NEP And Its Discontents – Part 2: Higher Education
The tragedy about the NEP document is that it has been drafted by old fogeys who know little about today’s tech-savvy youth or what modern-day expansionist learning entails.
The document reeks of bureaucracy and not academic excellence or even innovative thinking.
Any comparison of India and Singapore on policy debates usually gets the scoffs from analysts, who point to the vastness and complexity of India vis-a-vis Singapore. However, Singaporean visionaries have anticipated growth in trade, finance and now in technology and have organised their economy and society successfully. What has stopped our experts who draft policies from thinking creatively and anticipating trends? The complexity of India should not have been a hurdle to thinking!
Boston Dynamics makes robotic dogs that navigate difficult terrain and do complicated tasks with ease. Amazon is planning on drone deliveries. Khan Academy and a host of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) providers already offer fantastic courses for certification. These are not “imagined futures”, but a future that has almost already arrived. Our youngsters have embraced this future like fish to water. From accessing MOOCs and normal tutorials, to getting certifications, to accessing code from Github, Indian college students are doing it all.
The gig economy has spawned numerous opportunities hitherto unavailable or undiscoverable. Certification is catching up. A start-up is more interested in hiring Android programmers with a certificate from Udacity than a BE Computer Science. Virtual classrooms, virtual labs and even virtual universities are going around, not to mention numerous small-scale innovations relating to higher education that have come up.
The NEP was made in the midst of all this amazing excitement. The committee that drafted the NEP has not displayed any sagacity (to put it mildly) to grasp these advancements so as to weave a policy of education and innovation at a humongous scale. They have recommended an upgraded version of Nilgiri Express in an era of Shinkansen.
Like in school education, they have delivered a largely a bureaucratic reform with a few doses of clever ideas. The near mea culpa from the document reads, “When the National Policy on Education 1986/1992 was formulated, it was difficult to predict the disruptive effect of the Internet. Harnessing Education Technology should have been the starting point for the recommendations. And by this India could easily achieve the 50 per cent GER.”
Technology comes under Part 3, under “other focus areas”. It takes the 354th page to talk about “disruptive technology”. The document talks about creating a National Educational Technology Forum. Think about whether India would have developed as an IT super power with this kind of forum-based thinking. The recommendations about technology are top-down. They sound more like government-led IT procurement of hardware and software rather than an exciting, transformative tool that has to be facilitated.
The document also underestimates our students. They think kids have to be taught to access education materials on the Internet in college! When did they last meet a smart college student? The committee filled with old fogeys forgets that today’s students are digital natives. All our students need today is facilitation in terms of access, including translated material, good internet, easy forums for consultation, et cetera. But the committee is quick to offer sage advice to the proposed Rashtriya Siksha Aayog to monitor disruptive technology. The lack of young entrepreneurs or researchers to call their bluff is a lacuna in the constitution of the committee.
A mission mode professor training to access a broad set of material from reputed universities should have been a key focus area. Continuing reforms in Open and Distance Learning (ODL), mandating universities to offer at least half of their credits on SWAYAM et cetera. would have solved the faculty problem. The old student-faculty ratio is irrelevant today. As knowledge becomes more specialised, fewer competent faculty will be available. Envisaging finishing schools for students that complete studies through remote programmes would have been a game-changer. The draft policy is such a let-down when it comes to expansion of access to knowledge.
The committee members have not clearly understood the difference between practical knowledge and propositional knowledge. The first one is of skills that will lead to a job. The latter is about exploring frontiers, getting a philosophical understanding of things et cetera. In a lower-middle income country like India, 95 per cent of the students go to college to get a job and move ahead in life. The committee has made a policy for the rest 5 per cent and myopically intends to thrust the rest 95 per cent with the same stuff. This unified “liberal education”, “large, multidisciplinary universities and colleges” et cetera is born out of such intellectual solipsism.
Establishing multi-disciplinary HEI (Higher Education Information) systems, on the scale recommended is utopian. The same document states in page 256, “for example, faculty vacancies in the new Central universities are reported to be over 50 per cent and 35 per cent in the new IITs”. The actual number is close to 60 per cent. New IITs, IIMs, NITs, Central universities – the creme la creme lack proper faculty. If we wait to establish theses multidisciplinary HEIs and fill it with faculty it will be at least another 15 years. Just think about the loss in human capital if such a bureaucratic recommendation is implemented in letter and spirit!
Let’s come to the human capital part. The document is filled with motherhood statements about “motivated faculty” et cetera when the quality of people entering the profession itself is not up to the mark. There is no comment on the lateral entry of experienced professionals as “Professors of Practice”. There is no mention of large-scale training to fill the immense gap in availability of lab technicians, administrative staff, tutors et cetera. Good institutional leaders in India are few and far between. An academic leadership is, perhaps, the biggest crisis in the Indian university system. A mission mode solution such as starting a one-year MBA for the same in one of our IIMs could have been proposed.
Costly capital expenditure in the form of procuring lab equipment could be addressed by resource pooling among institutions in an area. Virtual Labs through remote access and simulated games have made practical education much easier and cost-effective. No mention of them in the policy.
In the “Vocational Education” section, the missing link is the imagination of a “pull system” of establishing institutions. The IT revolution of the 1990s and 2000s was instrumental in the creation of many Computer Science and IT departments; not vice-versa. Our vocational education success depends on bigger economic reforms of promoting manufacturing, organised labour among other things.
Till then, the existing manufacturing firms should be encouraged to start HEIs offering B.Voc and Diplomas with a slew of incentives. The government, under the “Institute of Eminence” or an equivalent framework, should allow establishment of a few giant vocational universities in manufacturing hubs. Both the ideas are absent in the policy draft.
In the middle of the “Adult Education” section, the policy reluctantly wakes up to the following: “In anticipation of AECs being equipped with Information and Communications Technology (ICT) devices, a wide range of digital material for adult education will be designed and available for use in AECs and on individual smartphones.” This is welcome. Adult education will simply come to mean someone handing out a mobile phone with a learning app to the target person and encouraging him/her constantly.
India’s education future lies in the hands of tech entrepreneurs and MOOCs providers - public and private, Indian and international. Not in the hands of committee members that recommend perpetuating an antediluvian system. When the private sector starts accepting certification from a private provider than a degree of a UGC-approved college (and society consents as well), the demise of the old guard will begin.
Modi 1.0 perhaps initiated the most progressive programmes by starting to provide autonomy to HEIs, reforming ODL, and promoting SWAYAM, proposing “Institutes of Eminence” et cetera. They have to just expand those in the next two years. The National Research Foundation (NRF), as recommended by the policy, is a worthwhile idea to provide structure and sanity to our research programmes. Translation of technical material into Indian languages is another much needed initiative. It finds place in the policy, which should be appreciated.
In conclusion, in higher education, as with the school education part, the committee has not put the millions of students and parents at the centre of policy formulation. The Centre is the government education bureaucracy and the students are just consumers. The quote from the document, “21st century competencies for future work roles, these are indeed the capabilities that will separate humans from robots” from the document rings hollow. The draft policy addresses neither equity nor excellence. In five years, the NEP will look outdated.
Also Read: NEP And Its Discontents
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