Former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has a clear vision of a liberal higher education system with autonomous colleges and private universities.
It was on the basis of that vision that a comprehensive road map was presented to the Kerala Government in 2011 by the Kerala State Higher Education Council with me as Vice Chairman, covering infrastructure, teachers' training, use of technology, autonomy for colleges and setting up of private universities, productive research and internationalisation.
A committee headed by Prof. Cyriac Thomas had also drafted a bill to set up private universities in Kerala.
These ideas have been incorporated in one form or another in the NEP 2020.
A Global Education Meet held in Thiruvananthapuram in January, 2016, made recommendations to make Kerala an Educational Hub through these measures and the establishment of an Academic City and Higher Education Zones.
But the strong political objection from the opposition towards the end of the term of the previous government ended the reform process.
Recently, the present government has picked up to study a few of the old proposals like autonomous colleges and education zones.
In the 28 years since the last revision of the Education Policy, the world has changed beyond recognition.
The growth of technology, speedy travel and the knowledge revolution demanded changes on what to teach, how to teach and how to test. The rest of the world brought about such changes in education that had not taken place in the previous hundred years.
India sailed along by its old academic vessel, tinkering it here and there to keep it afloat.
The NEP 2020 is a bold effort to provide the framework for sweeping changes in the whole education system in the nation, keeping in mind the need for access, equity, excellence and employment.
The NEP proposes sweeping changes in the education system from pre-primary to PhD and skill development. The cumulative effect of the reform will be the creation of liberal, choice-based education on the lines of the best practices in the world, making use of modern technology, international linkages and projections of employment opportunities and compulsions of the post COVID world.
The idea is to take advantage of the demographic dividend by training our graduates for the jobs of the 21st century.
PM Modi observed that the New Education Policy emphasises on interdisciplinary study and “will ensure focus is on what student wants to learn.”
"We are focussing on the quality of education in India. Our attempts have been to make our education system the most advanced and modern for students of our country," he said.
"21st century is the era of knowledge. This is the time for increased focus on learning, research, innovation," he said.
The NEP has addressed several issues such as employability, stressful examination, insularity, lack of practical knowledge, language policy, excess of regulatory bodies, new opportunities for dropouts, internal assessment, opportunity for improving grades, banking of credits, role of the private sector and funding.
The solutions suggested are expected to be in place in the next ten years through a process of consultation and consensus building.
In school education, the policy focuses on overhauling the curriculum, “easier” Board exams, a reduction in the syllabus to retain “core essentials” and thrust on “experiential learning and critical thinking”.
In a significant shift from the 1986 policy, which created a 10+2 structure of school education, the new NEP pitches for a “5+3+3+4” design corresponding to the age groups 3-8 years (foundational stage), 8-11 (preparatory), 11-14 (middle), and 14-18 (secondary). This brings early childhood education (also known as pre-school education for children of ages 3 to 5) under the ambit of formal schooling.
The mid-day meal programme will be extended to pre-school children. The NEP says students until Class 5 should be taught in their mother tongue or regional language.
This will be flexible in the case of schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas, whose students are likely to move to different states.
The NEP 2020 states that universities from among the top 100 in the world will be able to set up campuses in India.
While it doesn’t elaborate the parameters to define the top 100, the government may use the ‘QS World University Rankings’ as it has relied on these in the past while selecting universities for the ‘Institute of Eminence’ status.
However, no one can start unless the new Ministry of Education brings in a law that includes details of how foreign universities will operate in India.
It is not clear whether the pending law will enthuse world class universities to come to India, particularly since the suggestion is that the universities cannot repatriate profits.
But some top class universities may come, not for profits in cash, but in terms of knowledge and wisdom. Participation of foreign universities in India is currently limited to entering into collaborative twinning programmes, sharing faculty with partnering institutions and offering distance education. Over 650 foreign education providers have such arrangements in India.
In another major reform, the four-year degree programme proposed in the new NEP, students can exit after one year with a certificate, after two years with a diploma, and after three years with a bachelor’s degree.
“Four-year bachelor’s programmes generally include a certain amount of research work and the student will get deeper knowledge in the subject he or she decides to major in. After four years, a BA student should be able to enter a research degree programme directly depending on the performance.
Henceforth, the universities will be multi-disciplinary in character. The IITs are already moving in that direction.
IIT-Delhi has a humanities department and it set up a public policy department recently.
IIT-Kharagpur has a School of Medical Science and Technology. This has been justified on the ground that engineers should know more than just engineering. For instance, a good engineer needs to know the environmental and social impact of the things he builds. Many engineers are also becoming entrepreneurs, requiring knowledge of economics.
The Minister of Education has clarified that NEP only provides a broad direction and it is not mandatory. Since education is a concurrent subject –- both the Centre and the state governments can make laws on it --, the reforms proposed can only be implemented collaboratively by the Centre and the states. This will not happen immediately.
The government has set a target of 2040 to implement the entire policy. Sufficient funding is also crucial in implementation of the whole policy. The government plans to set up subject-wise committees with members from relevant ministries at both the central and state levels to develop implementation plans for each aspect of the NEP.
With the addition of considerable private investment in education, NEP envisages India will achieve 50% GER by 2030. The outlay for education will be raised to 6% of the GDP. The present system of affiliation of colleges with universities will be phased out , as has been done in most countries of the world.
Higher Education Institutions will have the facility to award their own degrees. It is up to them to decide whether the examinations should be external or internal.
The opposition to NEP has so far been low key. Kerala has complained that none of the submissions made by it has been included in NEP. Kerala is also of the opinion that NEP will benefit only the rich students. The Vice Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council has severely criticised the concept of “Knowledge Economy” as he believes that corporates will manipulate it to their advantage.
Questions have been raised about “traditional knowledge systems” being included in the curriculum and teaching of Sanskrit, looking for elements of “saffronisation.”
But the government has pledged that it “will try to take everyone along in the process of making a vibrant India.”