July 21, 2019

On the Draft National Policy on Education

Prabhat Patnaik

ONE cannot but be struck by the tone of smug self-satisfaction that pervades this report, that India was the origin of most great ideas including the Pythagoras theorem and the Fibonacci series, that Indian universities like Nalanda and Taxila were unique and unparalleled institutions, and that Sanskrit has a literature that is larger than Latin and Classical Greek combined, and so on. In fact the report recommends the setting up of a Mission Nalanda and Mission Taxila to revive old glory. The point is not whether the claims are true or not; the point is the crass inferiority complex that informs the report, where past Indian glories have to be revived, without any reference to the context of common achievements of mankind in which India too had its own contributions.              

What is even more intriguing is that nowhere is there any reference to the horrendous system of class oppression and “untouchability” in Indian social life that is also our heritage, not even in the list of current topics to which students should be introduced, among which of course Swachh Bharat figures prominently. And predictably from the list of great Indians to whose lives school students should be introduced, the name of Jawaharlal Nehru is conspicuously missing. Such a jejune report at such a high official level does come as a surprise.

Let us however forget all these and concentrate on its main content. One of its recommendations has already been much discussed publicly, namely the one relating to the compulsory introduction of the three-language formula, in which Sanskrit too can be one of the three languages. Many have validly made the point that the three-language formula is an unwarranted imposition, that while the language-learning skill of a child is no doubt considerable, the third or fourth languages should be an elective that can be taken for a couple of years. English and the mother tongue (or a substitute language) however should be the compulsory languages to be learned.

There is a hypocrisy about English in the report. While fulminating against how the English-speaking elite has made learning English a pre-requisite for getting jobs, and how this must be broken, it also recognises that anyone doing science must be familiar with English. Scientific writing in the mother tongue is visualised as being confined to popular writing on scientific topics in the local vernacular press, and such like. Now, what is true of the sciences is equally true of the social sciences and humanities as well. Breaking the monopoly of the English-speaking elite therefore, a goal that is quite unexceptionable, requires not a downgrading of English but a pervasive and proper teaching of it. But let us move to other general issues.     


          There is a Russian proverb that “what is cooked in the kitchen is not decided in the kitchen”. Likewise what is happening in the sphere of education in India at present is at best only partly determined by developments internal to this sphere; they are largely the product of what is happening in the economy and the society in general. For instance, the commoditisation of education and its associated commercialisation; the learning by rote by children, egged on by parents, in a desperate bid to move ahead of others in order to succeed in landing a job in an overcrowded job market; the payment of huge amounts of “capitation fees” for a place in a desired institution; the running of public higher educational institutions with faculty hired on a temporary basis and paid a mere fraction of the proper salary; and a myriad such features of the current educational scene, are, in one way or another, the indubitable product of the current state of the Indian economy, which in turn can be traced proximately to the trajectory of neoliberal capitalist development that the country has been following. To analyse the problems of the Indian educational sector without any reference to this context within which it is placed, is like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

          But this is precisely what this report does. Take for instance its emphasis on Early Care and Childhood Education (ECCE), which is supposed to make children better prepared for school. Early care of course is desirable per se and the emphasis upon it is one of the stronger points of the report. But the core of our early care arrangement is the Anganwadi system, and the Anganwadi workers who are literally paid a pittance and not even recognised as government employees, can scarcely be entrusted with the burden of a revamped early care system of the sort visualised in the report, without an improvement in their status.

Likewise, notwithstanding all the talk about “free and compulsory primary education”, the State, strapped for resources under the neoliberal dispensation where it can neither tax the rich nor borrow from them, opts to rely on private educational institutions most of which are institutions run with commercial objectives. And this too will continue, notwithstanding all the talk in the report of encouraging philanthropic institutions and preventing money-making ones. Indeed no mechanism has been suggested for controlling such institutions; on the contrary, private educational institutions are allowed to fix their own fees with no limits from the side of the government, other than the insistence that such fees, once fixed, must not be raised other than in tandem with the rate of inflation. What is there to prevent such institutions from charging exorbitant fees to keep out students from deprived backgrounds?

The very reliance on private institutions constitutes an abdication of responsibility on the part of the State. True, philanthropic institutions must not be prevented from being set up. True, minority institutions have a constitutional right to exist. But large numbers of parents belonging to the minority religions themselves, would like their children to get a modern education rather than, for instance a madarsa education, or to go to a secular institution rather than one run by a religious order. It is the duty of the State to meet the educational needs of all; those who wish may drop out of the State-run system, but this system must be the bedrock of the education system. And resources must be found to meet this requirement. The report does not assert this basic principle.

Exactly the same unawareness of the context is shown in the matter of teachers’ salaries. Today an army of ad hoc teachers is paid a pittance to do the work that permanent teachers should be doing. This is a means of saving money by the various governments. In the absence of more resources being devoted to education from government budgets, the same sorry state of affairs will continue, notwithstanding all the fine words of the report about “excellence”.

The report of course talks of increasing the proportion of public expenditure devoted to education from 10 per cent at present to 20 per cent in 10 years’ time. But this is scarcely possible unless the tax-GDP ratio is deliberately raised, and the best way of doing so is through wealth taxation. But the report says not a word on the subject, which means that its grandiose plans for improving the quality of education can hardly be taken seriously.

Or take its proposal to cut out learning by rote, by making the board examinations easy and flexible. Board examinations however are at present the gateway through which a student has to pass before entering university. If board examinations cease to be discriminatory, then some other means have to be found to determine admission to the university, and the report suggests a national test to be conducted by a National Testing Agency (NTA). But given the pressures on students who have to enter a crowded job market, the NTA-run test itself will now become the location where rote-learning will be regurgitated. The report’s proposal will not get rid of rote-learning; it will only shift its location from the board examination to the NTA-run test.

          To be sure, a report on educational policy cannot be expected to become a report on economic policy and to advocate wide-ranging changes in the latter. But a change in policy with regard to education, in order to be meaningful, must visualise some changes in economic policy, at least certain significant adjustments to alter the context within which education is placed at present. If the unemployment rate is at a record high and climbing, then the consequent demoralisation among students makes all talk of “excellence” in education futile.

          Even the little consolation that one could derive from the report’s insistence on multi-disciplinarity and on the need for even science students to have some knowledge of liberal arts, has a question mark over it. In the discussion of the liberal arts that should form part of the curriculum, there is an overwhelming emphasis on knowing the Indian intellectual tradition, the great glories of Indian philosophy, and so on. It is not clear therefore that the liberal arts to be taught to students would be state-of-the-art social sciences and humanities. They could well turn out to be merely a celebration of India’s “glory”.

To be sure, Indian philosophy and other subjects where India did make significant contributions to knowledge should be taught to students, but only as history-of-thought segments. To keep the students stuck at that level, when these disciplines have evolved so much, would hardly constitute twenty-first century education.


The Draft Education Policy is questionable not only because it does not address the basic socio-economic pressures which have brought education to its current sorry state; its very definition of the objective of education is flawed. Notwithstanding occasional remarks to the contrary, the report sees education essentially in narrowly instrumentalist terms, as an aid to the creation of a “knowledge economy”, as a means for running a ten-trillion-dollar economy which India would become in the coming years, and so on. For this it wants “world class” institutions. The ideal it presents is a system dotted with institutions that are clones of Harvard and Cambridge, which teach modern science and other disciplines with a dash of Hindutva and celebration of Indian “glory”.

But education in a country like ours cannot be identical with education in an advanced country. Educational institutions here cannot be clones of similar institutions abroad. The position of a third world ex-colony from which surplus has been transferred to the metropolis for centuries, which is saddled with massive labour reserves as a result of colonial “deindustrialisation”, and the vast bulk of whose work-force is still subject to the income-compressing effects of global economic processes, is very different from that of an advanced country. No doubt this claim will be contested by some, but that is all the more reason for discussing these issues openly, for not having syllabi and course contents that are clones of what advanced country universities have. Even in the natural sciences the emphasis on topics here will be have to be different from that in advanced countries.

It is not only with respect to the contents of teaching programmes that an Indian university has to be different from say Harvard or Cambridge; even the role of the universities here will have to be different. A very important role of universities here will have to be what is inelegantly called “nation-building” which means helping the formation of a “community”, based on an inclusive concept of nationalism, a “fraternity” of equal citizens. Universities in other words have to be the cradles where the “organic intellectuals” of free India are to be nurtured, committed to the constitutional values that underlie its creation. They have got to be committed to the values of democracy, human rights, secularism, and an egalitarian order.

Countries like ours are too young for the preservation of such values to be merely left to the media, to the judiciary, and to other organs of the State, with the universities merely getting on with their teaching and research. Universities too have to intervene directly in defending and upholding constitutional values. They must consist of “public intellectuals” and they must produce “public intellectuals”. The usual advice offered to students that they should concentrate on “studies” and keep out of “politics”, is wrong. Of course students must not become cannon fodder for unscrupulous politicians; but they must take a healthy interest in politics if we are to preserve our democracy and secularism.

This requires not only the creation of intellectuals who are not self-absorbed , self-centred seekers of personal glory, let alone run-of-the-mill self-absorbed intellectuals, but public intellectuals who stand up for constitutional values even as they go on with their normal work of teaching and research. Universities in our country are a major pillar of democracy and constitutionality.

Indeed the upholding of constitutional values is essential not just for society at large but even for the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research that the report so keenly desires. An academic community that is browbeaten into merely pursuing teaching and research to the exclusion of defending freedoms and rights, will not even succeed in pursuing teaching and research successfully. These require freedom of thought and expression; the denial of these freedoms impairs teaching and research as well. And yet there is no mention of this requirement in the entire report, even though it is under attack at present, with the threat of prosecution under sedition laws hanging over the academia all the time.


Two areas where the report will make a difference and which also underscore the flawed nature of its underlying philosophy, relate to teachers’ recruitment. One is the removal of reservations in teachers’ recruitment. True, this is not mentioned explicitly. But the report’s talking of merit alone being the basis of recruitment, clearly suggests that affirmative action, hitherto practiced through reservations, will be out of place from now on. Whether reservations will continue in the admission of students into the various academic streams, is unclear; and in any case there is no insistence on private institutions resorting to such affirmative action. But the report is clear in the matter of recruitment of teachers, namely, that there will be no reservations. The brahminical prejudice of the report, visible in its silence on the existence of caste-oppression in Indian history, is most prominently displayed here.

There is a misconception here. It is generally believed that reservations are a means of achieving social equity by making a sacrifice with regard to academic quality and excellence. This is wrong: reservations are essential for achieving academic excellence itself. Since the distribution of talent over large populations can be taken to be identical across populations, the excessive representation of some social groups in academic or professional jobs, is symptomatic of the fact that inferior persons from these privileged groups get preference over more talented members of the underprivileged groups, that talent is shut out through “barriers to entry”. Reservations then become the means of overcoming barriers to entry, in order to improve quality.

Of course, reservations have to be accompanied by remedial steps to overcome the handicaps that a successful entrant from a deprived background suffers from. But to do away with reservations altogether on the grounds of quality and excellence is to take a myopic view, and to privilege short-term apparent excellence over long-term genuine excellence. This however is exactly what the report does.

In addition of course there is the argument for reservations on grounds of social equity, a point recognised even in the US where “reserved” recruitments are made from hitherto excluded groups under the “target-of-opportunity” programme. It is again a symptom of the jejuneness of the report that it does away with reservations in recruitment on the basis of banal arguments about quality.

The second instance relates to the report’s suggestion that all career advance in the academic profession will be entirely on grounds of academic performance. This is based on the assumption that material advance is the main motivator for academic excellence, which is a standard bourgeois assumption that is not even necessarily taken seriously in advanced country universities (Oxbridge for instance), and that is downright dangerous in a country like ours. A senior academic who is kept in an inferior position on the grounds that he or she has not done enough academic work, will become a demoralised person. On the other hand a person who has made rapid career strides on the grounds that he or she has been academically active, will, in the new situation where there is much emphasis on “world class”, forever be trying to migrate to the advanced country universities.

There will therefore be two categories of academics within each university, a demoralised and disgruntled lot who are denied promotions and have to linger on in inferior positions all their lives, and rapid climbers who would forever be eyeing opportunities opening up in foreign universities. Universities under these circumstances will become not institutions of excellence, but, rather, institutions riven with jealousy, bickering and utter absence of collegiality. This would act as a further incentive for the rapid climbers to seek greener pastures abroad.

In fact, if excellence is to be promoted within universities, a necessary condition for it is to detach material and professional advance from academic performance alone, such as what the various career advancement schemes have been doing in Indian universities of late.

This report, in short, notwithstanding some interesting suggestions on early career grooming, on multi-disciplinarity in universities (provided such multi-disciplinarity is not subverted by Hindutva), and on streamlining the structure of higher educational institutions, fails both because it does not take cognizance of the effect of the socio-economic arrangement upon the sphere of education, and also because it unthinkingly tries to impose bourgeois notions of excellence upon educational institutions that are set within a more complex and intricate setting involving caste and other such exclusions.