National Education Policy 2020: Hierarchy versus Openness in Higher Education

The National Education Policy Report 2020 approved by the Union Cabinet recently does merit attention and comment on issues that are of greater relevance and importance than the language controversy that followed when the revised report was circulated. After all, the vision that the Report [NEP] lays before us is that of India transforming itself into a knowledge society which could be defined as one where the Human Condition is improved primarily by the application of knowledge as distinguished from societies where such improvement comes mainly from the application of tangible resources such as capital and labour.


Indeed, most economic initiatives from the government too indicate that policymakers want to lay the foundations of a knowledge economy where wealth will be created primarily by the exploitation of knowledge. This too is a vision and an objective that few would argue with. The problem is to understand where and how this knowledge is being created and to look at the NEP 2020 from that perspective.


Increasingly today, the production of knowledge and its dissemination has become decentralised and atomised to a degree that is unprecedented in the annals of human history. This of course is the result of the spread of education and the revolution in the Information & Communication Technology which has made access to information practically free and production of knowledge less dependent on resources than previously. Also, the willingness of people to donate to voluntary knowledge initiatives possibly less so in India, but whose work then becomes available to all concerned, has also created more players who function outside the formal institutions of knowledge production and dissemination but carry out many similar functions.


For example, those who have followed debates on ancient Indian History especially the debates on the Aryan Invasion Theory the contribution of those who are not part of India’s formal knowledge institutions is striking both for the questions they raise as well as their numbers. Similarly, on areas related to the environment and sustainable development, the role of civil society organisations both in terms of advocacy and knowledge creation has been extremely important. So too in matters of governance, think tanks both State-supported and privately supported have rendered yeoman’s service with their research and their attempts to disseminate the same to influence and improve.


This is even more so for cutting edge commercial scientific technology. This knowledge by its very nature is likely to be generated in a firm that uses/produces this technology and in the case of software even individuals or groups of individuals collaborating together. If that technology becomes successful and the need for a large number of people trained in that technology arises, the lack of manpower trained in that technology has the ability to constrain economic growth.


Thus, in a knowledge society, the production of knowledge is and must be participatory. It follows from here that research institutions, alternative educational institutions supported by citizens’ organisations, business associations as well as social entrepreneurs will cooperate and compete with formal bodies (like State-owned Universities and Research Institutes) that produce knowledge. Accessing their knowledge is generally not a problem but institutional rigidities in formal institutions of learning have tendencies to create several and this is problematic.


It follows therefore that administrators of India’s formal educational institutions in consonance with NEP 2020 adopt an “Open Source” strategy, i.e. which simultaneously allows enrolled students to access any course or teaching learning material and those outside to access any course or teaching learning material that the formal institutions produces. Of course, these formal education institutions will coordinate this “peer production/mass collaboration” of knowledge creation. Indeed, as examining bodies the formal institutions have to be the guarantors of quality.


In the same vein therefore, the architecture of India’s educational setup too must be “open.” Thus, not only must India’s formal education architecture be flexible enough to continuously upgradable and scalable, it must allow for the non-traditional creators and disseminators of knowledge to “plug in and play” after ensuring that it fulfills its task of being a guarantor of quality.


There is no other way out. India is being hit by several challenges. There is of course a problem of quality manpower. But there is also a problem of skill sets especially when it comes to cutting edge technology. The most in-demand jobs a few years from now in all likelihood don’t exist today. The education system is tasked with educating students to face issues and problems of tomorrow’s world possibly requiring skills and knowledge that do not yet exist at least within the formal system. We cannot assume a rigid inflexible architecture/system can tackle this problem when the rate of technological obsolescence is heartlessly swift and the nature of skills that India needs in the coming years itself is unclear.


It is here that the hierarchy of institutions that the Draft report recommends has to be moulded to retain its consonance with its vision of a knowledge society.  For example, the report talks about the evolution into three types of higher educational institutions, research universities, teaching universities and colleges. This division is not unreasonable given the problems in the past and today that India has faced with the quality of research and teaching. However, it is not at once clear whether it is always suitable for the task of taking India towards a knowledge society across time and area. Given the rapidly changing skill sets requirement that India will need, this implied separation between research and teaching is not what our formal institutions need to do. For teaching purposes, the NEP very correctly calls for lateral entry of personnel and this is useful for new skills e.g. a new programming language. But researchers too need to know this language so that it could be improved and built upon. Therefore, for most part, teaching has to be integrated with research.


Secondly case studies with respect to the environment, governance, traditional knowledge and know-how etc. in many cases will need to be validated by formal researchers before becoming part of what is taught even in an “open architecture.” It is also likely that the researcher, in his role as a teacher, will initiate the teaching of materials sourced from non-formal/traditional sources. A system, where a hierarchy is created between teaching and research leading to different types of institutions, this is not easily done.


Therefore, in the absence of advice on “openness” of architecture, individual universities per se will have to take it up on their own if they are to stay relevant as society keeps on transforming and morphing. If their specific visions are in consonance with that stated in the NEP i.e.  the local university will contribute to their region’s journey to becoming a knowledge society in its broadest sense, one which not only has modern technology as one its components but more importantly is a free, dynamic, cosmopolitan and liberal society aware of the geographical, social and political environment in which it exists, then its architecture cannot be “closed.”  Mere lateral entry alone will not tackle the problem posed by continuous change. More importantly for that is the requirement that the institutions have to be open to and collaborate with the new players in the field of knowledge creation and production even while keeping check on the quality and veracity of the information/knowledge generated, i.e. they have to be “open.” It is only with this mindset built into our institutions will India ease it transformation into a knowledge society.


(The author is Professor, Department of Economics, University of Jammu)

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