NEP fails to address concerns of students

While a lot has been written about the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 from the academic, political, and ideological lens, the perspective of students has been missing. This is in keeping with the discourse on education, which marginalises the most important stakeholder. NEP itself neglects the concerns and aspirations of the young, especially first-generation learners.

One, the question of access. Young people from poor and marginalised backgrounds who want to study in colleges are completely dependent on external financial support. It is thus surprising that when the policy identifies the “major problems faced by the higher education system in India” (Section 9.2), it makes no mention of the crippling lack of funds for the higher education sector.

It is this lack of public investment which explains why almost 80% of colleges are private, and why even public universities are being privatised by transitioning to “self-financing” courses. It is because of lack of public investment that many public universities shockingly don’t hold classes as there aren’t enough teachers for all the enrolled students. And it is lack of public investment that denies six out of seven students enrolled in central universities affordable accommodation. The policy barely mentions hostels, but for large numbers of first-generation learners who secure admission in state and central universities away from home, the lack of affordable accommodation is a significant barrier to completing education. For instance, average tuition fees in Allahabad University is about ~1,000 annually, but room and board costs of ~45,000 to ~ one lakh annually are prohibitive for most poor students.

If education has to provide a pathway for socio-economic mobility for our aspirational young, it can only be through publicly -funded education. Yet, when the policy talks of improving access to education, it says only that “there shall, by 2030, be at least one large multidisciplinary HEI (higher educational institution) in or near every district”, without mandating that this HEI be publicly-funded. The failure to highlight the lack of funding as a central problem with the education system and the absence of any timebound redress, especially in the face of declining expenditure (from 4.14% in the 2014 Budget to 3.3% in 2020) is a capitulation. A statement of intent to enhance funding isn’t enough.

Two, NEP’s disregard of students and their perspective is also evident when it talks of governance of HEIs (Section 19). The policy says that over the next 15 years, all HEIs will become “self-governing” through the institution of a “Board of Governors (BoG)…consisting of a group of highly qualified, competent, and dedicated individuals having proven capabilities and a strong sense of commitment to the institution”. At no point in this section, or throughout the policy, is there any mention of democratic student representation in academic and administrative decision-making. NEP wants to promote critical thinking in the students, but fails to acknowledge that the first pre-requisite of critical thinking is a democratic atmosphere where students are encouraged to participate in decision-making. This is all the more important because in universities across the country, the administration is cracking down on free speech and deploying disproportionately punitive measures to keep dissenting students in check. A policy empathetic to students would have also acknowledged the skewed balance of power between the students and the administration and faculty in most HEIs, and underscored the need for transparency (beyond financial disclosures) and grievance redress measures. In this context, the National Students Union of India (NSUI) has drafted students’ rights act, which codifies the minimum non-negotiable rights of a student in any college or university and series of escalating institutional measures to help enforce these rights.

Three, a policy sensitive to the needs and interests of our young people would put online education in its place as a tool to supplement or enhance the university experience, and not supplant it altogether. The university is a place for learning more than information; it is the place where most young people get their first taste of independence, develop a sense of self and build networks. These are often a bigger determinant of a student’s future trajectory, and it would be unfair to equate the university experience with the singular pursuit of education online.

And four, a sensitive policy would acknowledge that for many young people, the raison d’être for higher education is better employment opportunities. This leads to two imperatives. First, to eliminate the political-commercial nexus at the heart of our education system and rationalise the supply of third-rate colleges in fields such as engineering and business administration; and second, proactively using academia to structure and formalise emerging professions and employment instead of merely letting young people become fodder for the informal gig economy. Yet the policy is silent on both these issues.

For too long, the education system has talked down to young people, treating them as passive recipients of top-down wisdom. This is one of the main reasons for the poor quality of education in our country. A policy which aims to reform our education sector to produce “engaged, productive, and contributing citizens for building an equitable, inclusive, and plural society” does a great disservice to its own stated intent by bypassing students entirely.

Ruchi Gupta is All India Congress joint secretary in charge of its student wing.

The views expressed are personal.

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