National Education Assembly: Grand Success
A NATIONAL Education Assembly was held in the Harkishen Singh Surjeet Bhavan, New Delhi, on April 30, 2023, marking a climax of sorts in the year-long campaign against the National Education Policy (NEP) by the All India Peoples Science Network (AIPSN) comprising around 40 independent organisations throughout the country including the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti and its various state chapters. The assembly or convention was a tremendous success by any standards.
Most importantly, by the considered and conscious decision of the AIPSN, the assembly, while organised mainly by the AIPSN which had also borne most of the costs, was supported by 14 major education-sector organisations of school and college teachers, students, women, anganwadi workers and helpers, non-teaching staff and several popular movements and NGOs working in the field of education. This itself was a significant achievement. All these organisations had each launched struggles and campaigns against NEP. On its part, AIPSN had been striving for long to build a strong, broad and united platform for struggle against the NEP, and much effort had gone into this at national and state levels.
These efforts, including several formal and informal meetings in the past few months, finally bore fruit at the assembly which was supported by the All-India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO), Federation of Central University Teachers Associations (FEDCUTA), School Teachers’ Federation of India (STFI), Democratic Teachers’ Front (DTF), JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA), Students’ Federation of India (SFI), All India Democratic Students Organisation (AIDSO), All India Save Education Committee, All India Democratic Womens’ Organisation (AIDWA), All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH), Right to Education Forum, All-India Federation for Right to Education (AIFRtE) and others. At the conclusion of the assembly, after vibrant deliberations which forged a common understanding about the harm being done by NEP and a desire for a united struggle against it, all these organisations resolved to come together under a common platform and launch united struggles at national and especially state-levels.
The assembly was also a success because of the level of participation, and the high quality of deliberations by participating scholars, educators, academics and activists who drew upon their deep understanding of the education sector and their extensive study and critiques of NEP. Many activists and educators also shared details of experiences at the grassroots with the implementation of NEP, and popular struggles against the depredations brought about by the NEP. The spirit of the AIPSN/BGVS campaign against NEP and for a pro-people public education system was highlighted by AIPSN. BGVS cultural troupes sang their stirring campaign songs in folk medium at each of the various sessions in the assembly.
DELEGATES AND PRE-ASSEMBLY
Over several months prior to the assembly, state-level member-organisations of AIPSN in many states had been engaged in intensive campaigns against NEP. State-level conventions, district conventions as well as block and even village-level meetings including “dastak” (literally knock on the door) campaigns had been held. States around Delhi such as Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, as well as Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand had also organised kala jatha cultural troupes which toured their states, being hosted by local communities at their numerous halts for performances and mass contact programmes. Three of these jathas from Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar also came to Delhi and performed at several locations in the national capital on April 28-29, such as in Punjabi Bagh, Uttam Nagar, Mustafabad, Dakshinpuri and JNU Campus.
On the day of the assembly, as many as 602 delegates registered at Surjeet Bhavan, and many others attended as the day progressed. Of these, about 450 delegates from 22 states were from the AIPSN/BGVS and 150 delegates from the 14 supporting organisations participated.
The assembly was organised in a plenary inaugural session attended by all delegates, two parallel sessions on school education and higher education respectively, and a concluding plenary session in which a declaration and a charter of demands, both formulated and put together by AIPSN based on inputs sought and received from all the supporting organisations, were placed and discussed.
the inaugural and concluding plenary sessions, which were live streamed, were held in a packed auditorium with spill-over participants in two separate halls where proceedings were projected live. Simultaneous English-Hindi and vice-versa translations were organised through FM-radio voice transmission to delegates’ mobile phones.
At the inaugural session, Prof Satyajit Rath and Asha Mishra, president and general secretary of AIPSN, welcomed the delegates. The latter made a brief presentation of the AIPSN campaign, followed by a 6-minute short film offering glimpses of the campaign from state to village level.
The assembly was inaugurated by Dr R Bindu, minister for higher education, government of Kerala, who made an insightful and wide-ranging critique of the NEP, especially its ideological underpinnings, and of its weaknesses at the practical level. She also highlighted the measures being taken in Kerala to build and strengthen an alternative educational system, with public education as its backbone, for the benefit of the people of Kerala especially marginalised sections.
Prof Sukhdeo Thorat, former chairman, University Grants Commission (UGC), speaking online from Nagpur, said that the main weakness of NEP was the fact that, unlike all previous education policies, it was not based on any systemic or empirical study of earlier policies or the status of education in the country, but rather uncritically borrowed elements and structures from the US or other advanced countries. He also pointed out that NEP took its values from just one religion, and that too from upper-caste traditions, deepening inequalities and discrimination within the country. The other main failure of NEP, according to Prof Thorat, is that it restricts access to education to a privileged few rather than broad-basing education.
Prof N Verghese, retired vice-chancellor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), highlighted the restriction of access to education under NEP brought about by the policy of merger and closure of schools and colleges in the name of consolidation of infrastructure and resources. He emphasised that this was not only against the educational interests of the majority of the population, but also violated the constitutional provision for inclusiveness.
Prof Anita Rampal, former dean, School of Education, Delhi University, said that public education was being outsourced to corporate and private or other non-state actors through a variety of means. Online education is being promoted vigorously and tablet-computers are being bought in bulk and provided to students. Contracts for “reforming” curricula are being awarded to commercial firms like Byju’s while long-serving educators and experts are ignored.
The parallel sessions saw lively presentations and discussions, including especially grassroots experiences of NEP implementation, again to attentive delegates in packed halls. In each of the parallel sessions, AIPSN/BGVS and all the supporting organisations made presentations of their positions, perceptions and field experiences of NEP implementation in school education and early childhood care and education (ECCE), and in higher education and research respectively.
MAJOR ISSUES HIGHLIGHTED
Many presentations highlighted problems which had been anticipated in earlier critiques by AIPSN and other organisations, but were now becoming starkly evident in much deeper ways than anticipated earlier.
In school education, closure and merger of schools were noted in almost all states, causing enormous problems for parents and children especially in rural areas. This is precipitating large-scale school drop outs, especially by girls, and particularly in tribal and minority areas. Many schools, especially in certain states, are being handed over to private or philanthropic ownership or management, with accompanying hikes in fees, again exacerbating inequalities notably in access. The implications of the additional examinations and modified syllabi were noted by many delegates. AIPSN/ BGVS delegates emphasised the sidelining of literacy and adult education.
The NEP provisions and especially implementation of measures for ECCE came in for much criticism, particularly the efforts to bring ECCE into the school system as against keeping it within the neighbourhood anganwadi system. Delegates underlined that ECCE should emphasise child-care, nutrition and maturation, all of which are best achieved in neighbourhood anganwadis which, however, need to be upgraded with respect to capabilities, training, infrastructure and funds, especially for higher wages.
In higher education too, the trend towards privatisation and commercialisation was noted by many delegates. The scale at which colleges especially in rural areas were being closed, with proposals to merge several colleges into a single university, came as a rude shock to many. The forthcoming wide-ranging scrapping of affiliating universities and upgrading autonomous self-financing institutions were also noted. Higher fees and short-term courses of unknown usefulness were highlighted.
The new four-year undergraduate courses with multiple annual entry and exit points accompanied by certificates, diplomas and degrees, with provisions for multiple courses, came in for much criticism from all sections. Delegates pointed out that core competence and knowledge of students were being undermined in the name of flexibility. The additional fourth year was putting additional pressure on less well-off students and their families, again affecting girls more. Furthermore, the utility of the 1 or 2-year certificates raised grave doubts in an already over-crowded employment scenario in which even post-graduate degrees had little value.
DECLARATION, DEMANDS AND FOLLOW-UP
The concluding session saw a draft declaration and 37-point charter of demands being presented and discussed by representatives of all the supporting organisations present. These captured all the major points highlighted above. While the assembly approved in principle the draft declaration and charter of demands, all organisations were given an additional week to submit specific additions or points of emphasis.
All organisations expressed their deep appreciation of the how the assembly was organised, the quality of discussions, and the broad-based character of the movement against NEP that the assembly had succeeded in forging. The assembly also decided to not to view this gathering as an event or a culmination of earlier campaigns, but as a new starting point for an intensified campaign at the state and downstream levels under a joint platform such as that displayed in the National Education Assembly.