The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 that the Cabinet approved last month represents a major advance over the predecessor draft NEP 2019. Unlike the latter, it satisfies a basic characteristic of a good policy document: It should be a short and crisp framework document that does not lose the forest for the trees. Whereas draft NEP was 484 pages long, the final document says it all in just 66 pages.
Brevity is not the only accomplishment of NEP 2020. It makes advances in substance as well. It greatly simplifies the proposed regulatory structure for the sector. For example, it gives a quiet burial to the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog and similar parallel bodies in the states. The draft document had proposed the commission as an overarching constitutional body to which other numerous regulatory bodies would have reported. Creation of such a body and its state-level affiliates would have added to an already bureaucracy heavy system.
On school education NEP 2020 has some excellent features, but it stops well short of addressing the heart of the problem. I shall return to this subject in a future column, focussing in this one on higher education only. In this latter area, the policy offers a transformational road map.
The long-term plan as per the policy is to do away with the current system of colleges affiliated to universities. Each college would become either fully integrated into a university or converted into an autonomous and independent degree giving institution. An independent board would come to govern each higher education institution (HEI), whether college or university.
Under the policy, numerous existing tiny colleges that are pedagogically unviable and financially costly would be merged with larger HEIs. Each HEI would come to have a minimum of 3,000 students. HEIs will have the freedom to choose the mix between research and teaching as per their strengths, with the sector eventually consisting of highly research intensive institutions at one extreme and highly teaching intensive institutions on the other. This is broadly the structure prevailing in the US and UK.
Full restructuring along these lines is the long-term goal for which the policy sets a deadline of 2035. But the policy contains many low hanging fruits that can be harvested in five or fewer years. These include conversion of leading colleges into board administered, autonomous, degree giving HEIs; freeing up undergraduate students to take courses across all disciplines; launch of a four-year bachelor’s degree; opening India to foreign universities; incorporating vocational education in college curriculum; and creation of a National Research Foundation. The government must draw up a time-bound plan to implement these changes over the next five years.
The starting point for bringing about these changes is the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Act. The policy provides the broad contours of this act. The human resource and development (HRD) ministry has done extensive consultation and ground work for drafting the act. Rather than drag its feet, the ministry must now get down to the task of finalising the draft act that would empower the proposed commission to implement the changes. The goal should be to have a fully functioning commission with all personnel in place before the end of 2021.
An important key to bringing about the changes that NEP 2020 proposes will be to empower HECI to confer degree-giving power on HEIs. Currently, this power is vested in the central and state governments and the University Grants Commission. Central and state governments create degree giving institutions through legislations. The UGC has the power to convert any existing research or teaching HEI into a deemed-to-be university. These powers would need to be transferred to and concentrated in HECI. Only then will the commission be able to create board administered degree giving autonomous colleges in the short run and a higher education system consisting of large HEIs with no affiliated colleges in the long run.
The HECI Act will also need to accommodate foreign institutions in a flexible manner. At present, the policy envisages allowing only top 100 institutions globally to open campuses in India. There is no guarantee that these institutions would rush to establish campuses in India. Chances are that with no prior experience to serve as a guide to administrative and bureaucratic hurdles in India, they will be hesitant. Therefore, depending on the response of these top 100 institutions, HECI will need enough flexibility to open the door wider to other, lower-ranked foreign institutions. Eventually, any foreign institution that helps raise the average level of education should be welcome.
Changes such as permitting undergraduate students to take courses across all disciplines, launch of a four year undergraduate degree, and autonomy to leading colleges can be implemented even within the current legal structure in higher education. The process of granting autonomy to colleges had been initiated in February 2018 on the recommendation of a Niti Aayog committee that I had chaired. This has had a salutary effect on the performance of approximately 60 leading colleges that were granted autonomy. Now that NEP 2020 has put its stamp on creating autonomous colleges on a large scale, this process may be accelerated. Degree giving powers to these colleges may follow once HECI is in place.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.