At 484 pages, the National Education Policy 2019 (NEP) is not only the longest policy draft by any government, it is also repetitive, didactic and verbose. Much of it has been ignored by the media, except the plan to impose Hindi as a national language — which was later redacted. More important issues such as school education, skill training or higher education is totally ignored by the media.
This article will focus more on the proposed structural reforms in higher education. The collapse of higher education is clear; unfortunately this not accepted by academics or bureaucrats. Somehow academic leadership ignores this reality that most graduate and post-graduate courses are outdated and fail in imparting any skills. There is zero focus on skills in any degree course, while the technical or knowledge element is already available online. Thus, incremental changes will not do. There is also a denial of this problem. The NEP 2019 addresses the structural challenge by bringing in a super-regulator — the National Higher Education Regulatory Agency (NHERA) under which all the other education bodies will merge.
Currently, regulatory functions are dispersed across multiple organisation. This has created an alphabetic soup of bodies that swim around in murky waters. There are bodies that give grants and also regulate (such as the University Grants Commission), there are some that give accreditation (such as the National Assessment and Accreditation Council) and others that control technical education (such as the All India Council for Technical Education). This structure allows a loose interpretation of the rules and distorts processes to increase corruption. The fact is that education regulatory bodies are rigid, corrupt, and feudal. They are the last vestiges of the Inspector Raj. The entry of market forces is frowned upon by the sector and hence reforms have been slow. A rule-based transparent regulatory system is ignored by the incumbents.
The current system is based on controlling and curtailing the supply to sell licenses to the highest bidder. Inspections check infrastructure, not outcomes. In a meandering manner the NEP 2019 acknowledges these problems, but, even in such a large report there are little details of how the super-regulator NHERA will function.
Some of the learnings from the regulatory world have been that the role of the regulator should be to serve the consumer (the students) and not the industry. This is one of the learning from the RERA Act for the real estate sector which serves the buyers of real estate. If the NEHRA keeps the students’ interest it will be able to mould the sector.
If it focuses on the sector it will fail. This focus was enshrined even in stock market regulator, but due to interference by participants in rule-making and its practice, it has not worked for small investors. Which is why there are regular scams and frauds in the market.
Regulators charge registration fees, accreditation fees and to justify it they create processes for inspections and control. However, these processes create avenues for corruption. The only way to break this systemic-jinx is to make the rules transparent and reduce or remove human interventions. Interventions should be an exception, not a norm. The rules governing the education sector should also allow flexibility to change with time.
The NEP 2019 talks about giving freedom and autonomy to structure curriculum and courses as per the organisational requirement. The one-size-fits-all mindset or the regulator is right approach has to change. The half-life of learned skills is falling rapidly, it no longer make sense to define everything. What needs to be defined is the outcome; the role of the institution is to impart skills and knowledge. It needs to create a conducive environment. Regulatory bodies need to accept that technical learning has moved online. What they need to teach are functional skills and an exposure to a wider segment of subjects.
While the NEP 2019 reduces the importance of functional skills and buries it under ‘soft skills’, it does address the need for multi-disciplinary learning. It has suggested a three-tier structure for universities. The tier-1 institution will be research-led and will have to offer multiple degrees and disciplines. The importance of this cannot be ignored with the merger of science and technology; then dual degrees will almost be the norm. Globally, engineering and science institutions have to add liberal arts to prepare the student for a changing world. The Indian Institutes of Managements and Technologies cannot remain aloof and stuck in a linear trajectory if the recommendations are accepted.
Things need to change fast, and the NEP-2019 addresses most of the issues. The barrier to change in the education sector is academicians themselves. They need to accept the problem if these reforms need to succeed. Otherwise, several generations of Indians will rue their future and India will lose a golden opportunity for economic growth.