to learner-centric, to promote innovation and research by creating synergy between teaching and research, movement toward internalization, and creation of alliances and networks between academic and research institutions and industry (Ansuman 2013).
Explaining the shift in educational policy
The previous discussion shows a shift in the interventionist role of the Indian government. Carnoy and Dossani (2013) suggest that education policy responds to socio-political developments and evolves accordingly. The initial impetus for a higher educational system comes from elites who organise it within their own institutions. With democratisation and economic growth, masses enter into education leading to changes. The Indian education policy also follows a similar trajectory
Western Education was initiated in India under the colonial rule with the establishment of three public universities in the presidency headquarters in 1857. The British were not interested in mass education, and the universities were designed as a ‘federal system’. The role of the university was to support the goals of its constituent colleges by designing curricula, holding examinations, and awarding degrees. Education was meant for elites, and per student spending on education exceeded than in richer countries (Carnoy and Dossani 2013). It follows the general trend of education development driven by elite concerns.
After independence during the Nehruvian period, education was a crucial concern for creating the foundation of future India. Education was not merely a means for creating a labour force or providing solutions to problems of poverty and development, but for creating scientific temperament and rational attitude among the citizens of India. The focus was on creating educational infrastructure and setting up educational institutes of national importance (Khan 2018). The first Indian Institutes of Technology were set up as centrally governed unitary institutions between 1950 and 1961. Unitary regional professional colleges, jointly promoted by state and central governments, were also established. In 1956, Parliament established the University Grants Commission as a national regulator of standards. In contrast, the provincial governments largely continued with provincial institutions subject to greater control and much less funding. Many of these institutions had evolved as private educational institutions, which were supported by the provincial governments under a demography-based ‘grant-in-aid’, for meeting operating expenses. Consequently, in return for meeting the expansion expenses of these institutions such as appointment of senior staff, faculty salaries, there was a de-facto nationalization (Carnoy and Dossani 2013).
Over the years such a system led to quantitative expansion of education, but the quality of education was bi-modally distributed. The upper tier consisted of a small number of centrally-controlled, well-funded, high-quality unitary technical institutions. The centrally-run institutions were subject to considerable state control over budgets and senior appointments but enjoyed academic autonomy and were well-funded. As a result, they were able to cater to the best-educated high school graduates of the country, who paid relatively low tuition fees for their educations. The provincial institutions were subject to greater control over their operations and could access much less funding. They focused on generalist education, catered to the masses, and succumbed to unplanned expansion due to democratic pressures (Carnoy and Dossani 2013).
Government of India’s activist role in education governance did not change due to political dynamics, particularly the relative influence of different stakeholder (Carnoy and Dossani 2013). It was instead due to ideological goals specifically national developmental goals of industrialization. That is why higher education governance was exercised in different ways between the centre and the states. In later phases, specifically the period since 1984, disagreements over educational governance intensified because educational priorities changed due to changes in the relative influence of stakeholder groups and forces such as globalisation. Increasing stakeholders in education, with expansion of education and democratisation, has meant contestations over improvements in educations.
Carnoy and Dossani (2013) rightly point out that combination of globalization, democratization, and devolution impacted education governance by introducing new and conflicting goals. The dual structure of education satisfied the needs of elite and mass education as well as ensuring social justice along with distribution of social goods. This is reflected in the deep contestation over reservation, often used a public good to satisfy needs of social groups. Education expanded under democratic pressures from underprivileged groups supplemented by pressures for expansion from the growing middle classes, who sought professional education as a response to globalisation. This marked a change from earlier expansion strategies that focused on the elite requirements for a generalist education. The resultant exercise in massification saw the share of state budgets for higher education rising sharply and accounting for 19 per cent of state spending by 2009 and constituting the single largest item of the states’ budgets. Overall, states pay for 76 per cent of total higher education spending. The share of centre (24 per cent) is allocated to centrally-run institutions in which just 3 per cent of students are enrolled. With economic liberalisation and fiscal pressures on the state, the state gradually gave way to private sector. Such a transformation was in consonance with the neoliberal ideology and supported by the rising incomes, making non-subsidised education a viable enterprise. The privatisation of education has recreated the dual structure with high quality private institutions as well as low quality private institutions both arising from greater management autonomy and entrepreneurialism.
In order to conclude, therefore, we may infer a few points from the above discussion. First, the new Education Policy (NEP) introduced by the Government of India in 2020 is in essence a continuation of previous policies with certain tweaks to cater to present needs in governance after economic liberalization. Second, for long within the Indian education policy the issue of equity and access were considered central, which is now being considerably down-scored. Third, Indian education system for long had a dichotomy in education system in terms of quality and access of education pertaining to all, which, with the introduction of the NEP 2020, will be exacerbated further.
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 All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), an all-India federal platform of more than 80 organisations and groups (Teachers, Youth and Students’ Organisations and Educational Right Groups) drawn from 22 states and functioning consistently since June 2009.