AMID ALL-ROUND clamour, the sound of si lence goes unheard. We have heard little of late about the no-longer-new National Education Policy. Its first anniversary was a low-key affair. There has been some tinkering with statutes and regulations but no struc- tural or ideational change, and no funds. In school education, nothing has happened at all
Yet, the most exciting proposal in the NEP was to merge anganwadis with primary schools. By affording all children what only the affluent now enjoy this move could trans- form Indian education. It would need sub stantial funds for infrastructure, and both funds and planning to ensure enough trained staff. The pandemic offered a unique oppor tunity in this respect. School and anganwadi premises could have been upgraded during the closure, and staff recruited and trained online. The opportunity is now lost in the flurry of reopening
The pandemic multiplied the drop-out rate and caused a huge learning deficit in) those who remain. The digital divide is only one of many challenges Compensatory measures, before and after reopening, vary hugely across states. There is no hint of an all- India strategy. The Nipun Bharat programme to tacikde basic leaming deficits has been de ferred rather than expedited.
Two batches of five-year-olds have not at- tended school for a day. Adding the deficit in earlier batches, 8 to 10 crore children face to owing to the former's greater sprawl and the tal illiteracy Enrolment and achievement lev average economic condition of their students els in secondary school have plummeted fur ther, Out-of-school girls face early marriage or even trafficking Boys are dropping out too -sometimes, reversing all precedent, more than girls-obviously from the need to eam money. Even luckier children may not be en- tirely lucky. The damage, pedagogic and pay chological caused by prolonged online learn- ing will emerge over time. The online coaching industry has surged exponentially, becom ing a wildcard factorwhose relations with the formal schooling system remain undefined. Hence, even those buying education at a pre- mium cannot tell what value they will receive
Far from addressing the situation, the NEP has been effectively sidelined. It seems likely to be implemented piecemeal if at all re- stricted to low-cost paper reforms or items of random political urgency. The education budget rose by 12 per cent this year. Yet, the educational incentive for (chiefly tribal and rural) girls has been discontinued, and the National Education Mission budgeted below 2020-21 figures. The mid-day meals alloca- tion has been further slashed, despite post- pandemic aggravation of the already declin- ing child growth and nutrition levels. Instead of more teachers and better basic infrastruc- ture, we are offered 200 TV channels and ex- panded e-learning (which the Parliamentary Standing Committee found inaccessible to 77 percent of studerits) Yet total funds for Digital such a land. India e-Learning are lower by a third: for teacher training, by half
Tertiary education is in growing disarray
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Expanded schooling and greater reservations have redefined the student composition of public universities. By a maction among the privileged, private universities have grown incrementally They account for two-thirs of all enrolment today. The NEP ignored this factor beyond a pious declaration of the go ernment's primary role. Instead, it mooted another division between institutions by pe set levels of teaching and research. Here, it fol lowed the government's lead, reflected in an operational shift from the UCC to the min- istry's direct control Research is regimented through schemes like IMPRESS and IMPRINT and institutions brought to heel through codes of conduct, imposed curricular and re cruitment protocols, or even legislation.
Funding is increasingly focused on a handful of institutions, through what may be called the ranking syndrome. Allocations for IT IIMs IISERS grow unimpeded, while the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) for general university funding is down by a third "Institutes of eminence" are nurtured by vagaries of funding and proprietorship- Centre versus states, public versus private. Most state governments are equally culpa- ble. Perennially impoverished state universi ties are further hamstrung by political and bureaucratic overlordship.
The upshot is a centrifugal order with no clear thrust or coordinated deliverables. Public universities are in foster care while more and more space is afforded to private institutions. The equation between the two sectors now replicates the long-standing par- term of school education. Hence, poor stu- dents have markedly less access to quality higher education. The quota for the Economically Weaker Section will be infruc- tuous if the income ceiling remains this high -genuinely poor students will lose out. Moreover, the pandemic has affected public universities vastly more than private ones,
What scenario emerges on pooling all these factors? Schooling will grow still more divisive than before, reversing whatever progress government schools had made. The likely results range from a higher dropout rate to a resurgence of illiteracy Some understated hints in the NEP grow sinister in this light: The stress on vocational training and apprentice ships, the explicit sanction of under-re- sourced schools and, outrageously, of chil- dren out of school
The public university system will con- tinue to decline. A few central and still fewer state universities might hold out, who knows how long Alongside a plethora of overpriced teaching shops, a sprinkling of reputable pri- vate universities might provide meaningful education to a small section. Neither the state schooling system nor people's fee paying ca pacity will allow their numbers to reach the critical mass required for a vibrant knowl edge order. Research will suffer badly. All this will ensure an outflow of academic talent to institutions abroad.
The process is already underway. Besides the horrendous human toll, such squander- ing of human resources (with consequent so- cial unrest) is bound to frustrate economic growth. In that milieu, no one could buy or manipulate a radiant future for their own chil dren. There could be no future for anyone in
The writer is professor emeritus, department of English, Jadavpur University