As the education secretary during whose tenure the National Education Policy (NEP) process started, I am fortunate to see its completion. I congratulate my successors who, as policy managers, made it happen, navigating the minefield on something as contentious as the education policy. This could not have been possible without the visionary stewardship of K Kasturirangan.
In policymaking, the paths chosen are the most important. Following best practices everywhere is one path. But will it be equitable and achievable in a country like India? The challenge in choosing paths in policy is not choosing what seems best, but also ascertaining whether the best is workable. Is it equitable enough or an attempt at branding which helps only a small percentage? Does the architecture exacerbate exclusion, while paying lip service to inclusion? These are the touchstones on which the policy must be assessed.
There are different approaches to policymaking. One can change the question to suit the answers. Any government will have its low-hanging fruit and even ideological baggage. If it prioritises these elements, the government can change the questions. That would be an opportunistic compromise. But it has happened in the past. The second approach is to retain the questions, but come out with answers which are convenient to handle. That would be dishonest and unauthentic. On these two counts, NEP passes muster; it has done neither. But there is a third approach. Retain the questions, give attractive answers, knowing fully well that neither the political economy nor the ecosystem of education will have the capacity to meet the challenge head-on. Past policies fell short despite valiant efforts because there was no willingness to do things that are not necessarily popular. Sacking teachers, introducing differential salaries on performance, ensuring the attendance of teachers, calls for a degree of tenacity which has been missing. It is one thing to have a vision document and quite another to have a policy. Policy is meant for praxis. It is to be implemented effectively for impact. It is the prerogative of the government to prepare and choose a policy option among different policy choices, and use its special power to resolve conflict arising out of it. On NEP, here are some first-cut problems.
The first problem of NEP is arriving at a budget of 6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for education with the states and the Centre striving to reach it. In reality, with 50% of the population below the age of 25, what is perhaps required is more than 10% of GDP. If a stand is taken that education, though under the Concurrent List, is mostly under the purview of the state, thus, the responsibility of states, we are running faster to stay in the same place. The Kothari Commission in 1966 suggested 6% of GDP as the advised outlay. After 54 years, we are nowhere near that. States, which have been further impoverished after the Goods and Services Tax (GST) came into effect, will be hit by a double whammy if this is passed on to them. The Centre will have to arrive at a mechanism to incentivise states and carefully take into account what states can really spend on their own. This requires reconfiguring existing budgetary priorities.
The second problem is historical and centred on what the government intends to do with its institutions. An overwhelming majority of India’s population is financially stressed, and cannot seek services beyond government institutions or questionable private institutions. Education and health costs are similar. They are essential but tend to become expensive unless government institutions are accessed.
So it is the same set of institutions, and the existing cohort of teachers and professors, which will be enjoined to deliver new outcomes. One-and-a-half million teachers, whose presence is more marked by absence, and professors who are not sure how the classes will fill up, are to be repurposed. Issues such as changes in the ecosystem, supervisory structure, and incentives and disincentives are too complicated to be left entirely to the states. My suggestion is that the transfer of money from the Centre for education should be contingent on a reform plan being implemented by the states.
The third problem is an alarming fall in returns to education. From the enrolment of nearly 100% students at the primary level, it becomes 72% at upper primary, 52% at secondary, 43% in higher secondary and only 20% to levels above higher secondary. The National Statistical Office (NSO) reports show a clear deterioration in access between 2014 and 2018. It is as much a function of poor quality education and a lack of interest on one hand, and sharply falling returns to education on the other. The tragedy in India has been more unemployment for better-educated people. While the survey shows 6.8% as the unemployment rate, for school graduates it is 10.7%, for college graduates, it is 13.2%, and it is 35% for women graduates (CMIE data). Discrimination makes the picture more complicated. A jobless world, which is likely to further deteriorate with artificial intelligence and automation, is not the ideal place to think in terms of 50% gross enrolment ratio (GER) only because China adopted that figure and succeeded.
There are other issues too. Introducing early childhood care and education through the anganwadi workers is an attempt to face a brave new world with a rusted system. In most places, these workers may not even be trainable. How well NEP has been designed in the context of India will depend upon how well the capacity is commensurate with efforts. After all policies are designed, not conceived in an inspired burst.
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