NEP 2020’s ‘world-class university’ model is an exclusionary recommendation

The NEP 2020 not only confronts India’s education system with privatisation, but also pulls the chain of successive measures of progression backward

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Satarupra Chakraborty

“…I was afraid. I was afraid to reveal an integral part of myself. I’m poor.”

“Why is it not OK for me to talk about such an important part of my identity on Duke’s campus?”

“Why is the word “poor” associated with words like lazy, unmotivated and uneducated? I am none of those things,”

“Why has our culture made me so afraid or ashamed or embarrassed that I felt like I couldn't tell my best friends ‘Hey, I just can’t afford to go out tonight?”

Kelly Noel Waldorf was a Duke University senior. Her story ‘I Came to Duke with an Empty Wallet’ at Huffpost featured on November 14, 2013 depicted the conditions prevailing at America’s elite campuses, and what she experienced being a student who had ‘an empty wallet’. The Forbes Women’s story – ‘The Challenge Of Being Poor At America's Richest Collegespublished on Nov 27, 2013 – highlighted, ‘At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 – in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.’

Hundreds of such stories narrate similar accounts – which portray how the low-income students are coerced with feeling of isolation in an elite university in America. The question is, why do such stories of isolated students in America not discomfort the Indian policy makers?

India’s newly approved New Education Policy 2020 offers exciting packages – starting from ‘equity’, ‘access’, ‘affordability’ to ‘multidisciplinary’, ‘academic excellence’ to making a student ‘all-rounders’ – nothing seems to be left out from the handsome package; except certain crucial points, which stand fundamental to the vision of a true modern education system. That is, a vision for inclusive education, and a mission to inculcate critical thinking towards a knowledge centric education system, rather than merely a ‘skill-based’ education system.

The overwhelming usage of the promising words in the policy, such as, ‘equity’, ‘access’, ‘inclusion’, seems to present a cozy picture for educational reforms. However, history guards us from being mistaken; as it reminds us about our past, becomes a guide for the present, and warns us to not fall for a rhetorical promise for the future – devoid of any hope for change for the better. After all, the policy’s criminal silent on the need for reservation in higher educational institutions cannot be ignored.

Prof. Kumkum Roy, a renowned historian noted in her piece, ‘National Education Policy Needs Close Scrutiny for What it Says, What it Doesn’t’, published on August 2, 2020 in the Indian Express that, although the document mentioned about the ‘Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs)’ there was no reference of reservation in the whole document, except ‘a fleeting reference to Scheduled Castes’.

The article highlighted, ‘Reservation, necessary but not sufficient, is the bare minimum required in terms of affirmative action in the highly differentiated socio-economic milieu in which we exist. The silence of the document on this issue is troubling, to say the least’. It, perhaps, reveals the truth more strongly, about the intention embedded in the policy purporting it to be an exclusionary one.

The NEP 2020 not only confronts India’s education system with privatization, but also pulls the chain of successive measures of progression backward. While the collective understanding and years of struggles have achieved certain objectives, such as, affirmative action, establishing democracy within institutions, today, all the hard-earned progressive policies and the subsequent changes within the education system bears a fresh threat of implementation of regressive rules.

One of the major goals of the NEP 2020 is to transform the higher education institutions into hubs of skill-based training centres with ad hoc ‘hop-on and hop-off’ arrangements in multiple disciplines with ‘multiple exit options’. The obvious question, therefore is, what purpose does the ‘multidisciplinary’ approach serve in concrete terms. The more important questions are – whose policy is it? Who shall be benefited from the policy?

The policy requires a thorough study and a clause by clause analysis for a comprehensive formulation of all its aspects. This piece shall, focus on ‘clause 10’ of the policy which emphasizes on ‘Institutional Restructuring and Consolidation’.

NEP 2020 - ‘Institutional Restructuring and Consolidation’

A brief summarization of the fourteen-point sub-clause within ‘clause 10’ in the NEP 2020 is as follow:

A ‘one-size-fits-all’ model: It offers an umbrella system like ‘one-size-fits-all’ model under which the Higher Educational Institution (HEI) clusters will be accommodated, aiming to establish ‘one coherent ecosystem of higher education’.

The universal system argument has been pushing India into adopting a system of accepting ‘one system’, ‘one language’ etc. Such ideas amount to a death knell for India’s diversity, and potentially pose a strong challenge to the vibrant research and teaching culture.

A Multidisciplinary system: The policy proposes to ‘increase resource efficiency’ and equip the students to become ‘all-rounders’ by way of making a cocktail of the ‘ancient and modern’ system with the ‘multidisciplinary’ tint attached to it.

Prof. Prabhat Patnaik argued on the draft earlier in a piece titled ‘On the Draft National Education Policy’ published in People’s Democracy on July 21, 2019, that, although it may sound interesting to provide career options for young students and can be a way of ‘streamlining the structure of higher educational institutions’, the report ‘fails both because it does not take cognizance of the effect of the socio-economic arrangement upon the sphere of education, and also because it unthinkingly tries to impose bourgeois notions of excellence upon educational institutions that are set within a more complex and intricate setting involving caste and other such exclusions.’

Graded Autonomy: It recommends granting of ‘graded autonomy’ to institutions of higher education which achieve the ‘accreditation’ after satisfying certain criteria credited by the accrediting body.

What it means, is to curtail the government funds into institutions of higher education and promote a self-financing model with the sole objective of giving a free hand for the corporates to get involved in trading with the institution. The so-called ‘autonomy’, thus, neither mentions a word about any systematic government-grant system which would facilitate research, teaching, and other subsequent needs; nor does it state anything about the pledge to accomplish academic freedom which is essential for teaching-learning processes.

Medium of Instruction: The policy highlights that the medium of instruction would be offered in local/Indian languages or bilingually, which sets an aim to ‘increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) and access across the country and across every type of institution.’

The appearance of the policy formulations may show its concern to break the dominance of English-speaking elites, but, in actuality, it is quite the opposite. In fact, it shows an open hypocrisy, as the policy suggests one criterion for one discipline and another for the other disciplines. For instance, science students must be equipped with English language, but others may learn their subjects in the vernacular language medium.

In prof. Patnaik’s language, ‘Breaking the monopoly of the English-speaking elite therefore, a goal that is quite unexceptionable, requires not a downgrading of English but a pervasive and proper teaching of it.’

Online Education and Enrollment: There are also other challenging aspects with the specific clause, such as, recommendation of online education, which inevitably would bring in a ‘digital-divide’ as it is evident during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The policy aims to increase the enrollment ratio by 50% whereas majority of the students have no access to internet or other digital aid to be able to pursue their education online.

On the issue of enrollment, the policy fixes a number, namely, 3000 or more students to be enrolled into the HEIs. This means, a large number of institutions in various parts of the country is going to be shut down. As there may be a number of small, regional institutions, which fail to keep up with the prescribed number would eventually be heading towards a closure.

This particular sub-clause has a far-fetched implication which would massively impact the education of girl students, the Dalits, and the poor students, as closure of each college would leave hundreds of students to drop out from the arena of education.

As the implications of this particular clause are understood, on restructuring of the system, let us now return back to the key point on which the fundamental premise of the entire clause in the policy depends. That is, transforming the structure of the education system by bringing in reforms following the ‘world-class’ model universities of the US.

It is agreed that, any proposition to set up a Harvard in the remotest district of Jharkhand is truly exciting, and that too, when such propositions are accompanied with assurances of fellowships and affordable education, it is perhaps, the most welcoming thing that all students must celebrate about.

The aspiring Indian students in higher education, dream to study in the worlds’ best universities. Setting up a Harvard, or a Yale, or a Princeton in the Ivy League Universities at our districts, or states is like fulfilling the dreams of generations of students. But, can there be a Harvard or Princeton at our native places, small towns, and states, which indiscriminately offer free education for all?

The examples of the ‘world-class’ universities do not present an encouraging picture. The Ivy League Universities or the Stanford or the MIT as mentioned in the policy are famous for the tags of ‘institution per excellence’ – ranging from high-quality sports to academics, they are the ‘all-rounders’. However, they are equally infamous for the social elitism.

The Boston News, in a report titled ‘A Generation Later, Poor are Still Rare at Elite Colleges’reported on August 26, 2014, about the world-class universities in the US which remained ‘bastions of the privileged’. The report mentions, ‘Amid promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.’

It is not to call out names of the institutions to be socially elite, but to raise the point on how the system failed to make those institutions socially inclusive. The student-teaching community in India is terrified today because our country already has a decades-old history of oppression and privilege, which kept education away from the disadvantaged section of the vast population in the society for decades. It took generations of hard-work, collective efforts, and forward-thinking people’s wisdom, to inculcate certain values within the system – which remained central to Indian constitution. The illusion of the ‘world-class’ university model which the NEP 2020 presents is a hogwash.

To sum up this model, it can be best articulated through Prof. Prabhat Patnaik’s take on the ‘world-class’ university model. That is, ‘..the report sees education essentially in narrowly instrumentalist terms, as an aid to the creation of a “knowledge economy”, as a means for running a ten-trillion-dollar economy which India would become in the coming years…The ideal it presents is a system dotted with institutions that are clones of Harvard and Cambridge, which teach modern science and other disciplines with a dash of Hindutva and celebration of Indian “glory”.’

This vision, therefore, would essentially transform India’s education from being a right to a privilege. Ironically, the ‘world-class university’ model as presented in the NEP, goes against the very principle of the well-propagated idea of the BJP to ‘make India a Vishwaguru’. It takes us back again to the elite form of education that existed before, where Ekalavya was denied education because he was not born into family from the privileged Caste.

The experience of Kelly Noel Waldorf’s in Duke is a shared experience that each Indian student from a disadvantaged social location faces in Indian higher educational institutions. Students like Anita or Payal Tadvi and many others are forced to end their lives because of the structural problems and institutional discrimination pervading in the system.

The NEP 2020 brings in a model which will create a society that continues to perpetuate those elite traits prevalent in our society. The aspirations of the nation of having an education system where the child of Ambani and the child of a slum dweller would have access to the same classroom, same education, has gone for a toss. The higher education with the proposed NEP 2020 would be creating a model where the rich are educated with degrees and the rest of the students would merely secure a general qualification, who would be taken as a cheap labour to serve in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’.

Hence, the NEP 2020 needs strong rejection across the country for saving the little that we acquired through our struggles in the advancement of India’s education system.

(The author is a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, currently based in its Delhi office. She is also a fellow of the Globetrotter/People's Dispatch currently, and pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi)

(Views expressed are personal)

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