New edu policy draft reads like pamphlet filled with resounding emptiness

Universities, colleges, higher education, The Federal, English news website
It is ironical that on the one hand the committee calls for complete autonomy to higher education institutions, but, on the other, will not trust them to hold routine annual entrance and exit examinations for the MBBS. Photo: iStock

The part II of the draft policy which covers the important segment of higher education is in fact most disappointing. It waffles unendingly about liberal education and its supposed benefits. It is so full of shibboleths that it reads more like a pamphlet than a serious policy document.

Breathless verbiage
For example, read this: “Higher education is a critical contributor to sustainable livelihoods and economic development of the nation. Higher education also plays a large and equally important role in improving human well-being, and developing India as envisioned in the Constitution – a democratic, just, socially conscious, self-aware, cultured, and humane nation, with liberty, equality, fraternal spirit, and justice for all. Higher education aims to serve as a hub for developing ideas and innovations that enlighten individuals and help propel the country forward socially, culturally, artistically, scientifically, technologically, and economically.” Phew!

This breathless verbiage could easily be translated to English: Higher education is critical to the all-round development of the nation.

The page-filling exercise is so stark that general discussions on higher education run into 23 pages. Discussion on the yet-to-be-constituted National Research Foundation covers 18 pages. On the other hand, discussions on Law, Medicine, Engineering, Agriculture and post-graduate courses take up just 16 pages.

Problems faced by higher education system

The policy correctly identifies the serious problems faced by the higher education system. We have more than 40,000 colleges. Of them, 40 per cent are running on a single programme, without having multi-disciplinary courses, and 20 per cent of them have less than 100 students. Also, only four per cent of them have over 3,000 students.

At most of these colleges, teachers are ignorant of what teaching really is. Thus, what is happening in a significant number of colleges is a charade, which is being mistaken as education. All of us who have even passing acquaintance with the state of education in the country will know about these problems and that we need immediate solutions to them.

The committee, too, is supposed to go deep into the problems, identify the causes and offer practical solutions. Also, there are huge regional variations. There are regions where higher education is virtually on a deathbed. There are regions where higher education can still be redeemed and a few important changes in the existing system are enough to bring about a substantive transformation.

Yes, research in our country is lackadaisical and huge amounts of money is being spent on it without any major achievement to warrant the expenditure. Higher education requires a genuine and a fundamental revamp. But, unless we correctly identify the causes, we will never be able to find the right solutions. Unfortunately, the committee has simply vaulted over the causes and thudded straight into the ‘La La Land’ of solutions.

Some of the major solutions given by the committee are as follows:

  1. All higher education will happen in multidisciplinary institutions with teaching programmes across disciplines, preferably in large education communities.
  2. Higher education will evolve into three types of institutions, namely, research universities, teaching universities and colleges.
  3. Affiliating of colleges with universities will be discontinued. Every college will give its own degree.
  4. All these institutions should aim at enrolling students in thousands, if not tens of thousands. The GER (Gross Enrolment Ratio) must be increased to 50 per cent from the present 25 per cent by 2035.
  5. A National Research Foundation will be established.
  6. Even engineering schools such as the IITs must move towards a more liberal education integrating arts and humanities, while arts and humanities students must aim to learn more science.
  7. Like NEET, which is a common entrance examination, a common exit examination for the MBBS will be introduced.

The ominous warning

It seems good enough to state that all higher education will happen in multi-disciplinary institutions and large education communities. Bu, if this materialises, what will happen to the 40 per cent of colleges which are presently running on a single programme and the 20 per cent which have less than 100 students? How will they be able to raise themselves to the level of bespoke colleges or teaching universities of major urban centres? The committee wants them to achieve this feat within a span of 10 years.

The report says, “It is important to note that the categorisation of Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) into these three ‘types’ is not in any natural way a sharp, exclusionary categorisation, but is along a continuum.”

HEIs will have the autonomy and freedom to move from one type to another on the basis of their plans, actions, and effectiveness. In practice, the freedom will not come to the institutions without effort. They must satisfy a bureaucratic set-up at the centre, to be called the National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA).

The ominous warning is that all existing HEIs shall be accredited by 2030 and those that are not accredited will cease operations. This is clearly a death knell to thousands of rural colleges which will not be able to match the Olympian standards that the policy makers seem to demand.

The irony is that the report wants the GER to be increased from the existing 25 per cent to 50 per cent within a span of a few years. The number of students presently going to higher education institutes is approximately 3.5 crore. If this is to be increased to 7 crore, we will need more colleges and not less. If the existing colleges cease operations, how are we going to find suitable colleges for students who will be joining the streams in large numbers?

The ‘degree granting colleges’ is another mad hatter’s plan that doesn’t consider the complexity of India and the evolution of its educational institutions. The plan is to have a National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) that will develop accreditation centres all over the country and oversee the accreditation process of these colleges.

Thus, if a state government wants to open a college in a remote corner, it must approach the local accreditation centre for approval, which in effect means that a state government has practically no role to play in moulding higher education within its jurisdiction. It will petition the centre as a supplicant and await its orders. The administrative tangle such a scheme is going to create will ensure that higher education is India hurtles down slope to complete chaos.

National Research Foundation

The National Research Foundation, which is yet to be created, has been given the pride of place in the report. The idea is to create another empire which is supposed to receive an annual grant of ₹20,000 crore. The report clearly states that institutions that currently fund research at some level, such as DST, DAE, DBT, ICAR, ICMR, UGC, as well as various private and philanthropic organisations, will continue to independently fund researches according to their priorities and needs.

However, the Finance Minister in her Budget speech has said that the funds available to various ministries for research grants will be integrated in the foundation. This, in effect, means that the interactive relationship between the academic world and the ministries dealing with knowledge will no longer be as close as it is at present, which will have a telling effect on policy making in science and technology. In any case, none of these ministries will let go of its funding powers without a fight.

Liberal education

There is nothing unconscionable about recommending liberal education in undergraduate courses. I have absolutely no problem if colleges offer general education courses in languages, art, music, sports, history, mathematics and science, so long as they don’t act corrosively and eat into the major courses.

In Ivy League colleges, the choices available to the students are varied and they can choose a course which really interest them. In our conditions, such courses tend to subsist even when the students are least interested in them because of various other reasons hardly connected with the student community.

The report rather frenetically cites the example of Nobel laureates interested in ‘serious hobbies in the arts’. But we should not forget that an overwhelming majority of students pursuing higher education are not likely to branch off into potentially Nobel prize-winning research. Our approach should be practical.

Exit examination for MBBS

We are all aware of the ruckus created in Tamil Nadu over the NEET examination. Most of the Tamil academics are rightly concerned that NEET intrudes into the state’s domain. They must now be ready for a double whammy.

The committee wants to introduce a common exit examination for the MBBS course that will play a dual role as also the entrance examination for admission into postgraduate programmes. This will open another pit for wrestling between the centre and the state.

Also, it is ironical that on the one hand the committee calls for complete autonomy to higher education institutions, but, on the other, will not trust them to hold routine annual entrance and exit examinations for the MBBS!

Resounding emptiness

“A small number (say five) of multidisciplinary education and research universities providing world class liberal arts education and modelled after some of the best universities in world history, such as Nalanda and the Ivy League schools in the US, will be set up in India within the next five years.”

This paragraph in the report continues to haunt me. It sums up the dilemma of those who drafted it. They will have to kowtow to the idiosyncrasies of the ruling dispensation, but at the same time, sing a few songs in praise of modern education.

But to an unbiased citizen, whose sole interest is in the redemption of Indian education, such a paragraph is at once grating and obscenely dishonest. How will you model a modern university after Nalanda, which was an ancient theological centre and about which nothing much is known? What is the connection between Nalanda and the Ivy League colleges of the US?

In short, that a team of top eggheads of the country could produce a report of such resounding emptiness is perhaps indicative of the fast arriving intellectual bankruptcy of our nation.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

The article is the fourth in a series of analyses on draft National Education Policy. Read the first three articles here: 

Instead of reforms, nat’l edu policy may trigger power tussle in bureaucracy

NEP: Din over Hindi takes focus away from key issues

States reduced to ball boys in draft education policy