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NEP and the Question of Language

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 By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is by far the most significant policy statement to emerge from the present central government. Indeed health and education should always be the focus areas for any government. That the present government seems to be acting in good faith as regards education should be welcomed by all. Let us appreciate the move that education is getting the centrality it deserves. It is apparent by the decision for restoring the entity called the ‘Ministry of Education’ in place of the jargon-laden ‘Ministry for Human Resource Development.’ So now we have an education minster and not CEO of a corporate.

The New Education Policy is the third after independence. It was preceded by the one that came in 1968 and then in 1986. The nation required such a policy in the new millennium to overcome both indigenous and global challenges through knowledge and educational resources to keep pace with modern technological developments. Since funding is a crucial element for implementing any policy the government has done well to answer the long standing demand for increasing public investment in the education sector to 6% of GDP.

NEP 2020 is sweeping in its vision and seeks to address the entire gamut of education by bringing in transformational reforms in the field of education from preschool to higher education systems.

Since the foundational education of a child begins with his early formative years he needs food for his body and mind. The NEP makes generous provisions in this regard, extending free mid-day meal scheme to breakfast. Such nutritious meals will definitely result in better learning outcomes for children increasing their enrolment in schools and reducing the drop-out rates. It will especially benefit the girl child’s education.

As one ascends the education ladder crucial structural reforms are envisaged to do away with the rigid bifurcation between arts and science streams through school and college, at the same time offering flexibility in changing subjects in a four-year college education. The learners can select their preferred field of study following their academic and professional inclination, and there is allowance for multi-exit options. Since in higher education the M. Phil programme will be discontinued, research leading to a doctoral degree will have to be rigorous and comprehensive. I personally think that a research degree should not be mandatory for university teachers. Those who have the aptitude for research will do it anyway but working under compulsion often results in sub-standard research. There are and have been excellent teachers without a string of doctoral and postdoctoral degrees with their names. A teacher’s basic commitment is to his students for which he does get a decent salary. I say this particularly with reference to humanities where research work tends to be repetitive on topics unrelated to students’ curriculum. The teacher does this kind of research more for his own career advancement than for the benefit of his students. What often goes in the name of original research demonstrates hardly any originality. A 3000-word research paper peppered with fifty footnotes, looking more like a web page with innumerable hyperlinks, can hardly pass for original research. One would rather teach a Shakespearean play to explain its human dimension and universal appeal than approach it from convoluted critical perspectives of formalism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, new historicism, postcolonialism, and so on, following the fashion of the day. One could miss the wood for the trees.

An especially commendable feature of the new policy is the proposed gender inclusion fund, aimed at eradicating gender-based discrimination. We need resolute affirmative action with regard to admissions and appointments. We know how the current public health crisis has exposed the yawning divide among social classes in access to education and health facilities. The shameful inequality and injustice needs to be squarely addressed.

However, there are some contentious issues arising out of limitations inherent in the new education policy. The first and the foremost is the spectre of unregulated privatization and commercialization of education. The policy envisages inviting foreign universities to set up their offshore campuses in India which will inevitably make education more expensive. It will also accentuate the existing hierarchies in the society. Moreover, as the focus of the present government is also on skill development, which has a specific Indian context, it cannot be achieved through internationalisation of education. And the assumption that this move will check the brain drain of national talent is not wholly true since several students who go abroad for higher studies do so not only to acquire quality education but also to soak in the ambience of the foreign soil. Moreover, not many universities may show interest in setting up campuses in India within the NEP framework. They can be better engaged academically by securing their partnership with our public as well as private institutions for global competitiveness. We should have more faith in our own institutions of higher education such as the IITs, IIMs and several central universities, excellent by all standards, irrespective of their global ranking.

The NEP signals reliance on over-centralization which runs counter to the autonomous character of the academia and must be resisted. Also, the provision for a single regulator of higher education is not a step in right direction. It is bound to lead to more politicisation in education as a regime’s favoured ideologues rather than bona fide educationists may be appointed to the position. It may also create problems in enforcing mechanisms for consultation and coordination with the state regulatory bodies.

The policy does not tell us anything about a uniform curriculum that can be adopted in schools within a state. It speaks of public and private schools conceding that private for-profit schools, which are a business with a view to maximise profits, will continue to be allowed without regulating their functioning. It appears that in the view of the present government school education is not a public good, but a field where private profits can be unscrupulously made. Since private sector is unlikely to open schools in remote areas where the students will be few, the only hope is to strengthen the government school system. In several other parts of the world it is philanthropy which drives the participation of the private sector in education. In India what motivates the private players is profit alone.

The question of language is a vexed issue. The NEP states that the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible and that the three languages learned by children will be the choices of States, regions, and of course the students themselves, so long as at least two of the three languages are native to India. It also states that, ‘wherever possible’ these languages will be used in public and private schools. However if the proposal to impart education in the mother tongue is left open- ended it will only broaden inequities given the ground realities. Over the years, not only enrolment in government schools, especially in the rural areas, has decreased, the teaching quality too has steadily deteriorated for various reasons. At the same time, most students from the well-off sections have opted out of vernacular schools to shift to English-medium schools. It is also related to accountability- the private school teachers are made to work hard and methodically else they face dismissal. For government school teachers the job is easygoing and with hardly any consequences for their non- performance.

While the move to promote the use of home language/mother tongue as the medium of instruction for children is welcome, one can be justly sceptical about making it an unqualified policy statement. We need to address the conflict between what the educationists say that one understands the subject best in the mother-tongue than in English which is alien to our environment – and what the parents think is necessary for the economic progress of their children. The vernacular medium students do not get the coveted jobs which widens the disparity. All the same English is important because it has become the lingua franca of the world. It can be taught as a second language at the primary level even while having the regional language as the medium of instruction.

It is hoped that as the euphoria about the new education policy spends itself it will be subjected to more scrutiny and the Education Ministry will accordingly fine- tune it for its long- term implications. The devil is in detail. It also lies in effective implementation. The test of an inclusive and equitable social order is the extent to which the poor do not feel financially constrained as they move through the system. Let us hope we get closer to an equal world.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)