Editor's Comment: This is the second part in our two-part series analysing the draft National Education Policy. This part will discuss the Policy’s provisions on Higher Education and its miscellaneous provisions. The first article, which deals with School Education, can be read here.
India has about 35 million students presently pursuing Higher Education (HE) in over 800 universities and approximately 40,000 colleges, making it the third-largest HE system in the world.
The National Education Policy (NEP) recognises the urgent need for improving HE in India, a scene epitomised by abysmally low enrollment rates (24.5% as opposed to 62.5% for Upper Secondary Education), lack of teachers (or qualified teachers), and a byzantine regulatory system.
(i) Need for multi-disciplinary approach: Over 40% of Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) run single programmes, which is out-of-sync with the multipolar skills that the 21st-century economy demands. The report places “the highest emphasis” on moving all HEIs towards a multi-disciplinary set-up.
(ii) “Light and tight” Regulation: With regard to the vast and multifaceted regulation that HEIs are tasked to deal with, the report proposes the establishment of one National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA) which would be the super-regulator for all HE in India. The University Grants Commission (UGC) would transform into the Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC) and the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), which is currently under the UGC, would be a fully autonomous body and the top-level accreditor for all HEIs.
(iii) More autonomy for HEIs: Besides recommending the establishment of new HEIs, the report recommends that the task of setting up these new institutes be transferred from Parliament and state legislatures to the proposed NHERA. Furthermore, all HEIs are to be restructured and classified under three categories – research institutes, teaching universities, and institutes that offer undergraduate education. Significantly, all these institutes are to move towards complete autonomy to help them take the “bold and innovative steps to enhance their educational offerings”.
(iv) More Research Funding: A highlight of the NEP is its focus on the importance of research – and how low it is prioritised currently. Spending on research and innovation stands at 0.7% of GDP, while the number is 2.1% in China and 2.8% in the US. The report argues that the separation in higher education between teaching institutions and research institutions post-independence has caused much harm. It recommends the setting up of a National Research Foundation (NRF) to ensure competitive funding for research proposals across all disciples in the sciences, technology, social sciences, and arts and humanities.
(v) Focus on technical education: The NEP recognises the changing global landscape in both education and employment and thus has a special focus on technical education. The report opines that India must take the lead in preparing professionals in cutting-edge areas that are fast gaining prominence such as artificial intelligence, 3-D machining, big data analysis, machine learning, genomic studies, biotechnology, nanotechnology, neuroscience and so on. The report makes a case for these courses, among others, to be added to undergraduate education at the earliest and for retired/serving scientists and engineers to be enlisted to train faculty in colleges and universities.
Other Key Aspects
(i) National Education Commission: The NEP recommended the creation of a National Education Commission/RashtriyaShikshaAayog (RSA), to be headed by the Prime Minister. The RSA would be the apex education body in India and would oversee all other bodies, including the NHERA, UGC, NCERT, and NAAC.
(ii) Pitch to Increase Education Spending: The first two NEPs - in 1968 and 1986 – pitched for 6% of GDP as education spending. With education spending lagging at 2.7% of GDP, the Kasturirangan Committee repeated this commitment, adding that public investment in education should be doubled from the current 10% of total public expenditure to 20% in the next decade.
(iii) Need to Revamp Vocational Education: Perhaps noting the recent debates surrounding jobless growth and India’s skill deficit, the NEP recommended integrating vocational educational programmes in all educational institutions over the next decade. Between grades 9 and 12, all school students would receive education in at least one vocation. Additionally, HEIs would offer vocational courses integrated with their undergraduate programmes. To review progress towards these goals, a National Committee for the Integration of Vocational Education will be established.
Shortcomings of the 2019 National Education Policy
It is interesting to note that the Kasturirangan Committee identifies the delimination between research and teaching institutions as a “historical error” but at the same time, it has pitched for the categorisation of HEIs along three lines – research, teaching and undergraduate institutes. It has again categorised research and teaching instituted separately - why the reiteration of a “historical error”? Why not a thorough restructuring of HEIs altogether?
And its pitch for “light” regulation, while commendable, is unconvincing since it recommends the establishment of a super-regulator in the form of the NHERA without the elimination of the current system – that is, bodies like the UGC, NAAC, NCERT, etc. will operate (with different functions) along with the NHERA. A knotty system would be replaced by a knotty system with a super-knot.
Then there is the issue of underpayment of teachers. The NEP talks of teachers’ remuneration only in terms of incentives and promotions, not with regard to increasing teachers’ salaries on the whole to make teaching a financially attractive option for job-seekers.
Yes, the report rightly recognises that the system of selection, promotion, salary increases and vertical mobility of faculty is presently “not based on merit but tends to be either seniority-based or arbitrary”. This has had the negative effect of severely disincentivising quality innovation at all levels. But that does nothing for the fact that many potential teachers don’t opt for the profession because it is financially unrewarding. Unless teachers are paid more, more talent cannot be attracted to the profession and teaching vacancies will remain a plague on the system.
All in all, the 2019 NEP has been met with appreciation for its pitch for progressive reforms and deregulation and its focus on technical and vocational education. But as with every other policy document, even the NEP has its drawbacks. Given that it is only a draft, the enactment of its provisions falls on legislators. Our education system’s elevation into the future will be smooth and swift if they adopt the best of the NEP while tweaking its shortcomings.
(This was Part 2 in our two-part series covering the draft National Education Policy. You read Part 1, which deals with School Education, here.)
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