Being the first National Policy of Education in the 21st century, the NEP 2020 is the third after independence. It was preceded by the one that came in 1968 (heavily influenced by the progressive Kothari commission of 1964-66) and 1986 (whose revised version came in 1992). This 65-page document recommends steps for different sectors of education to “overhaul” and “revamp” education in our country. While it calls for an adequate scrutiny, the present paper points towards two significant moves of this policy which will have irreversible consequences not only in the education sector but also in the larger socio-political reality of our subcontinent. First is its unabashed acceptance of private interests in education, and second is its move towards increasing regulation.
Even if NEP 2020 becomes significant in being the whistle blower for both these steps, it is important to note that these changes had been underway from quite some time. The policy of (NPE) 1986 had already made way for the entry of private interests which further got explored after the neo-liberal reforms of 1991. A decade back, the present policy was preceded by the Policy Framework for Reforms in Education (PFRE), convened by Mukesh Ambani, with Kumar Mangalam Birla as its member. It advocated foreign direct investment in higher education and also initiated the idea of private universities bill. It heralds the new era that eventually saw the emergence and prevalence of capitalism in education. From the ‘human resource’ approach of NPE 1986, it made the shift to ‘human capital’ exploring the need of acting as drivers of technological innovation. The clear influence of these recommendations can be seen in the present national policy.
NEP 2020 has successfully created a space for private players in the policy debates. From being at the margins, it managed to bring them to the center, making them an important stake holder. They are not only treated at par with the public sector but are even given privilege and importance wherever required. It is interesting to study how in our context, it attempts to change the attitude of disdain and suspicion that private evokes, especially in a sector like education which is a public good.
NEP 2020 begins by introducing private with certain innocuousness, and that benevolent tone is prevalent throughout the document. It gets captured through the deliberate choice of words like ‘public-spirited private’ and ‘philanthropic private’. Wherever the document uses the word private, it is juxtaposed with either of these two terms – philanthropic or public-spirited, as if without these qualifiers it would reveal something hideous about ‘private’. While the policy makes a distinction between Private for profit and philanthropic private, nowhere does it explain how to discern between the two. How does one traverse through the zone of intentions to find out if the private is existing for profit or for public good remains unclear. On the contrary, it creates the impression of this well-intentioned private lobby that would be interested in the concerns of social justice and welfare. Similar benign tone can be captured through its introduction of Public Philanthropic Partnership (PPP) term, instead of the earlier much criticized Public Private Partnership. Through these pleasant-sounding phrases and terms, it wishes to do away with the contempt that gets evoked when State enters into partnership with private or worse, when it leaves social sectors in the hands of private.
NEP 2020 stands out and stands away from the other two policies in providing complete acceptance to the presence of private. As education is essential for improving the life-chances and functioning of people, educators have disapproved private participation in this realm. They were supposed to be distanced from the policies and programmes that need to be welfare-centric. This can be seen in NEP 1968 which was committed to equality of educational opportunity. Influenced by Kothari commission of 1964-66, it ensured the role of state as a provider and was committed to the constitutional values of equality, freedom, justice and dignity. The possibility of having private stake holders at par with public institutions opened in the policy of 1986, for which it was heavily derided, and by 2020 that prospect has come to full realization. By calling “for the rejuvenation, active promotion, and support for private philanthropic activity in the education sector”, it finally gives private that legitimacy in the education policy which hadn’t been present.
The change in attitude towards private can also be captured with the way this policy has drastically shifted the way earlier monitoring was happening. The existing practice of separate stringent assessment and tracking measures to keep private players under check is necessary to a great extent even if it demotivated them from participating. The present policy is uncomfortable with this difference in monitoring and regulation between public and private sector. It notes how “there has been far too much asymmetry between the regulatory approaches to public and private schools”, and how it would have “inadvertently discouraged public-spirited private/philanthropic schools” (:30). It brings both public and private under the same set of rules, governance and regulation changing the education landscape of our subcontinent. This would bring complete overhaul in arena of higher education. It is important to note that both public and private sector has been existing in India in the higher education. If public universities are supported by Central and state governments, as the case maybe; private universities are financed by their own bodies and societies. UGC has been given the task of regularly monitoring these private universities, and latter depends on former for recognition. NEP 2020 has managed to overhaul this system systematically, by bringing in one common regulatory body, i.e. Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). It not just brings both on an equal footing with each other, but even goes on to give special relaxation to private players wherever required. For instance, to welcome foreign universities it suggests some respite for their smooth entry as well as functioning. It says, “A legislative framework facilitating such entry will be put in place, and such universitites will be given special dispensation regarding regulatory, governance and, content norms on par with other autonomous institutions of India” (:39).
Regulation is another significant point that emerges with this policy. It talks about regulation showing the shift in the nature of state from being a provider to a regulator. The word regulation is used umpteen times in the document. At couple of places it also uses an interesting phrase “light but tight” regulation. With a strong faith in regulation, it finds it to be coterminous with quality education. A well-regulated, accountable and efficient system would automatically pave way for good, quality education had been the central theme of international bodies and organizations which has been widely criticized for their strong presence in school education. Instead of questioning this discourse, NEP 2020 has legitimized it and taken it to other sectors of education as well – higher education, teacher education and vocational education.
Policy’s defense of private to the point of even acting as its spokesperson pushes us to engage with the nature of state. The growing presence of private and corporate players is usually understood with the shrinking role of state. That explains the constant usage of words like absent state, shrinking state or failed state. Loaded with the sentiment of betrayal, they reflect mutation that has happened in its fabric. They are marked with the assumption that a democratic nation-state would stay away from entering in partnership with lobbies that only have their self-interest at stake. Even if this sounds ideal and must be a constant demand of civil society from state, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that this is not a necessary condition for the genesis and sustenance of neither state nor democracy. Historical and sociological analysis of state and democracy would reflect contradictions within it. Even if a democratic state appears to represent masses and its people, it has always enjoyed deep alliance with powerful section that only have their interest at stake. This small group needs constant support and shielding from state for it to expand itself.
Hence, it is erroneous to think that state is antithetical to capitalism. Wallerstein while capturing world systems noted how capitalism is always dependent on state power for its emergence and expansion. The thought that economy can exist independently of the state is nothing more than an ideology of capitalist societies (Karatani, Structure of World History).
For this reason, we need to be careful about the nuances that exist in the connotations of being a failure or an absent state. Its failure and absence cannot be seen as its general characteristic, instead it gets activated vis-à-vis its people, civil society or the public space. These are the realms from where state has withdrawn. For the other purposes of capitalism, it stands as a successful state which is brazenly present as well as active.
Jyoti Dalal teaches in the Department of Elementary Education at Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi.