The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, has received an unprecedented scale of attention and publicity, compared to any other contemporary reform agenda. Within a week of its approval on 29 July, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Education (MoE) jointly organised a couple of highlevel webinars focusing on the role of the NEP in transforming education. What is notable about these webinars, which were attended by scores of senior-level functionaries, is that they have been addressed by the Prime Minister and the President. Such webinars are also being organised at the state level. The idea behind these webinars is twofold: One is to familiarise and sensitise policy implementers and the other is to strategise and develop a roadmap for its implementation.
The commitment shown in the last one-and-a-half months demonstrates that, after the eleventh FiveYear Plan, education has occupied centre-stage in the development agenda once again. This perception may be strengthened if the system starts showing visible changes by effecting unequivocal support in terms of the selection of leaders capable of handling the envisioned transformation and ensuring both enhanced budgetary provisions and a timely flow of funds. It may be corroborated further if the system swiftly starts responding to implementation requirements by way of initiating activities and assigning tasks for the purpose of re-examining existing provisions and formulating essential frameworks as proposed in the policy. What remains to be seen is whether the prevailing enthusiasm persists unto the implementation of the policy or gets run over by some other unforeseen agenda in times to come. Any laxity, when the tempo is soaring, might be construed as an optical illusion, which would be unseemly.
The country has brought out the NEP after a gap of 34 long years because since then education has undergone an enormous amount of transformation due to national and international developments. Service providers have been confronting issues that are exposing the hollowness and fragility of the existing system. In times such as these, the NEP has made a huge commitment of making quality education accessible to about 37 crore children in the age cohort of 3 to 18 years, with the goal of universalising school education, and to about 7 crore children in the age group of 18-23, with the aim of achieving 50 percent Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education. The commitment now obligates the system to accord top priority to developing a plan of action and strategising the movement of the entire machinery both at the state and the Centre. It would require much bigger a push, in terms of an increased budgetary allocation both at the Central and state levels.
There are always some recommendations in almost every policy document which are central to bringing about real change in the system. Apart from that, there are also some recommendations which are written for the sake of it and, interestingly, they also get implemented on their own. Therefore, it is always necessary to critically examine such a document and sift out those recommendations which fall in the former category.
A dispassionate analysis of the policy on higher education reveals that there are about a dozen recommendations which are critical for invigorating the system as envisioned in the policy. It may, therefore, be appropriate to classify these recommendations on the basis of the twin criteria of type and necessities, which in a way will make the job easier and facilitate the development of the plan of action. It is noted from the analysis that there are some recommendations which would require legislative frameworks of one kind or the other. There are others that would require the formulation of new apparatuses which hitherto are not the part of the system. There is also a third set of recommendations that would require the revision of the existing frameworks and amendments therein. This classification may help in crystallizing the right approach for the implementation of all three kinds of recommendations.
The first set of recommendations would essentially require the creation of enabling conditions for revamping the entire system of higher education. Some of them, of course, might require a little more than mere legislation. Recommendations such as the establishment of the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) with its four verticals in the name of National Higher Education regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC), General Higher Education Council (GEC), Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC), Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities (MERU), National Research Foundation (NRF), National Education Technological Forum (NETF), the constitution of Board of Governors (BOG), Entry of Foreign Universities Act, etc, fall in this category. The implementation of these recommendations would require the establishment of the proposed statutory bodies. They are the part of the legislative agendas which involves quite a time-consuming process. They will have to pass through multilevel detailed scrutiny prior to and after they are introduced as bills in Parliament. Since a fairly large number of quality initiatives are going to flow from them, they may be accorded top priority by the Ministry of Education.
The Ministry may consider creating a committed bureau to accelerate the pace of all the legislative proposals. Obviously, these recommendations can be fructified into reality only with the will and commitment of the government. The second set of recommendations would require the formulation of new apparatuses which hitherto do not exist but are now envisioned as inevitabilities to compete with the best of the world. These recommendations are going to be process-oriented. They are going to be a good weight for academia. Recommendations like the formulation of the National Higher Education Qualification Framework (NHEQF), Academic Bank of Credit (ABC), Institutional Development Plan (IDP), defragmentation of higher education, designing of virtual labs, evolving the criteria for the three sets of institutions, bringing all teacher preparation programs under the ambit of the university system, a merit-based tenure track system, online proctored examination, etc, form part of this category. Of them, the formulation of NHEQF is going to be the most time-consuming exercise and thus, would require the setting up of a special taskforce for its timely execution. Other recommendations in this category may be accomplished too, provided that well-intentioned people with the right kind of orientation are concurrently tasked with dissimilar responsibilities to deliver within the defined timeframe.
The academia will have to work openly and collectively to translate these recommendations into reality. Since most of them are going to be part of the mandate of the GEC, the Ministry may like to press for its establishment early. The third set of recommendations would require the examination of existing instruments for the purpose of aligning them with the requirements of the day. Recommendations such as revising the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), the National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQF), moving towards more liberal multidisciplinary undergraduate education with multiple exits, e-content development, integration of values and ethics, criterion-referenced testing, etc., are going to be part of this category. Most of them are directly related to the basic realities of classroom processes which eventually bring about qualitative improvement and thus ought to be accorded priority in the scheme of teaching and learning. Most of these recommendations can be operationalised with minor modifications in the existing frameworks. There are only a few recommendations which may require newer formulations. Most may require the issuance of certain frameworks or guidelines. Since they are in pursuit of activities like teaching, learning, skilling, research and testing, their implementation may be carried out by individual institutions without looking up to any command room. Since there are three sets of recommendations, it is imperative to adopt different approaches for their implementation.
There are a few relating to legislative agendas that may require a particular sequence in their implementation because of their inter-linkages and enabling requirements. The second category of recommendations, which would warrant the setting up of a couple of taskforces comprising eminent experts may be undertaken simultaneously. Likewise, the third set of recommendations may also be carried forward by individual institutions. It is thus clear that some of the operational activities in the implementation process may be carried out concurrently across the categories. An important aspect of the entire exercise may, however, be how ably the senior-level executives and heads of institutions across the states understand the spirit of the intents of the policy statements and efficiently and effectively strategise their implementation. Another important aspect that needs to be taken into account is the level of support to the state governments. Since the bulk of higher education is with the states, which are starved for funds, the federal government may consider constituting an expert committee for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of resources required for the implementation of the policy and then making budgetary provisions to meet the shortfall. The bottom line is how the Ministry of Education and the state departments of higher education mobilise finances to meet the most immediate financial challenges as everything involved, from structural changes to quality initiatives, would require a lot.
The writer is former Chairman, University Grants Commission. The views expressed are personal.