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Call for alternative pro-people policy, save education from commercialization

By Bharat Dogra* 
There has been lot of concern regarding the direction of education policy in India, particularly regarding  the Union Government’s National Education Policy 2020 (NEP). The National Education Assembly (NEA), organized in Delhi on April 30, helped shape and consolidate various apprehensions being felt by educationists, students and teachers as well as their  organizations. 
The declaration issued at the assembly, organized by the All India People’s Science Network and Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti ( hereafter referred to as NEA declaration or NEA-D) is an important document in terms of understanding widely-held concerns regarding the direction of educational change. 
After much struggle, the Right to Education Act  (RTE), 2009 was enacted by Parliament, giving effect to the 86th Constitution Amendment via Article 21A, assuring free and compulsory education for all children in the 6-14 age group. However, many challenges still remain in the education sector, such as low public expenditure, low teacher-student ratio, urgency of improving quality of education and high drop-out rates in schools, especially impacting girls, SC/STs and poor rural students. Higher education institutions (HEI) also suffered from many new and old problems. 
Regrettably, NEP has not addressed  these issues, says the NEA declaration, and instead Implementation of NEP is rapidly pushing the country’s education system in retrograde directions with serious consequences. 
The declaration says that the NEP is being pushed without being placed before or passed by Parliament, despite numerous contradictions with the legislated RTE Act. Various states have not been adequately consulted. More specifically, this declaration states that under NEP, extending a NITI Aayog policy to “rationalize” infrastructure and expenditures, thousands of schools have been closed or merged all over the country, with many thousands more to come. This will undoubtedly reduce access to schooling, especially in rural areas, since many students will have to travel even greater distances than at present, and would increase drop-out rates, particularly among girls, as already being witnessed.
  Further the declaration adds that many government schools are being privatized outright or handed over to private management, both with higher fees, further impacting access and exacerbating inequity. The declaration says, “In a country desperately crying out for increased public expenditure on education, currently languishing at under 3 per cent of GDP, which is much lower than comparable developing countries and emerging economies, further reduction of public expenditure cannot be the answer.” 
The National Assembly has therefore called for strengthening the public education system rather than reducing public investment and encouraging privatization in different ways. 
The declaration states that the NEP puts enormous and undue emphasis on distance, on-line, informal, home and volunteer-based education, especially in school years.  Experience during the Covid pandemic, including through numerous surveys, clearly showed that the vast majority of students, especially from rural and poor backgrounds, could not access or effectively utilize on-line classes due to the lack of adequate smart phones in families, and poor connectivity among other things. Teaching-learning suffered from lack of socialization among peer groups and other benefits of inter-personal interaction.
 The NEA declaration states, online education, in both school and higher education, hugely benefits large corporate entities which have emerged as a major profit-driven force in education, and further promotes the culture of coaching centres and tuitions, again favouring the better-off. Hence, this declaration states, on-line education can at best supplement, but cannot substitute for, in-person teaching-learning.  
Coming to higher education, the NEA declaration states that this is being opened up even more to commercialization and privatization under NEP. In recent years, most of the rise in enrolment in higher education has been in the private sector, exposing the serious under-investment by the Government.  
NEP encourages new private HEIs, despite the well-known poor track record, notably of private engineering colleges or universities, in which hundreds of institutions have closed, leaving numerous students in the lurch. 
The declaration asserts that colleges are being encouraged to become “autonomous” self-financing degree-awarding institutions, with high fees obviously a consequence. Even public universities and colleges have started offering short-term courses with high fees of several lakhs annually, out of the reach of poorer students, while HEIs in general placing greater emphasis on profit-oriented courses compared to other educational services.
In the re-structured Universities and autonomous colleges envisaged in NEP, the academic community finds no role in management which is visualized along the lines of corporate Governing Boards. The National Assembly has clearly stated that it rejects this commercialization and corporatization of higher education. 
The declaration  voices concern regarding a controversial new “multi-disciplinary” 4-year bachelor’s degree that  has been introduced under NEP with multiple entry and exit points, and Academic Bank of Credits, supposedly providing flexibility and vocational orientation, without adequate studies  having been conducted on the value of or demand for such courses, or the employability of those leaving university with 1-2 year arbitrary slices of undergraduate education in a mixed bag of subjects with diplomas or certificates, at a time when advertisements for even low-ranking non-specialist government jobs receive lakhs of applications including from unemployed PhD and Masters’ Degree holders! 
Serious fears have been expressed by students and educators about such restructured bits-and-pieces UG, PG and even professional education leaving students with weak core competencies. Faculty and academics have been largely left out of the process of formulating these educational “reforms.” 
This has led the declaration to state, “The entire NEP structure of undergraduate education is therefore a huge experiment with uncertain outcomes…”
In the latest move, the declaration states, foreign universities are being invited to set up campuses in India with full autonomy on admissions, fees, faculty recruitment including foreign faculty, and no obligation for reservation.  Research funding is being over-centralized with a reliance in NEP on private funding.
In schools, educators almost unanimously agree that children should not be overburdened with rote-based exam-oriented studies, as emphasized in RTE and as formerly by the CBSE.  The NEA declaration expresses concern therefore that NEP calls for centralized national-level, not even State-level, exams after 3rd, 8th, 10th and 12th classes. 
The entire NEP structure of undergraduate education is a huge experiment with uncertain outcomes
Admissions to higher education institutions are also based on yet another exam, the CUET (Common University Entrance Test) which is being deeply resented by students as an unnecessary imposition. Admissions to Medical Education Institutions anywhere in India, even in Institutions run by State Governments, have come under compulsory centralized NEET exams.  
NCERT textbooks which are used not only by CBSE schools but by many States too, are being prepared centrally, despite educators emphasizing the benefits of curricula and text books framed around local cultures and contexts. 
 The declaration asserts that  more the importance is given to centralized examinations, the more students will come under severe pressure, and the more prominence coaching centres will gain, again putting under-privileged students at a disadvantage as is already happening with IIT/JEE, UPSC etc. 
The NEA declaration notes that in recent times, the country has been shocked by the blatant communal and ideologically-driven distortion of Indian history, post-Independence politics and developmental paths in “rationalized” NCERT textbooks, which have even blacked out environmental issues and the role of popular movements in many spheres. Science too has been manipulated, with Darwin and evolutionary biology being dropped till class 12.  
On another important issue, the declaration explains that NEP has brought in a new emphasis on Early Childhood Care and education (ECCE) for ages 3-6 which is supposed to provide nutrition support and other care for the growing child. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) being assiduously implemented despite many handicaps by anganwadis, are the logical and preferred locations for ECCE since they already look after infants, nutrition, and mother-and-child care. 
However, anganwadis and all the valuable services they provide have been denied the additional training and infrastructure promised under the NEP.
 The NAE declaration calls for a major restructuring and strengthening of ECCE in upgraded anganwadis, and also for  the long-awaited regularization of employment and enhanced wages in them. 
According to the NEA declaration, various state governments, unions and organizations of teachers, students and non-teaching staff, other peoples movements and NGOs, educators and experts, are strongly protesting against NEP and demanding that it be scrapped. 
The NEA calls for an alternative pro-people education policy, built around public education, accessible to all sections, and advancing the capacities of the mass of the Indian people in a modern, culturally diverse, equitable and self-reliant economy and society.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include 'A Day in 2071', 'Protecting Earth for Children' and Planet in Peril'

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