Treating Education As a Public Good

Mool Raj
Mool Raj

The recent National Education Policy (NEP) document, despite its shortcomings, is a significant improvement over its previous version. Notably absent from the NEP 2019 is Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of India’s foremost educational thinkers of the 20th century. His radical ideas on education and freedom, advocating for a non-competitive, non-hierarchical learning environment that fosters self-discovery without fear, may have been deemed too unconventional for a government report. Nonetheless, the NEP does incorporate elements of contemporary global thinking, such as the emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and the ability to communicate and collaborate across cultural boundaries.

The near-final NEP, while not without its flaws, is markedly more readable and better organized than its earlier, almost indecipherable version. It consists of four main chapters focusing on school education, higher education, other key areas such as adult education, technology, and the promotion of arts and culture, and a section on implementation, which includes establishing an apex body and financial strategies to make quality education affordable for all. The commitment to doubling government expenditure on education from about 10% to 20% over a decade, though still insufficient given the challenges, is an unprecedented step forward.

Education is a public good essential for nation-building, akin to fresh air that invigorates communities. It should not be driven solely by market demands for certain skills or distracted by the disruptive impact of technologies like Artificial Intelligence. Education should be free from the constraints of deprivation, and affordable education, such as that offered by JNU, is crucial for ensuring access for even the most marginalized sections of society. The aim of education policy should be to produce sensitive, creative, and upright citizens who are willing to explore unconventional paths and whose professional skills will remain relevant despite technological and intellectual revolutions.

Reducing education to a commodity, as suggested by some private sector solutions, is a fallacy. There is no developed country where the public sector did not lead the expansion of school and higher education, ensuring inclusiveness and setting standards. Even prestigious Ivy League universities, supported by philanthropic endowments, function more like public institutions today. It was, therefore, essential for the government to develop a reform blueprint through widespread consultation. Whether the current NEP report can meet this challenge is debatable.

As an academic, I am pleased that the NEP aims to reinstate teachers as the most respected members of society. Empowering teachers, ensuring their livelihood, respect, dignity, and autonomy, while maintaining quality and accountability, is a central theme. If the NEP can address the erosion of teacher autonomy in academic forums, it would be a significant achievement. Many university leaders’ current dictatorial attitudes make academic debate seem like treason, highlighting the need for change.

The emphasis on early childhood care and education is also commendable. Anganwadis, the backbone of early childhood care, have suffered from inadequate facilities and training. While the NEP recognizes this, its proposed incremental changes may not be sufficient. The idea of volunteer teachers, peer tutoring, rationalizing the school system, and sharing resources raises concerns. It is unclear what strategies and resources will be used to strengthen the public sector, including Kendriya Vidyalayas, state-run institutions, and municipal schools.

Examples from the non-commercial private sector, such as Mirambika, a holistic, experimental school inspired by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, offer valuable lessons in early childhood education. The NEP’s recognition of a comprehensive liberal arts education, which develops all human capacities in an integrated manner, is wise. However, delivering on this requires more than mere proclamations.

The proposal to establish a National Research Foundation to foster a research culture in universities is commendable. However, the creation of a National Testing Agency (NTA) has generated skepticism. Although the NTA is intended to be an autonomous testing organization for admissions and fellowships, there are concerns that universities and departments may lose autonomy over admissions, even for research students. This fear is not unfounded, as initial signs of this change are already evident in universities.

The NEP’s suggestion of categorizing institutions into research-intensive universities, teaching universities, and colleges raises concerns. The benefits of these divisions are not clear, given that high-quality teaching and cutting-edge research often coexist in universities of excellence.

The NEP draft will soon be presented to the Cabinet, and it is hoped that many concerns will be addressed before the official policy is announced. It is crucial to recognize the pressure from global educational service providers to enter the Indian education market.

In 2003, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Jammu, I invited RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan for breakfast, along with my colleagues K.L. Bhatia and Nirmal Singh. Addressing a campaign against my appointment as Vice Chancellor due to my Kashmiri background, Sudarshan emphasized that a university is a global sanctuary of ideas, not a place for narrow bigotry. Given the RSS’s significant role in the NEP, it is vital to guard against consumerist, neoliberal ideas of education infiltrating while maintaining a façade of cultural nationalism.

Amitabh Mattoo is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.