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Director’s Message: The National Education Policy

Keywords Template 2222The draft National Education Policy (NEP), prepared by a committee chaired by Dr. K Kasturirangan and released in late May, is the first comprehensive policy statement on education in India since 1986. In India’s Union budget last week its recommendations began to be implemented. It is, to put it bluntly, a game-changing document.

The NEP is bold, impressive, and steers clear of the incrementalism often associated with such reports. It recommends a doubling of funding for public education from 10% of total public expenditure to 20% (roughly 6% of total GDP) by 2025. This is hitched to a vision of comprehensive change. At the school level, the NEP recommends extending the Right to Education Act to all young people aged between 3 and 18. It suggests a new structure for the school education of an initial 5 years – made up of 3 pre-school and 2 primary years – followed by 3 preparatory school years, 3 middle school years, and 4 high school years.

Among a large number of accompanying school reforms, the NEP suggests introducing breakfasts in addition to the established ‘midday meals scheme’ at all pre-primary and primary schools across India – a key initiative in a country where child undernourishment is a pressing public problem.

The NEP suggests promoting a ‘liberal education’ encompassing creativity, collaboration, social responsibility, multilingualism, and digital learning. Distinctions between different streams of study in schools – such as Arts, Science and Commerce – would be abolished and compulsory courses would be established on topics such as ethical reasoning, current affairs, and ‘critical issues’, such as climate change.

Remarkably, the report places particular emphasis on higher education. It notes the widespread challenges facing higher education institutions across India, especially within State-run universities and colleges where 93% of students study. The NEP recommends dismantling the current system of universities (roughly 850 across India) and non-degree granting private and public colleges (40,000) in favour of a smaller number of institutions – between 10,000 to 15,000. All of the institutions in the new system would have the capacity to grant degrees. The new higher education institutions would then be organised into three tiers: Tier 1 universities would focus on research and teach the gamut of undergraduates through to PhD students. In a move to spread a research culture broadly across India, Tier 2 institutions – while teaching-focused – would also carry out research. Tier 3 institutions would be teaching-only undergraduate colleges. Over and above this, the NEP sets the goal of raising the Gross Enrolment Ratio in India to over 50% by 2035.

There are other innovations. The NEP signals a need for higher education to focus much more strongly on Liberal Arts education. It also recommends a largely new regulatory structure, with a National Education Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, at the apex.

Significantly for Australia, the Policy represents a major turn towards the internationalisation of higher education in India. The NEP argues for the introduction of scholarships for foreign students who wish to study in India, signals a desire to establish a Study in India Portal for international students coming to India, and reiterates a previous call from the Government of India to allow the top 200 universities in the world to establish a physical presence in India.

Two implications for Australian universities stand out. First, the NEP explicitly identifies the Indian diaspora in other countries as a source of support in reform. With a large and growing Indian diaspora in administrative and faculty positions in Australian universities, there are excellent opportunities for Australia to develop new collaborations.

Second, the NEP’s focus on curricula changes at the school and university level presents an opportunity for Australian universities and schools. The University of Melbourne has developed a successful ‘Blended BSc’ with the University of Pune that was developed by a partnership between faculty at the University of Melbourne and colleagues in India. Such experiments could flourish in the new environment and be extended to liberal arts.

The NEP can be a catalyst for Australian universities to develop multi-stranded relationships with Indian schools and universities that include but go well beyond recruitment into Australia.

The NEP will face headwinds. How will it ensure buy-in from India’s constituent States and assuage those who have vested interests in the system as currently constituted? There are also issues related to vocational education, academic freedom, and social equality that require thought. But this is a terrific document – a springboard for educational renewal and imaginative international partnership.