In today’s age of the knowledge-led economy, developing human capital to drive India’s next wave of socio-economic growth is critical. For the first time, there is an unequivocal admission by the policy makers that the existing system is obsolete. Key objectives of the NEP around reforms in curriculum, universalization of early childhood education, national mission for foundational literacy, accreditations to shift focus from inputs to outcomes, and change in governance structures to ensure that the operator, the regulator and the adjudicator are not the same, are all laudable and potentially disruptive. The success of the policy will depend on five important factors.
Improve assessments and reduce stakes on examinations: Examinations in our country seem to be the be-all and end-all of the education process. Until institutions of higher education migrate to more holistic criteria for admission, we won’t see a significant shift in the obsession with examinations. It’s time we dropped the percentage system and arrived at results that provide just the grade or broad range of performance, so someone who scores 96% is not seen as lesser than someone who scores 98%. We need to adopt a system of admissions where kindness is valued as much as achievement.
Teacher preparation: NEP 2020 acknowledges that no reform will work unless the teacher is brought center stage. We need to rightfully glorify and make teaching one of the most noble and aspired professions for the best and the brightest. Building on the medical residency model, we must attach all teacher education colleges to the top schools in the country. Theory and practice must go hand in hand, using every good classroom and every good teacher to make more teachers.
Greater overall investment: We’ll have to put our money where our mouth is. As per UNDP estimates, the total financial requirement for India to reach SDG 4 by 2030 averages $173 billion per year, far exceeding the current government budget of $76.4 billion a year for education. Government schools spend about Rs 24,000-30,000 per child per annum, while in private schools, 91% of students pay lower than Rs 24,000 per annum. In contrast the average per student expense in the US is about $13,000 per annum.
Opening up of the sector: It’s obvious that the government won’t be able to shore up investments to the required levels and would need significant private participation. With the current regulatory structure and obsession with keeping it ostensibly clean through not for profit mechanisms, we’re ensuring our students are deprived of quality education. If we need investments, we need to incentivize investors. Numerous politicians and bureaucrats have expressed that the whole not for profit agenda is a charade: “How can we expect institutions to invest Rs 100 crore in setting up schools and not expect a return on their capital?”
Not liberalizing means keeping the sector unorganized, where all kinds of businessmen with no background interest or skills in education get into the field and run sub-standard institutions. If the sector opens up, we will see big chains coming in from within India and across the globe, who might have business interest but will ensure that there is a certain level of professionalism, efficient use of technology and scale to invest in research and development, to deliver more for lesser costs. We have also spoken to numerous parents, who are absolutely clear that they do not care about profit or not, so long as they have predictability in terms of year on year fees increase and there is quality education. Which is an absolutely fair expectation. For profit doesn’t imply no regulation.
NEP isn’t just a policy but a mission: Millions of parents and educators around the country have deep rooted and extremely outdated mental models of what education should be. Assumptions like – rote learning works, examinations and competition are a must even at a young age, we should follow one book, examination results equal intellect, we all did fine with this kind of education – are all barriers to change.
The government needs to run strong campaigns to emphasise the need for change and to invest in curriculum, structures and practices that re-humanise and re-build our ailing education system.