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Education today needs more funds, not less

The new National Education Policy (NEP) launched in the second half of 2020 aims at overhauling India’s education system, but the prevailing pandemic situation has turned the academic calendar topsy-turvy. It is time to review how far the NEP can be made relevant to the new normal in education.

A K GHOSH | New Delhi |

While it was expected that a separate allocation would be announced for the New Education Policy, much to the dismay of educationists, the Union Budget 2021 makes a 6.1 per cent lower allocation than the previous year. The allocation for school education stands at Rs 54,873.66 crore and is Rs 38,350.65 crore for higher education. This is a sharp decline in allocation to a scheme that aims at improving infrastructure and teaching in educational institutions post-Covid 19.

While the government is intent on implementation of the NEP that was introduced last year and aims at universalisation of education from pre-school to secondary level, the Samagra Shiksha Scheme, the main vehicle for implementing the Right to Education Act bears the brunt of the cut. From Rs 38,750 crore last year, the allocation dips to Rs 31,050 crore.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) launched in the second half of 2020 aims at overhauling India’s education system, but the prevailing pandemic situation has turned the academic calendar topsy-turvy. It is time to review how far the NEP can be made relevant to the new normal in education.

A UNESCO report explained the scenario: “Education system responded with distance learning solutions, all of which offered less or more imperfect substitutes for classroom instruction”.

With the lockdown, campuses across the country were shut; all academic institutions switched to virtual classrooms. However, most institutions lacked the infrastructure to take digital classes while a few had experience on the platform. Most teachers struggled to learn how to use the digital platform for teaching-learning process.

As for the learners, digital divide became a matter of great concern. A Delhi High Court judgement called for the responsibility of the government to directly address the digital divide. It mandated in its judgement and order of 18 September 2020 in Justice for All versus Government of NCT Delhi & Ors that the government has a responsibility and legal obligation to enable online education for EWS students ensuring free laptop/iPad/mobile phone and high speed internet for online classes through video conferencing to be provided free of cost to children defined under Section 2 (c) of the RTE Act.

Encouragingly, the NEP plans to set up a National Education Technical Forum to oversee capacity building, develop e-content and provide a platform for educational institutions and stakeholders to share best practices leveraging technology. Setting up of more virtual labs to give students remote access to experiment-based learning and virtual field trips strongly suggests that the policy promises a lot in focusing on experimental learning. It also aims at providing learning apps, satellite-based TV channels and teacher’s training to strengthen online learning.

NEP is set to include more online and e-learning platforms at both school and college levels to make education more technology-oriented. It also seeks to encourage research across a higher perspective of education by setting up a National Research Foundation.

It is very likely that remote learning and technology-based education delivery are going to become the new normal and will attract huge investment. Digital divide may only be bridged with requisite hardware and software networking facilities.

Realizing the desired emphasis on digitisation and virtual teachinglearning, a higher spend on education is desirable to upgrade digital infrastructure. Getting private sector spending may be a plausible solution. Instead of building new infrastructure in higher education institutions, the existing government structures could be rebuilt in modern mode. Public- Private Partnership could be reinvented in a better way so that equitable education opportunities to all through EdTech platforms could be extended.

Augmentation of quality of teaching goes hand in hand to prepare a pool of trained manpower for post-Covid campuses. In this respect the government may collaborate with private industry to ensure continuous skill enhancement of educators. EdTech has risen to the occasion during the prolonged lockdown periods.

It is feared that prolonged out-ofschool learning might lead to children staying away from school systems. India has 1.4 million schools, 2.01 million children (classes 1-8) enrolled in government schools and an additional 3.8 million children in classes 9-10. More than a fourth of the population are children and 19.29 per cent are in the age group of 6-14 years, being entitled to education under RTE Act, 2009.

In spite of increase in awareness to get children educated and their enrollment, India’s learning crisis remains critical. An interesting reason has been reported by the National Sample Survey as a reason for dropout (27.7 per cent) – “child not interested”, which is likely to be more emphatic due to pandemic and lockdowns.

As per an estimate, India’s school education system includes 10,93,66 contractual teachers at the elementary levels. The pandemic has made them uncertain about their continued employment. Added to this, lack of infrastructure in schools like safe drinking water, toilets, handwashing, electricity etc. may not allow them to reopen soon. Nearly 9.12 crore children are not able to get their midday meals during the closure. Less than 12 per cent of schools are RTE compliant. The present emphasis on tech- driven education may exclude many of them from continuing their education.

NEP 2000, which suggested a huge restructuring of the school curriculum, envisages learners through the school and higher education system being exposed to vocational education. Vocational courses through distance mode would also be encouraged. Skill based training is being prioritised with greater implementation of modern technology. There are certain challenges that the government is expected to address in order to expedite the implementation process.

In the absence of unequivocal operational guidelines regarding curriculum priorities, the education sector came up with different approaches recently to keep the show going. Some priorities concerned the academic skills and knowledge that students needed to maintain in subjects such as language, mathematics, science and history.

Keeping the pandemic situation in mind, the idea already in vogue is that students are hardly able to transfer the knowledge and skill acquired in school to everyday situations. The narrative can accelerate the idea that school is boring and less worthy in the making of an individual. It is worth mention that the OPEC has called for an effort to make education more ‘meaningful’ through revamped curricula that are more challenging and interesting for students.

The Council of Ministers of Education in Canada has stressed the importance of giving priority to global competencies within curricula that can be leveraged in different situations. The Covid situation has raised questions about the usefulness of certain curriculum content. The NEP can draw on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as a source of framing contextualised and authentic learning situations relating to challenges facing mankind.

If the new normal becomes the order of the day, NEP might require certain revisions in the areas of strengthening the normative framework of the RTE Act instead of restricting it. It will need to situate equity, inclusion and diversity accordingly. The one nation, one channel or one digital framework thereby may not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

A country with nearly 50 per cent of its population below 25, India needs extra emphasis on education. Education, that happens to be on the Concurrent List, has seldom been a priority of either the Centre or state governments, The allocation for education in the new budget reflects the same trend and, like the previous budgetary exercises, lacks the components that can help the education sector take a giant leap forward.

The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University.