Opinion: The scope and challenges of National Education Policy

The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) was introduced by the Union government to improve the education system in the country. It proposes massive changes in India’s schools and higher education sector so as our system and practices are at par with global education standards. Before NEP 2020, the first National Education Policy was introduced in the year 1968 followed by a second one in 1986. Considering India’s population, quality education to its people is of utmost importance to create global citizens. NEP 2020 is designed to make India a knowledge superpower by making education more experimental and futuristic. India’s heritage as well as its scientific contributions will be taken into account while designing the curriculum. It also aims to increase the gross enrolment ratio of schools and higher education institutions.

The NEP proposes profound and positive changes in the existing framework, pedagogy and also in its multidisciplinary approach. It is designed to benefit students immensely through its student-centric approach. It aims at achieving specific learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, creativity and practical skills over rote memorisation. It offers flexibility to the student in terms of choice of course, according to learner’s interest and aptitude as well as in the pace of course completion.

The NEP also promotes to enhance collaboration between institutions, with student and faculty exchanges and it plans to bring global perspectives into the curriculum. The Central government has sanctioned the world’s top universities to operate in India.

The outcome-based education (OBE) aligns with the goals of NEP since it encourages critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. There is no single specified style of teaching and the role of faculty adapts into instructor, trainer, facilitator and/or mentor.

The United States has an OBE programme in place since 1994 that has been adapted over the years. As of 2017, more than 18 countries are signatories in OBE, including India. The framework and OBE curriculum of the proposed NEP is the same as that is followed in the US. A comparison with the US higher education system in this context will be helpful to identify the scope and challenges of the NEP in India.

Higher education system in India

As India is poised to become a $5 trillion economy in the next five years, it is crucial for the country to have a talent pool of skilled and trained young Indians, especially to have an edge in the global knowledge economy. Yet, the existing state of human resource development, while not entirely dismal, leaves considerable scope for improvement. Multiple studies have revealed that India needs to up its game in the field of higher education, if it is to make significant strides towards national progress. In this regard, the NEP endeavours to offer a solid foundation, by employing a multidisciplinary and holistic approach in revamping the entire undergraduate education system.

While reforming the higher education system may sound like an uphill task, one should keep in mind that India has always had a civilisational edge as far as education is concerned. Right from the Vedic era, India had an educational system which was the envy of the world. The Buddhist and Jain knowledge systems were built on that foundation. In fact, India could boast of renowned universities like Nalanda and Takshashila much before the world became familiar with comparable systems of higher education. Nalanda, set up in 427 CE, is believed to be the first residential university in the world. Up until the 1700s, India had three distinct traditions of advanced learning, the Hindu gurukul tradition, the Buddhist vihara tradition and the Islamic madrassa tradition.

The Indian system met with an entirely new system of education after British rule was established in India in the 18th century. It saw a complete revamp of the Indian system, which was clearly witnessing some disintegration by that time. Britain, which was keen to rule India as a colony, wanted trained manpower to retain its control of the length and breadth of the subcontinent and subsequently decided to draft bright young Indians to man the project. This led to the introduction of Western-style education in India, which began formally with the establishment of Hindu College in Calcutta in 1813. The process got a fillip with the establishment of the first three universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1857. These institutions served as an assembly line for producing graduates who would take up the job of assisting the British in extending their dominance all over the Indian subcontinent. Only the elites, who were willing to serve the British could find a spot in these universities, at least in the early days. Although subsequently, many nationalists, too, were able to make use of these facilities.

An important point to be noted is that the British system was skewed towards churning out generalists–individuals proficient in various skills, but lacking expertise in a specific domain. Their aim was to provide a steady hand to the British administrative system, unfortunately, while many of them turned out to be able administrators, they often lacked specialised skills. This general blueprint provided by the colonial rule still pervades the Indian higher education system as the focus in largely on producing generalists, whose skill sets were divided into highly compartmentalised specialties such as arts, science and commerce.  

And the entire educational system remained in the hands of the government. Most of the schools and colleges were either run by the government directly or by the private sector, utilising funds provided by the government—known as grant-in-aid (GIA) institutions or private-aided institutions. But as more and more Indians started attending colleges and universities with their rising economic profile, the facilities turned out to be inadequate, prompting the opening up of the sector for private players. And thus came private colleges and universities, self-financing programmes offered by government and aided institutions and also foreign universities. While the number of institutions has gone up, only a few can claim to be offering a world-class learning experience to their students. The quality of education in many institutions is inadequate.

The continued focus on the generalist system of education, the absence of imagination in offering specialisations, inadequate opportunities for research and the continuing tendency of centralisation thwart progress in the higher education system. The inflexible nature of the syllabus, failure to attract top talent, inevitable red-tapism associated with the affiliated system, lack of sufficient opportunities for teachers to reskill themselves and a clear failure in imparting employable skills for students are all hurting the higher education system. The difficulty of finding a job after finishing a regular undergraduate degree is among the key reasons why many students try to go abroad despite the heavy financial burden involved.

Transition to NEP 2020

NEP is being implemented across the country. For instance, it will be fully implemented in the higher education sector in Kerala this year. The scope of NEP 2020 is limitless as it allows interdisciplinary creative combinations of study, demanding specialisation in a particular subject. The inclusion of credit-based projects in the areas of specialisation offers the scientific temper needed for furthering research. The project-based credit system can also be done in community engagement and service, environmental education, and value-based education which can promote social, physical, emotional, ethical and moral values in an integrated manner as envisaged. The lateral entry options and academic bank of credits(ABC) can help increase the enrolment and graduation rates.

As per NEP 2020, all undergraduate programmes will be for four years with each academic calendar being split into two semesters. It offers multiple entry and exit points as well as lateral entry options. There are multiple certification options such as: a UG certificate after completing one year, a UG Diploma after two years, a Bachelor’s degree after three years and a four-year Bachelor’s degree with honours after eight semesters of study. In order to improve the employability of the students, they are to be provided with internship opportunities in local industries, businesses or research internships with faculty researchers. For the postgraduate programme, there may be a two-year programme with the second year devoted entirely to research for those who have completed the three-year bachelor’s programme. For students who completed a four-year bachelor’s programme with Honours, there could be a one-year master’s programme. There can be an integrated five-year bachelor’s/master’s programme as well. Both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes offer flexibility to move from one discipline of study to another. An important benefit of achieving the four-year international uniformity in education is, the better prospects for Indian students seeking higher education opportunities in western universities.

Higher education in India and US

The existing higher education systems in India and in the US are modelled largely on the British Oxbridge system and the language of instruction in both countries is English. Government regulations, too, have been similar in both countries, at least to an extent. But the US has a well-developed private university system, while in India, the major universities are all run by the state. In the US, for instance, most famous universities, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Columbia, are privately run. In India, the top universities such as JNU, Delhi University, Jamia and BHU are all owned and operated by Central and state governments. The US universities are also more independent, focused more on research, better administered, the funding more liberal yet streamlined and tied with industries much more advanced. However, in their basic nature, historical evolution, influence of government regulations and medium of instruction, the Indian higher education system shares multiple traits with the US system.

The undergraduate degree in the US is a four-year programme, with 120-128 credits. After completing two years, students can get an associate/intermediate degree (these are also offered by community colleges and students can transfer these credits to a college/university). The final two years are spent fulfilling requirements for the major and for completing a project wherever applicable. Students can move to a graduate (masters) programme or a professional course after finishing their undergraduate degree.

The US follows the OBE curriculum using Bloom’s Taxonomy, a system developed to provide a common language for teachers to discuss and exchange learning and assessment methods. It was developed in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom, a US educational psychologist, who proposed that learning fits into one of the three psychological domains: cognitive (processing knowledge, information and mental skills), affective (attitudes and feelings) and psychomotor (manipulative, manual or physical skills). The NEP will also make use of OBE and as the US is presently the world leader in higher education, industry and science and technology, India can hope that the new system will help it embark upon a journey towards progress.

The US has major investments in higher education and there is a selection procedure for admission to higher education. The student needs to qualify the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and have a good GPA to be admitted to college. The student will select the programme, but the program also selects the student based on Statement Of Purpose (SOP), GPA and other qualifications. But in India, except for a few public universities the selection procedure to higher education is almost nothing. The fees charged for attending college in a public institution is very minimal and are funded for the most part by state governments and the central government. While this accessibility is beneficial, it introduces challenges like diminished enthusiasm and decreased productivity. Therefore, students lacking genuine interest find themselves in colleges, and the rigid traditional education system hinders their ability to switch majors once chosen. Granting scholarships, based on performance could enhance academic attainment to certain extent.

As of 2021, India has about 1100 universities, 11,000 stand-alone institutions and 44,000 colleges. However, in 2022, 68 per cent more Indian students went abroad for higher education than in 2021. Eligible students from developing countries are seeking higher education from developed nations like the US and this is expected to continue in the coming years. Strategic human resource management of students in schools and higher education systems can revive the economy and enhance the employability of graduates.

In an affiliated system of education, the syllabus is usually set by the board of studies in a university, comprising a few numbers of faculty members, however, the transaction of the syllabus is done by someone else. The system also suffers when exams are composed of questions randomly selected from a question bank created by various faculty members. For evaluating the answer sheets the traditional method is followed; experts of a particular subject/topic are assigned the task of checking answer sheets. The evaluators gather at a central location (typically the university’s central location/ hub) to complete the process. This scheme protects the anonymity of the student in order to prevent any bias to any institution in the affiliated colleges. This is not as proposed in the NEP, where the same person has to design the syllabus, do the transaction, conduct the examination and evaluate it and give grades to the student.

Experts across the world are unanimous in agreeing that the 21st century economy will be a knowledge-based economy and the countries that are better equipped with a world-class educational system will reap its benefits. With the growth of artificial intelligence and allied technologies, the education sector is expected to experience a boom and India needs to make the most of it with the help of the biggest advantage in its arsenal—the demographic dividend. To make full use of this potential, India needs to thoroughly revamp its higher education sector so that its young citizens will be effective stakeholders in the global knowledge economy and the NEP is a step in this direction.

(Dr Joseph is assistant professor, department of physics, Kuriakose Elias College, Mannanam, Kottayam, and Dr Chakraborty is chair, department of computer technology, engineering and physics, Community College of Aurora, Denver, Colorado, USA).