It is said that we do not have any education system in India. We only have a system of examinations and an inefficient one at that, one which relies heavily on rote learning at the cost of creativity and inquiry. The New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) aspires to change all that and transform education to produce “good, thoughtful, well-rounded, and creative individuals” with “character, ethical and Constitutional values, intellectual curiosity, scientific temper, creativity, spirit of service”, etc., definitely needed for 21st century India.

The weighty adjectives, however, are incompatible with the lack of a specific implementation roadmap, except specifying certain targets. Indeed, re-designating the Ministry of Human Resource Development as the Ministry of Education was the easiest of its recommendations to implement, but that may not suffice to “bring the focus back on education and learning”. Most of our 800+ universities presently churn out millions of unemployable graduates and postgraduates every year with very little knowledge and skill. To so completely overhaul the system would need a careful strategy, possibly incorporating some out-of-box solutions, with continuous monitoring all the way.

Since it is impossible to cover all aspects of the NEP in a single article, let me focus only on the higher education landscape. As the NEP has correctly identified, the higher education scenario in the country has been beset with many problems, including a severely fragmented ecosystem and a rigid separation of disciplines with little emphasis on cognitive skills, learning outcomes or quality research, limited institutional autonomy and ineffective regulatory and governance systems leading to poor leadership of Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs).

Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education being a paltry 26 per cent compared to 58 per cent in Senior Secondary and 79 per cent in Secondary schooling, most students are driven away from higher education because of these debilitating deficiencies. The NEP promises to correct this by focusing on multidisciplinarity, flexibility, emphasis on skill acquisition and quality research. Education being a concurrent list subject, both the Central and the state governments must work together to ensure that the promises do not turn into hollow platitudes.

To recall the premises of the NEP as far as higher education is concerned, there shall no more be any rigid separations between arts and sciences, or curricular and extra-curricular activities, or vocational and academic streams. Students will select subjects of their choosing across all streams to excel wherever they can, and discover their aptitude and potential, a birth-right that was so far denied to generations of students. Undergraduate degree courses will be of either 3 or 4year duration with multiple exit options like a certificate after completing one year, a diploma after two years and a Bachelors’ degree after 3 years. The Fourth year will be exclusively for research after which one can pursue a one-year Masters’ degree.

Thus, one can always come back at an opportune time even after exiting at an intermediate stage to pursue further education, saving precious time, energy and resources both for the learner and the institution. The courses will be credit-based with an Academic Bank of Credit being established for digitally storing academic credits earned from different HEIs so that these can be transferred and counted towards the final degree earned. M.Phil. courses will be junked. A new overarching body called the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will be established for all higher education, excluding medical and legal studies, replacing the existing regulatory bodies like UGC, AICTE or NCTE. HECI’s four independent verticals will be responsible for regulation (National Higher Education Regulatory Council), accreditation (National Accreditation Council), funding (Higher Education Grants Council) and learning outcomes (General Economic Council, GEC), ending the multiple conflicts of interests that afflict the present regulatory architecture.

GEC will frame a National Higher Education Qualification Framework in sync with the National Skills Qualifications Framework to facilitate the integration of vocational education into higher education. There are also other forward-looking proposals like setting up National Professional Standards for Teachers to make the recruitment of teachers more transparent, Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities and a National Research Foundation to “seed, grow, and facilitate research at academic institutions”, and a National Educational Technology Forum to promote the use of technology in higher education. It assures that educationists will be appointed on the Board of Governance of HEIs and to depoliticise them. Given the present vicious stranglehold of retired bureaucrats and politicians who are deeply entrenched in such institutions and their traditional stubborn objections to any reform, they would be extremely unlikely to yield any space to academicians. Since debureaucratisation and depoliticisation are most crucial for success of NEP and its full implementation by 2040 as envisaged, it would be interesting to see how their dominance over the HEIs could be diminished.

But the most revolutionary part of the NEP is perhaps its singleminded focus on multi-disciplinarity by creating large multidisciplinary universities and HEI clusters and ending the present system of affiliation of colleges. All universities have to provide emphasis on significant quality research, even though they can be teaching- intensive or research- intensive, while undergraduate education would be provided by autonomous degree-granting colleges which will be large multidisciplinary institutions of higher learning. To help the existing colleges transform into such institutions, they have to be mentored, supported and incentivised to develop their capacities, so that there would be no affiliate college after 15 years.

By 2040, all HEIs would become multidisciplinary institutions with thousands of students in their rolls “for optimal use of infrastructure and resources, and for the creation of vibrant multidisciplinary communities”. Single-stream HEIs will become a thing of the past and all HEIs would impart and “encourage high-quality multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary teaching and research across fields”, boosting the higher education GER to 50 percent. Lofty futuristic goals no doubt, with tectonic potential to transform India from an educationally laggard country into a self-reliant knowledge superpower ~ only if sincere implementation can be ensured which would need enormous resources, and it is here that the NEP disappoints. The total combined public expenditure on education by the Centre and the states, currently at only about 4 per cent of GDP, falls way behind the target of 6 per cent envisaged in all previous Education Policies. Consequently, our expenditure on research remains a pitiable 0.69 per cent of GDP. Without investment, neither the infrastructure nor the standards required for the NEP would be achieved. But the NEP only paid some lipservice to this crucial element ~ to reiterate the wishful thinking that the Centre and the States will work together to raise expenditure to 6 per cent of GDP which it recognises as essential for “progress and growth” but stops short of recommending that a law should be enacted to enforce the same.

Thus, there is neither any commitment nor an accountability structure built into the NEP to ensure implementation. Maybe it felt restrained due to the budgetary stress caused by the pandemic, which may further curtail educational expenditure. The budgetary stress would be over some day, but the future will not wait. Meanwhile Universities can think of stopping to operate from their individual silos and form provincial and regional consortiums to explore and exploit the existing synergies, map their educational resources and plan to use these interchangeably and optimally between different institutions so that all students can get access to the best facilities like laboratories and other resources, especially in critical times like this with restrictions on movement and assembly.

Identification of the weaknesses and strengths of different institutions cam help optimise investment and specialisation. Technology and digital learning must then be leveraged to the maximum to disseminate specialised knowledge and enhance the learning outcomes of students while ensuring their access to technology. Investments may be optimised by increasing the existing the capacities of institutions in their respective specialised areas. The mantra should be to give access of quality learning to all who desire to learn. Our current stereotyped westernised system of education has all along ignored the abundant traditional knowledge and inter-generational expertise available indigenously across regions and to use such knowledge for addressing local needs and problems. Any holistic system of education must integrate such knowledge not only to improve local livelihood but also to teach important cultural, societal and humanistic values to youth. Knowledge must be free and free-flowing to prevent fragmentation of the world so that the spirit of human inquiry would not lose “its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit” and the mind would be led forward into “ever-widening thought and action” which is the ultimate aim of any holistic education.

The writer is a commentator.The views expressed are personal