For a country of India’s size and diversity, a national education policy, besides reforming the education sector for improving quality and promoting excellence, is essentially expected to promote national integration and cohesion between the Centre and the states. Going by the developments in higher education, the National Education Policy (NEP 2020) must not end up doing just the opposite.
The policy has already caused disquiet in the states. Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have come out in the open about their reservations against the policy. West Bengal too is getting the policy assessed for its implications and is likely to follow suit. As the implementation of the policy intensifies, their discomfiture has been growing all the more. They clamour to be an equal partner in the process of reforming higher education but find themselves at the receiving end. They are feeling exceedingly sidelined and see no attempts to address their concerns. Nor do they see any efforts to reach out to them to seek their support and cooperation.
States’ discordance about the NEP 2020 emanates from its content, which they had been pointing out ever since the policy was put in the public domain. Lately, however, they are all warier about the way the policy is being put into effect. The growing tendency to use the text as a pretext, and convenient interpretation of the content to suit a different intent, is proving to be all the more worrisome. The propensity to pull all stops to do what fancies someone’s imagination is, in fact, proving to be the last straw even for those who sincerely believed that a good part of the policy dealing with higher education was good enough to deserve a chance.
Higher education being on the concurrent list of the Constitution is the joint and shared responsibility between the Centre and the states. The fact that the coordination and maintenance of standards in higher education fall in the exclusive domain of the Union government, does not provide it total control over higher education across the country. The national education policies are far too comprehensive and go much beyond the coordination and maintenance of standards.
States are major players in higher education and are the dominant contributors to the development of education in the country. The analysis of the budgeted expenditure on education for the year 2018-19 (the latest year for which the data is available) indicates that the states contribute more than 77 percent of the total expenditure on education in the country. The share of the state in higher education expenditure to is as high as 71.24 per cent. Additionally, the state sector higher educational institutions account for 99.43 per cent of all higher educational institutions in the country catering to 91.78 per cent of the total enrolment in higher education.
They had obviously expected that the national policy would be announced only after consulting them and addressing their concerns. The present policy prides on its distinctiveness of undergoing an elaborate consultative process spanning over five years and encompassing a broad spectrum of people from the top to the bottom. Yet, there is little in the public domain to show that the concerns and suggestions of the states received due consideration.
States had hoped that the policy would be implemented in an orderly manner. Considering the fact that higher education in the country has been in limbo for want of massive regulatory reforms, this was supposed to get precedence over anything else. After all, the NEP 2020 too had expressed that there was no hope for improvement in higher education unless a ‘light but tight’ regulation replaced the multiple regulatory bodies with overlapping functions and mandates. The proposed regulatory reforms would have necessitated legislative measures, which could in turn have afforded people an opportunity to discuss the policy in Parliament. Alas! That has not happened as yet.
In the meantime, a slew of changes has been unleashed in higher education leaving the states perplexed. The common admission test has not only been made mandatory for undergraduate admission to all central universities, it has also been touted as the first step towards admission to all higher educational institutions across the country. This was done by invoking the policy, though the policy explicitly mentions that it would be left to individual higher education institutions to use such tests or not.
States are obviously uncomfortable. Their experience with the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for admission to medical and engineering education informs them that a centralised system of admission causes exclusion, works to the disadvantage of students coming out of their school boards, favouring students from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), and works to the best advantage of the rich and affluent because they can afford expensive coaching to crack such entrance examinations.
A few states are uneasy about a number of policy provisions which they think are meaningless for them. The policy may prescribe measures and strategies for raising the target gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education from 27.1 per cent at the present to 50 per cent by 2035. But it has no meaning for Tamil Nadu as it already has a GER of 51.4 per cent. It would, therefore, instead of focusing on GER further, want to direct its resources to improve quality and promoting excellence.
No less wary are stated about the implementation challenges and their financial implications. Making all higher educational institutions multi-disciplinary, and creating conditions for multiple entries and pathways entail huge expenditure in higher education. Even innocuous requirements like entering and uploading all the credits earned by all the students on the Academic Bank of Credit (ABC) portal, has huge cost implications. Such announcements are being made on a daily basis sans any commitment for financial support.
Finally, a national policy must be an expression of the government’s intention and direction for the future development of higher education. It must provide a broad framework of the purpose, objectives and indicative roadmaps. It must ensure scope for the states to mould it according to their needs and local conditions. Too many and too frequent directives bordering micromanagement may only create more friction, which may be good neither for the states nor for the nation.
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