NEP 2020 & Beyond: Reimagining India’s Education System

I think it was around 20 years back that a distant relative of ours from Andhra Pradesh paid us a visit in the hope of securing a job in Bhubaneswar.

He had secured a decent 70 per cent in his B.Com and was hoping that would help him in getting a suitable opportunity. Unfortunately, it was not to be so, and he returned home disappointed.

The reason was not a lack of openings or his knowledge of accounting and commerce – he had studied entirely in Telugu and hence was not able to work in either English or Odia.

Till then I had no idea that it was possible to study up to graduation in a language other than English, and remember feeling pity for the young man who had handicapped himself by studying in a vernacular language.

It has been a year since the new National Education Policy (NEP) was released, and its recommendations are slowly being adopted, with the Prime Minister launching engineering courses in five regional languages in fourteen institutes across five states a few days back.

Policies by their very nature, need to be futuristic for them to be effective, and accordingly, the NEP is aimed at transforming India’s education system by 2040. The vision of the NEP envisions an India-centric education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society by providing high-quality education to all.

A distinctive feature of the NEP 2020 was the way it was formulated, taking five years and taking into consideration over two lakh suggestions from 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, 6,600 blocks, 6,000 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), and 676 districts.

With broad-based changes across the spectrum, the NEP hopes to transform the education system in the country. With better teachers, learning based on mother tongue even for technical education and a format more in line with internationally followed systems, it is hoped that we will be able to fulfil the educational needs in the next twenty years.

But is NEP truly equipping the youth of India to face the future?

Take the newly-launched engineering courses for example. Yes, for a student who has studied in the vernacular medium, the pressure of not having to study in English will certainly be a boon. But in a rapidly shrinking world where companies will be increasingly serving customers across nations and therefore needing multilingual resources, will she be able to secure suitable employment or will she be destined to work within severely limited geography? That would be a shame because it would mean that our youth would not be able to leverage the biggest strength of our country – its size, forget about being able to work overseas.

Our mother tongue is precious to us and under no circumstance should it be allowed to lose its importance. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize the fact that by not learning a global language like English, we are only hurting ourselves. The only reason we as a nation were able to benefit from the IT revolution was the fact that, unlike China, we had a large pool of engineers who had studied in English. Knowingly letting go of this advantage seems to be a regressive step.

There is another aspect to this that does not seem to have been considered in the NEP – technology. Already, thanks to Google, it is very easy to use a smartphone and an internet connection to read the text in languages that we do not know. We just need to take a picture of the text using the Lens app, click on copy text and then either listen to the text in the same language or have Google translate it to a language of your choice and then read it or have Google read it out aloud for you. If you haven’t tried it out yet, do so – I am sure you will be astonished by the speed and accuracy with which this can be done.

Now imagine how much more this and other similar technologies will evolve over the next few years. Keeping this in mind, do we need to expend such a lot of time, money and energy in developing courses and course content in all Indian languages – after all, if it is being done in one language, no state will want its language to be left behind.

The NEP has also continued with the bundling of research with teaching, thereby continuing to perpetuate the fallacy that a good student is necessarily a good teacher. While knowledge is a necessary precondition to being a teacher, the characteristics that make a good researcher do not lend themselves to being a good teacher as well. On the contrary, some of the best teachers are those who have practical knowledge and experience of the subject, especially when it comes to professional courses like engineering, medicine, law, management, etc.

The creation of knowledge is a very important aspect of the education system, and it is necessary to look at it independently without tying it up to dissemination of knowledge at the same time. This will not only allow researchers to focus on building knowledge bases but will also simultaneously allow students to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of practitioners, who may not have had the time or opportunity to get themselves a doctorate degree.

In today’s day and age, when systems are available for agile development, policies, especially those that can have far-reaching effects on the nation, need to be open and flexible and not fixed till the next revision. This alone will allow us to respond quickly to the changes brought about by technology, changing demographics, opportunities, threats or even black swan events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the NEP to be truly effective, it needs to take into consideration that education needs to be seen from three different perspectives – for earning opportunities, for growing knowledge and finally, for being able to disseminate knowledge. Each of these needs separate focus, and trying to bring about a system that can cater to the needs of all three is fraught with the danger of leading the nation to a stage where we have millions of unemployed as well as unemployable young men and women.

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