NEP 2020: Challenges, Criticisms, Way Forward

Kanksshi Agarwal tells you all you need to know about the new National Education Policy that everyone has been talking about. From its history to what needs to be done from here on.





As we approach the day that marks the completion of India’s 73rd year of independence, it’s necessary to reflect on the vision that has been laid out for this independent and sovereign nation. Equality, in education, would be a cornerstone of such a vision, for a prosperous, harmonious, equitable and ever-evolving society. 



Education is central for the politics of a country: for those who lead as well as those who elect the leaders. In the current day and age, it is synonymous with not just knowledge but also skill sets and access to crucial information. It is also seen as a means to employment. 



Finally, India’s 73rd and 74th years of independence and the new National Education Policy (NEP 2020) coincide with the pandemic-year which is responsible for overhauling how we perceive and experience the world around us. Technological means of accessing education, in this new climate, hold sway over traditional practices. 

Hence, in light of existing inadequacies and inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated, here is a comprehensive overview that will help you understand the NEP 2020. It traces the history of education policy making in India, and outlines for you the key objectives and features of NEP 2020. It follows this up with a list of issues and challenges to implementation of NEP 2020. Finally it presents recommendations for a way forward.



The Evolution of India’s Education Policy: A Roadmap to Today


Here are the major milestones for education policy in India, from independence to today:



- The University Education Commission (1948-49) also known as the ‘Radhakrishnan Commission’ (led by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan) was focused on higher education. You can read more about its recommendations here.  



- The Secondary Education Commission (1952-53) was focused on education after primary school and before university begins. More about its objectives and recommendations here



- The Education Commission (1964-66), also known as the ‘Kothari Commission’, as it was led by Dr. DS Kothari. This commission had a holistic approach and advised the government on the national pattern of education and general policies, taking into account each stage from primary to post graduate. Read its recommendations here



- The National Policy on Education, 1968: You can read the policy here. Based upon the recommendations of the Kothari Commission, the government announced a policy which called for equal educational opportunities in order to achieve national integration and greater cultural and economic development.



- The 42nd Constitutional Amendment, 1976, which included education in the Concurrent List, so as to be considered by both the states as well as the union government (earlier it was on the State List, which gave the state governments precedence in terms of lawmaking). 



- The National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986, whose objective was a "special emphasis on the removal of disparities and to equalise educational opportunity," especially for women, Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) communities. The NPE of 1986 was modified in 1992



- The ‘Common Minimum Programme’ adopted by the UPA1 government in 2004 went more or less along the same lines as before



- In 2009, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act was

passed, which made elementary education a fundamental right for every child. 



- The T.S.R. Subramanian Committee (or Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy) Report, 2016, sought to improve the quality and credibility of education by addressing the implementation gaps. 



- The Committee for Draft National Education Policy, or Dr. K. Kasturirangan Committee, submitted its report on May 31, 2019. It sought to address the challenges of: (i) access, (ii) equity, (iii) quality, (iv) affordability, and (v) accountability faced by the current education system. 



- Here is the Draft NEP 2019 (which was open to recommendation).



- And, finally, the new National Education Policy, 2020.  



NEP 2020: What’s It About?


Simply put, the NEP 2020 is a new policy to address the crippling challenges that have affected the Indian Education System for over three decades. Its focus areas are:



- In Primary Education, poor literacy and numeracy outcomes: Several reports show that 50% children lack basic numeracy (the ability to understand and work with numbers) and literacy despites spending five years in school. The NEP 2020 looks at this ‘Foundational Learning’ as a core focus area.



- In Middle & Secondary Education, high dropout levels, curriculum inconsistency: Dropout rates at the secondary level in several states have increased over the past three years according to the ministry’s data. In 11 states over 20% of students are leaving school without completing class 9th and 10th. In Assam close to 1/3rd of the students are dropping out and in Bihar 32% of them do not finish school. Dropout factors from multiple reasons such as poverty, poor health, distance from school. Large variations in dropout rates exist across states, gender, ethnicity and class. The GER (Gross Enrolment Ratio, determining the number of students enrolled at different grade levels) for Grades 6-8 was 90.9%, while for Grades 9-10 and 11-12 it was only 79.3% and 56.5%, respectively. This indicates that a significant proportion of enrolled students drop out after Grade 5 and especially after Grade 8.



- In Higher Education, a lack of multidisciplinary approach and flexibility with regards to subject choice, assessment as well as a skill-gap: While the dropout rate has declined for higher education, Gross Enrollment Ratio is just about 26.3% compared to 58.2% in Senior Secondary and 79% in Secondary, meaning most students don’t even enroll in Higher education.



- Other overall focus areas for NEP 2020 include childhood care, curriculum design, language/medium of instruction, teacher training, assessment, evaluation and exam format and teacher appraisal. A new assessment centre, PARAKH (Performance, Assessment, Review, and Analysis of Knowledge of Holistic Development) will be set up to set the standards for education.



- Issues with regulation, recruitment of teachers, and the absence of common standards and norms for universities, are additional focus areas in this new policy.



Targets & Timelines


Here are the policy’s key targets as well as the deadlines set for some:



- The entire policy will be implemented by 2040.



- 100% Gross Enrolment Ratio from Pre-School to Secondary level by 2030.



- Teachers to be prepared for assessment reforms by 2030.



- Common standards of learning in public and private schools.



- Mission to focus on foundational numeracy and literacy of all students by Grade 3.



- Universalising early childhood care and education by 2030.



- Vocational training for at least 50% learners by 2025.



What Has the NEP 2020 Changed? 


(1) Overall change: 



- Renaming the ministry: The Ministry of Human Resource and Development will now be called the Ministry of Education. This is apparently in order to bring the focus back to education.



- The Centre and states will work together to increase public investment in education to 6% of GDP. Currently the expenditure stands at 3% of GDP in 2018-19 (the Economic Survey).



- An extension of the RTE to cover a larger age group: The policy proposes to increase the ambit of the RTE to include children from the ages 3 to 18. Currently it covers children between 6 to 14 years. This is long overdue. However, Stakeholders like private institutes and activists are divided over the cost of implementation of this grand vision. Private institutes have remained exclusionary and disable access to education for those who come under the reserved 25% category prescribed by RTE by levying non-educational fees. Also, they complain that the government usually does not pay them in time.



- The three-language formula has resurfaced in a new avatar in the NEP 2020, which has invited much debate. You can read about it and the debate around it here



- Breakfast is to be added to the mid-day meal program. 



(2) New institutions/boards/zones/funds/frameworks to be set up:



- Higher Education Commission of India (HECI): NEP 2020 proposes to set up a super-regulator to address the current issue of multiple regulators to deal with accreditation, funding, standard setting. HECI will function as the single overarching body for all higher education, excluding medical and legal studies, and replace all other regulatory bodies like the University Grants Commission (UGC) or the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Its four independent verticals will also be responsible for all grants, funding, standards and accreditation, making it one of the most centralised regulatory institutions in the country. 



- National Professional Standards for Teachers (NPST): The NPST aims to make the recruitment of teachers more transparent. It will be developed by the National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) by 2022.



- A School Quality Assessment and Accreditation Framework (SQAAF) will also be developed.



- Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities (MERU) and a National Research Foundation (NRF).



- A National Educational Technology Forum (NETF) will be created to encourage the use of technology in college education.



- Also, the NEP 2020 stresses that educationists will be appointed on the Board of Governance of institutions, to depoliticise them.



- There will be a Gender Inclusion Fund and Special Education Zones for socially and economically disadvantaged groups.



(3) Major changes in School Education:



- Adoption of 5+3+3+4 Structure: The policy recommends a move away from the previous 10+2 structure (10 years of primary and 2 years of secondary education). There will now be 5 years of foundational education, 3 years of preparatory, 3 years of middle and 4 years of secondary schooling. Pre-school education will gain focus in the initial 5 years of learning.



- Flexibility to choose subjects across streams: All subjects will be offered at two levels of proficiency (introductory and advanced) and will be treated equally (science will not be pitted against social sciences and also not be assigned as per the percentage scored in the previous grade).



- Board exams will test core competencies, could become modular (eg. for grade 3, 5, 8, 10, 12), and will be offered twice a year. The second attempt will provide an opportunity to improve scores.



- Bag-less days: 10 days in a year will be dedicated to vocational courses of choice (informal internships) from Grade 6th onwards. This is to include vocational training in the curriculum, making it more practical.



- Mother tongue to be a medium of instruction till 5th grade: The policy doesn't keep children of migrant labourers and people in transferrable jobs at the centre of this decision, however. You can read more about this here



(4) Major changes in Higher Education:



- 50% Grade Enrolment Ratio to be achieved by 2035. Currently it’s at 26.4%, among both boys and girls. However, a strong focus on promoting women to pursue higher education is lacking.



- Proposal to set up Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). As discussed above, this will be set up as a super-regulator and centralise multiple functions across different verticals under its ambit.



- A National Testing Agency to conduct a common entrance exam for colleges twice a year. This is to follow a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT, used for college admissions in the United States) like structure for admissions in graduate programs.



- Mid-term dropouts from college will be given credits and an option to complete their degree after a break (a limited period). Credit transfers and academic banks of credits are to be introduced. Dropouts can use the credits for transferring from one university to another. The details of execution for all of this are unclear however.



- Affiliations with universities are to end and over the next 15 years colleges will be given the autonomy to provide degrees. The deemed university status is to end as well.



- Fee cap over private institutions for higher education: An awaited move, but it will need private institutes to apply for a loan at HECI and claim funding from the government to run effectively. As per speculation, a large chunk of budgetary allocation will be channelled to private universities via the loan route.



- Graduate programs for 4 years, PG (Post graduate) programs for 1 or 2 years and M.Phil programs to be discontinued. 



- Research and Teaching intensive universities and autonomous degree granting colleges will be set up to advance India’s research endeavours.



The Kothari Commission & NEP 2020


The Kothari Commission has been mentioned earlier while tracing the history of Indian education policy. In 1964, a 17-member Education Commission, headed by the then UGC Chairperson D S Kothari, was constituted to draft a national and coordinated policy on education. Based on the suggestions of this Commission, Parliament passed India’s first education policy in 1968. The values emphasised in the commission’s report have long awaited implementation, however, education policies that came after it failed to espouse them in their detailed implementation plans. A few suggestions from the commission have found place in the NEP 2020 as well, but two important recommendations have been left out:



- The Kothari Commission emphasised that an educational approach should be based on universal human values. Not only this is omitted, it is replaced by “Indian values” in the NEP 2020, along with Constitutional values.



- The Common School System was extensively emphasised in the commission’s report. However the NEP does not make any mention of the same. To quote Ambarish Rai, of the Right to Education Forum, “The only way to remove the discrimination in the school education system is to introduce a Common School System (CSS) in the country which will ensure uniform quality of education to all the children in the country.”



What Are Criticisms of The NEP 2020?


Here is a list of criticisms which have been levelled, or which may be levelled, against the NEP 2020:



- The NEP circumvented parliamentary oversight, discussion and scrutiny. Given it has been brought at the time when parliament is not functioning due to COVID-19, this is a rather hasty approach, one which seems to be aimed at scoring a political point. This is also not the first time this has happened. Members of Parliament have been repeatedly kept out of crucial discussions in the past 6 years, preventing them from examining policies critically or otherwise expressing their views and suggesting amendments.



- The policy is a vision document that fails to be inclusive of the bottom-most strata of society and provides little to no relief to the poor, women and caste and religious minorities, as it glosses over key concerns of access to education which have long prevailed. There is no comprehensive roadmap and coherent implementation strategy in place to execute this grand vision.



- Many milestones and a commitment to finances necessary to execute this plan aren’t clearly defined. Take, for example, the line: “The Centre and the States will work together to increase the public investment in the Education sector to reach 6% of GDP at the earliest.” There is no clear commitment that can hold the government accountable.



- Three Language formula: Though the policy does not compel this provision, it is crafted in a manner that leaves little choice and flexibility with the students/teachers/schools. It is also in direct contravention with a Supreme Court Judgement. The way this is laid out is bound to bring to mind the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965, against the central government’s intention to make Hindi an official language. Political parties in the South see this as a move by the Modi government to impose Hindi in non-hindi speaking states. This is, of course, despite the fact that the centre has clarified that it will not impose any language on any state and the final decision on this will be left to the state itself.



- The NEP 2020 is silent on the RTE Act and universalisation of education will not be achieved without legal backing: There is no mechanism to link primary and secondary education with the RTE. This is not binding on the centre/state legally. As the RTE forum said, in a statement: “The final policy talks about the universalisation of school education from 3-18 years, without making it a legal right. Hence there is no mandatory mechanism for the union and state governments to make it a reality. Without the RTE Act, universalisation will be very difficult.”



- There is no commitment towards affirmative action for the socially and economically disadvantaged: The NEP 2020 omits mentioning any policy directive affirming the rights/reservation of SC,ST, OBCs in academic institutions- for students or teachers. It relies heavily on privatising education but there are no alternatives suggested as a way forward for the socially marginalised.



- Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) providing a much broader scope is a move towards a monolithic, homogenised and centralised education system. The NEP overall tilts towards centralisation, possibly because the policy is not a derivative of consultation with states, and repeatedly talks about “fragmentation in higher education” as a bad thing. As argued by Laxmi Priya, an assistant professor in Thiruvananthapuram, it overlooks the diversity 800 universities and 40,000+ colleges cater to.



- Paving the way for increased privatisation: It is argued that the term “public-spirited philanthropic higher education institutes” for private universities, which the NEP 2020 suggests have not been treated equally is infuriating for those who fight against the commodification of education. The proposal is to set up HEIs in every district. However, modalities, functioning, operationalities have not been made clear. As such institutes will require land and infrastructure and administrative resources to function, NEP 2020 is seen as a straight move towards increased privatisation. 



NEP 2020 On Paper, And In Fact


Envisioning a policy and implementing it are two very different things. Here are challenges to implementation which have been, or can be, foreseen for the NEP. 



- The NEP proposes to replace bureaucracy with educators at the level of governance. The policy makes recommendations to include more academicians in the decision-making bodies. However, the de-bureaucratisation of education policy is a far-fetched dream in view of the following:



(i) Civil servants are deeply entrenched in the academic institutions. They are accommodated in educational institutions even after retirement and their interests are not curtailed.



(ii) Government relies heavily on bureaucrats for policy implementation and usually their will comes in the way of a policy’s vision.



(iii) Many institutes at central and state level are headed by former bureaucrats. It will be hard to implement NEP in presence of bureaucratic dominance.



- 6% of GDP being spent on education was a need envisaged in 1968, reiterated in 1986, reaffirmed in the 1992 review of policy. This shows a consistent lack of political will for public investment in education. Further, the fact that the current regime has reduced budgetary allocation and that its spending on education, as a percentage of budget, has gone from 4.14% in 2014-15 to 3.2% in 2020-21 inspires little confidence. Finally, owing to the COVID-19 crisis, the budget expenditure on education is expected to fall further.



- Ignored Digital Divide: While there is a lot of focus on using technology in every aspect of education - education planning, teaching, learning and assessment, administration & management, setting up virtual labs, digitally equipping schools, mentoring and setting up forums - the policy neglects the digital-divide, the lack of digital infrastructure and access to technological devices/internet. In recent times the cost of the internet has seen an increase owing to market monopolies. The issue of the digital-divide is even more complex when seen from the lens of gender, class, caste and urban-rural regional differences. The majority of the learners will be excluded, only 35.1% government schools had access to functional computers in 2016-17 according to UDISE+. According to the same data set the overall percentage of schools with functional computers is down from 42.1% in 2012-13 to 36.8% in 2016-17. A logical explanation would be that while many new schools have been established, the government has failed to equip them digitally. Further, only 24% of Indian households have internet facility, 11% households have a functional computer, and a little over 15% of rural households have access to the internet. An over-reliance on technology and online programs to achieve set targets is impractical.



- Inviting foreign universities to set up learning institutions in India: It is important to understand here that the foreign universities which seek to expand to India will in all probability be private, not public ivy league universities which enjoy prestigious reputations across the globe. Most of the top schools abroad are public institutions which are run on citizen’s taxes and might not have a mandate to expand. Instead, private foreign institutes could create a disproportionate imbalance between Indian versus Foreign universities in terms of quality. It would be better to set up inter-university centres within Indian universities where students can undertake lessons as well as joint research programs with international and Indian scholars. This is also more accessible for students who might not be able to afford private foreign universities otherwise. The government’s focus should not be limited to discouraging brain-drain but also look to provide broad-based opportunities to Indian students.



- Vocational training from 6th Grade onwards: Vocational training exudes a classist mindset and reinforces class-discrimination. The implementation of this risks being led by, and proliferating, the attitude that thinks, “a welder’s son should be a welder,” and marginalising those already oppressed instead of bringing them into the mainstream and providing them with opportunities to rise. It will also meddle with the more holistic and rounded learning of a child and may push them into a labour market.



- Also, to achieve desirable results from vocational training inter-ministerial coordination is necessary between the education, skill development and labour ministries. The policy document does not provide a plan for such synchronisation.



- Lack of infrastructure to provide jobs for those in fields such as the arts, literature and music: In India, unlike in the West, students have limited avenues to pursue respectable, financially stable careers in the aforementioned fields. The policy document does not address the future of children trained in multi-disciplinary fields.



- A mismatch with the job market: NEP 2020 fails to lay out a plan for education relating to emerging technological fields like AI, ethical hacking and cybersecurity. It merely glazes over terms like “coding, computation skills and AI”.



- The reliance on overburdened Aanganwadis is unfair: To achieve quality ECCE (Early Childhood Children Education), NEP 2020 relies heavily on Aanganwadi workers who are overburdened with health and nutrition related duties and not recognised as formal employees. Their salaries are meagre and this expectation creates an undue burden. The government might face resistance to implementation.



- The four year graduate program failed miserably as an experiment in Delhi University, under the current government’s regime. The proposal has seen a return in NEP 2020 despite evidence of its failure.



Way Forward:


Here are recommendations for what may make NEP 2020 work:



- NEP 2020 must consider linking the RTE to the goal of universalisation of education at pre-primary, middle and secondary level. Without this legal backing NEP 2020’s target will remain unmet.



- It must devise a collaborative strategy with states over the three-language formula, as education is a concurrent subject.



- It must make specific, time bound, measurable commitments linked with accountability about funding and expenditure with regard to the grand vision.



- It has to keep children and parents at the centre of implementation plans and provide “choice” not just in letter but also in spirit. 



- The policy must also incorporate the Common School System which will ensure equal opportunities for all.



- Currently a robust framework for Foundational Learning has been laid out but metrics of evaluation are missing in the document. These have to be filled in. India can also learn from the examples of Kenya, Brazil and South Africa.



- It has to devise a parallel strategy, relying on non-tech interventions, by leveraging existing networks of school leaders, social enterprises and educators. 



Additional Reading:


- Yamini Aiyar argues that the NEP is truly transformational and promising when it comes to ending the culture of “rote-learning” and “percentage as the only metric of evaluation to which teachers are held accountable for by school and parents”. This is because the document addresses the tragedy of a lack of fundamentals. 



- Bikkrama Daulat Singh, MD of Central Square Foundation has noted that children who lack basic mathematics and reading skills fall behind when the curriculum becomes rigorous. India could lose 10 crore+ students to illiteracy if we do not focus on Foundational Learning.



- KumKum Dasgupta has written on foundational learning aspects of the NEP, particularly the 5+3+3+4 Structure.



- Here is a FICCI report on the private sector’s contribution to the K-12 (from kindergarten to Grade 12) education in India, which might help you understand the NEP 2020 better, with its bent towards private sector education. 



- A summary of MHRD data on falling dropout rates, out earlier this year. 



- An analysis of the same MHRD data to find that dropout rates in grades 9 and 10, in some states have been increasing. 



- Makarand R Paranjape writes an overview of NEP 2020, weighing pitfalls and promises, and saying it might lead to radical changes. 



- An explainer on the NEP in The Indian Express that uses a question answer format to take you through the basics. 



- If you want to read the key recommendations of the Kothari Commission to see for yourself what the NEP 2020 did or did not adopt (we have spelt out what it didn’t above) you can do so here



- The Centre for Civil Society’s has presented the highlights of the NEP 2020, as well as compared it with their own recommendations for the policy. 




Additional Watching:


A video explainer in Hindi:





Dhruv Rathee analyses the positives and the negatives of the new policy:





A video that looks at 4 key points from NEP 2020, that are being debated:





A 45 minute long Hindi video that explains the NEP 2020 through a series of charts and diagrams:





For the entire NEP 2020, in English, click here. 




Kanksshi Agarwal is Senior Researcher (Tech-Society Initiative) at the Centre for Policy Research, and works at the intersection of technology, gender, society and politics. A former LAMP Fellow, she has worked with multiple Members of Parliament as a political strategist and researcher. She graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, with a specialisation in Urban Policy and Governance and Energy studies.




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