The National Education Policy 2020 is progressive in its aims to disrupt the existing Indian education system with transformative and generational reforms to meet 21st century skills and education needs. It has struck a proportionate balance by integrating the Indian education system with global trends and patterns on one hand, and instilling conviction and pride by highlighting that the rich heritage of ancient Indian knowledge will be the guiding light of the policy, on the other hand. It has clearly articulated that the rich Indian legacies must not only be nurtured and preserved but also researched and put to new uses through our education system.

The underlying principle of the policy is to create an enabling framework that helps in doing away with rote-learning and facilitates acculturation of an enquiry-based, project-led ecosystem of education that not only enhances the learning outcomes but also helps in rendering a more rounded and holistic development of individuals. There is a strong emphasis on promoting digitisation, technology integration and its effective adoption to achieve the ambitious target of Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education to 50 per cent by 2035 from the current 26.3 per cent.

To deal with 21st century opportunities and challenges and with the rapidly evolving exponential technologies, the policy has focussed on developing an integrated liberal education endowed with multidisciplinary approach. It further envisions flexible curricular structures that will enable creative combinations of disciplines. While emphasising on the need for liberal education, it clearly highlights the significance of liberal arts education that helps in developing all capacities of human beings in an integrated manner, viz intellectual, aesthetic, social, physical, emotional and moral. This is indeed a significant step forward.

Further, for multi-disciplinary liberal education to be practiced in letter and spirit, one needs to move away from rigid regulatory framework and allow autonomy to the universities and higher educational institutions, besides developing a robust and independent accreditation system,separate standard setting body, and a distinct funding mechanism to remove biases. The move to set Higher Education Commission of India in the education policy is a right step in this direction. Heci will function as a single overarching body with four distinct functions under its ambit, viz regulation (NHERC), funding (Higher Education Grants Council), accreditation (National Accreditation Council) and setting of academic standard (General Education Council). The four institutions will carry out their functions independent of each other.

It needs to be highlighted that the Indian universities that have been provided greater autonomy have demonstrated innovative approaches in adopting some of the suggested changes mentioned in the new policy, especially with regards to integrating liberal education, flexible programme structures with majors and minors, effective internship, etc. Government should encourage such universities and HEIs to handhold state universities in particular and other institutions in general, through a mentormentee relationship. This would further lead to collaboration amongst institutions (through Hub and Spoke model), industry and optimal resource sharing.

The policy document prominently highlights the significance of Online and Distance Education against the backdrop of Covid-19 pandemic and the compelling need to increase access and equity. To ensure efficient utilisation of resources and to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, the policy has indicated that all content developed for ODL will be included in an online digital repository. However, appropriate IPR guidelines must be developed, implemented and adhered to, that are in line with the international best practices.

One of the other important aspects of this new policy that is set to fundamentally transform the research landscape of the country is the creation of a National Research Foundation (NRF) that intends to fund all kinds of research proposals having a strong bearing on nation’s interest. NRF provides a level playing field as it will be open to both public and private sectors institutions. This is in line with our recommendation to the government of creating a National Science, Humanities, and Technology Research Foundation akin to National Science Foundation of USA.

While focussing on internationalisation, the policy has taken care of some of the important elements that the federation has been suggesting the government in the recent past. However, it is important that the execution plan (that will be laid out through a legislative framework), should entail inter-ministerial collaborations to develop a conducive ecosystem that will encourage cross mobility of students, faculty and researchers, Indian institutions with foreign campuses and global institutions with campuses in India. Effective industry engagement with opportunities for apprenticeships and employment, safe and secure living environment, state of art infrastructure, etc are some of the other critical pre-requisites that will not only boost international mobility of foreign students to India but will also develop India as a global destination of higher education.

Last but not the least, all these transformations would need financing that cannot be met only through public funding or philanthropic initiatives. According to UNDP estimates, the total financial requirement for India to reach Sustainable Development Goals 4 by 2030 is USD 2258 billion, which for the years 2017-2030 averages USD 173 billion per year. This far exceeds the current government budget of USD 76.4 billion a year on education.

The federation has been recommending opening up of sector to private investments. The formalisation of sector would help in attracting committed and credible education providers, private equity and foreign direct investments and bring in the much needed transparency and disclosures with a culture of reasonable profits. The increase of supply of quality universities and higher education institutions and less dependency on fees for self-financing educational institutions will keep a check on the cost of higher education in the country. The writers are chairperson-FICCI higher education committee and assistant secretary general, FICCI, respectively