NEP 2020: How to make the new educational policy work

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August 21, 2020 6:30 AM

An overarching theme of the 2020 NEP is to reimagine education as learning and broad mental development, getting away from rote learning and test preparation.

The overall themes of breadth, flexibility and room for discovery carry through to the recommendations for higher education, both undergraduate and postgraduate.The overall themes of breadth, flexibility and room for discovery carry through to the recommendations for higher education, both undergraduate and postgraduate.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) represents one of the most positive and hopeful developments to emerge from the current government. If we think of education as the second leg of a strategy of ensuring that India’s citizens possess basic capabilities, following on good health, then one can easily recognise its supreme importance. There is so much wrong with India’s current education system that the new policy has to be far reaching and broad in scope, so it is difficult to summarise every aspect of the policy and its potential. Let us try.

An overarching theme of the 2020 NEP is to reimagine education as learning and broad mental development, getting away from rote learning and test preparation.

Restoring the term “Education” in what has been the Human Resource Development Ministry is partly symbolic of this shift. Specific changes in different aspects of the educational arc embody the shift. Perhaps the most important change is strengthening early childhood education, giving the public sector a responsibility for preschool learning, but emphasising creativity, imagination and play. This is nothing new, but has been lost in the progressive narrowing of ideas of education over recent decades, at least in some countries. Rich parents already send their children to preschool, but creating more equity here will be an enormous benefit.

Second, restructuring the primary and secondary school progression to de-emphasise examinations, and to allow greater variety and flexibility in what is taught, is also of enormous importance. Giving children opportunities to explore, to find their interests, and to develop their minds in multiple dimensions is the essence of true education. Locking children into narrow pathways as early teenagers is wasteful and even harmful. Of course, there will need to be assessment of learning along the way, but that entire system will have to be reconfigured.

The overall themes of breadth, flexibility and room for discovery carry through to the recommendations for higher education, both undergraduate and postgraduate. Even college students are still discovering their interests and their potential, and more effective undergraduate education will prepare students better for research, if they choose that path. The NEP stresses the need for more focused and effective support for research.

So far so good. Turning to some specific issues and challenges, the NEP’s emphasis on increasing vocational education may need careful implementation. One reason for India’s current system is the extreme inequalities in society and economic opportunity, combined with a scarcity of well-paying jobs. This is what drives the nature of the system, which relies on tests as selection mechanisms for prestigious colleges, and getting into those is what matters for access to the best jobs.

This is a bit of a Catch-22, since economic growth depends on the kind of education system that the NEP wants to create, but that kind of system will work well once the economy is growing in ways that will support it. One did see some of this take place when economic reform took hold, but there is a long way to go.

Inequality, labour abundance and scarcity of opportunity are also the challenges for the NEP’s emphasis on increasing vocational education. Teaching hands-on skills works best in a more equal context, such as the examples of Germany and South Korea mentioned in the NEP. But tracking children into vocational pathways risks shutting the disadvantaged out of economic opportunity. Indeed, what India needs is much more hands-on learning, whether it is for teaching physics or auto mechanics. If all subjects are taught in ways that emphasise practical application and real-world relevance, then there is a more natural pathway to the so-called “vocational” education.

This raises another issue. Education that allows students to work with tools, instruments, materials and equipment is going to require investment in making these available. On top of this, as the NEP makes clear, there is already a serious deficiency in access to computers for schoolchildren. In a world where human beings will increasingly thrive by using digital devices, India has been falling behind its digital potential, despite the proliferation of smartphones.

The final challenge is in the core resource needed to make the NEP work. India does not have enough well-trained teachers, from preschool all the way to graduate school, to realise the changes that are needed. Lighter and more streamlined regulation, which is in the NEP, will help. But there are still incentive problems that hinder the performance of teachers, even if they are trained. Perhaps the surest way to tackle this supply constraint will be to allow for more private sector involvement, even of the for-profit kind. Certainly, allowing more foreign participation in multiple ways, especially to attract high quality university faculty, will also help to jumpstart the process of relaxing the most binding supply constraint of all, that of quality, motivated teachers.

There are, perhaps, clear guiding principles for how to make things work. First, concentrate public money at the ages that matter for foundational education.

Second, make sure that the poor are never financially constrained as they move through the system. Third, regulate for outcomes and fairness, not at the level of micromanaging classrooms, schools, or even universities. Finally, encourage entry, especially of global talent for higher education, by being maximally flexible. But give parents and students options whenever possible, so that education suppliers have extrinsic incentives to complement the noble intrinsic incentives we assume they possess.

 

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