For true federalism, each state must have its own education policy

In the ‘70s, education was snatched from the State List and put into the Concurrent List. With the National Education Policy of 2020, states are further losing their rights in service of centralisation.
School students inside a classroom
School students inside a classroom
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It’s been exactly four years since Anitha’s death. The 17-year-old Dalit girl, from Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district, had scored a spectacular 1,176 out of 1200 marks in her 12th Board exams — 98%, in other words — a feat that, just a year before, would have easily gotten her into the best medical college in the state. But in 2017, when Anitha graduated from school, Tamil Nadu was forced to accept the Union government mandated National Eligibility cum Entrance Test — NEET — because of a Supreme Court order. And Anitha, the daughter of a daily wage worker, who fought against the test that used an alien syllabus to deny her admission into a medical college, died by suicide on September 1 that year. But how did things change so drastically for Anitha and other students like her so suddenly? Why were State Board marks acceptable one year, and a common entrance test mandated the next?

The answer, experts say, lies in the increasing centralisation of education in India — a Union government project that has reached its zenith with the National Education Policy of 2020. The Union government (no matter which party is in power) has been moving steadily towards centralising education for several decades now, starting from the 1970s, even as best practices from across the world show that decentralisation provides the best education outcomes. And as the new academic year starts and institutions across the country are forced to adopt the new policy, educationists and experts say that state governments must push for more control over education in their own domain. And the first step to that, they say, is for states to have their own education policy.

To understand the current state of education policy in India, one must trace the history of how education has been managed in the country, and look closely at the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. When the Constitution was formulated, ‘general education’ was a subject under the ‘State List’ in the Seventh Schedule — meaning, the state governments had exclusive powers to make laws and policies about education. The Seventh Schedule has three lists to detail which level of government has the powers to make laws and policies about a subject — the Union List (exclusive powers to the Union government), the State List (exclusive powers to the state government), and the Concurrent List (both Union and state governments hold power). And while ‘general education’ was in the State List, ‘scientific or technical education’, ‘higher education’ and ‘research’ were in the Union List.

However, this was only until 1976, when during the Emergency, a Constitutional amendment was made and ‘general education’ was shifted to Concurrent List.

The conflicts and the ‘resolution’

When ‘general education’ was in the State List, there were conflicts between the Union and state governments because of entries 64 to 66 (pertaining to scientific or technical education, higher education and research) in the Union List, according to the Sarkaria Commission (formed to examine Centre-State relations). However, after 1967, the conflict between states and the Union government intensified.

The Sarkaria Commission cites the example of how in the past, the states differed with the Union government’s direction that no states should restrict admission to medical and engineering colleges on the grounds of domicile. “It was felt that the powers conferred on the Union in the matter of education were not adequate enough to resolve such difficulties effectively,” the Sarkaria Commission says.

After more than a decade of debates on the issue, in 1976, the 42nd amendment to the Constitution was made, omitting education from the State List, adding it to the Concurrent List. A turbulent period in the political history of India, the country was under Emergency at this point, imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The same year, in 1976, Tamil Nadu’s DMK government was dissolved by the then-President of India Fakruddin Ali Ahmed.

“Emergency was used for bringing about greater centralisation of control in education. Indira Gandhi had wanted higher education to come increasingly under the Union government’s control,” says Shyam Menon, who taught at Delhi University and was the first Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University Delhi. “Through the 42nd amendment, education was moved fully into the Concurrent List, thereby formally opening it to the Union government's interventions. The major focus of the quality-linked grants from the Union government began shifting from state universities to central universities. It was at that time that UGC began increasingly earmarking the bulk of its financial resources to maintaining central universities."

Shyam Menon also adds that the 10+2+3 system of school education which had been envisaged as part of the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1968, got a fillip with education being moved to the Concurrent List for ease of its implementation on a pan India scale. "Indira Gandhi was keen that national policies in school education were implemented without what she perceived as resistance from state governments. Moreover, she was keen that the Union government should be able to make critical interventions in the quality of school education.”

But whatever the reasons, over the decades, the price for the change in policies has been paid by students from the most marginalised communities in India, who are routinely expected to compete with their most privileged counterparts, and in the syllabus that the privileged students studied. NEET for instance is modelled on the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus, and students who study in state government Boards and schools across the country are expected to master the syllabus for CBSE, along with their own state Board, in order to qualify for medical colleges.

History of the ‘National Education Policy’

Meanwhile, based on the Report of the Education Commission (1964-1966) — popularly known as Kothari Commission — the National Policy on Education, 1968 (NPE 1968) was announced, which spoke of “a radical reconstruction of education” to work towards “national integration” among other objectives. A decade after the shift to the Concurrent list, the first centralised policy was announced in the form of NPE 1986, which again talked about reorganising the content and processes of education on the lines of “national values and concerns” in favour of “national integration.” This policy was next updated after a period of 34 years, in the form of NEP 2020.

On July 29, addressing a programme on the completion of one year of the NEP 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called India’s new NEP “one of the major factors in the 'mahayagna' (grand exercise) of nation-building."

The motive behind a nation-wide education policy

Last year in September, addressing a group of students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, PM Modi said that NEP 2020 will take education in India to global standards, turning the country into a global education destination with the advent of foreign universities etc. However, behind the notion of setting global standards of education, experts closely scrutinising the changes in the education sector point to larger corporate interests behind imposing nationalised policies like NEP 2020, that cater to homogenised education systems. And the roots of this corporate interest started over a decade ago, says Rajan Gurukkal, noted social scientist and the Vice Chairman of Kerala State Higher Education Council.

“Following the recession in 2008, corporates started focussing more on the arena of innovation and technology for patents. There was a greater interest in the production of marketable knowledge. There was a possibility of huge capital accumulation through intangible assets like patents. This market that is concerned with the generation and transaction of intellectual property rights, is what is called a knowledge economy,” says Rajan Gurukkal.

For the flourishing of this kind of an economy, higher education must be opened into emerging knowledge fields, like hybrid technologies. According to experts, how India becomes an eye-catcher of the corporates is through the demographics of the country with its high youth population. As per the International Labour Organisation (ILO), by 2020 India’s population in the age group 20-24 years has become 116 million. This high number of youth who seek higher education in the country is a crucial factor as far as NEP 2020 is concerned, wrote Rajan Gurukkal in his article ‘Introduction: A Critique of Draft NEP, 2016’.

“Corporates want more people to work in these fields for a small remuneration. For that they aim for developing countries as employees from developed countries will have to be given 20 times more salary,” Rajan Gurukkal says. He also points out that for this, there is a revamp of the whole education system in the country with a focus on vocational education, from higher education to the preschool level. This is the context in which a nationalised education policy like NEP 2020 comes in.

NEP 2020’s focus on vocational education has also been critiqued, for deviating the focus from meaningful education, especially for students from socio-economically marginalised sections. Questioning the need to introduce vocational education at the school level, Educationist Prince Gajendra Babu asks, “Once you give vocational skills to children who are yet to complete secondary education, will the child have any interest in pursuing professional education?”

In an opinion piece titled ‘Vocational Education for Atmanirbhar Bharat’, former Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal wrote about introducing vocational education in schools as early as in class 6. “All these years, there was a disconnect between what the society needs and what the school teaches. The society needed a carpenter, but carpentry was never taught in school,” he wrote, adding that the NEP breaks this “disconnect”. Disapproving this outlook, Gajendra Babu says, “If NEP 2020 is meant for producing carpenters, then it has nothing to do with education.”

While the pros and cons of NEP 2020 are still being contested, with there being a lack of clarity on the implementation, what many say has happened for sure through the policy is the infringement on the federal powers of the state.

How nationalised education policies are an attack on federalism

The Sarkaria Commission (1983), which reviewed various problems in the functional aspect of Union-State arrangements, was of the opinion that ‘it is not advisable to revert education back to the State list’. However, the commission had noted that the Union government should not take a rigid stand, and during instances like formulation of a national education policy, it should be only through ‘a process of dialogue, discussion and persuasion on the basis of consensus between Union and states’. However, this has not happened with NEP 2020, experts say.

One of the main arguments raised by experts and educationists who oppose NEP 2020, is how a nationalised education policy will be counterproductive and even regressive in a country like India, where states have immensely diverse socio-cultural contexts. Activist and educationist Prof Haragopal, who was the Chairman of the committee responsible for overhauling the curriculum for Telangana State Public Service Commission (TSPSC), cites examples of why blanket education policies will not work out in India.

“Our argument has always been that education must be shifted back to the State list, because language, culture, and history are all different between the states. How can we have a centralised policy for Nagaland, Manipur and Kerala? It will be very counterproductive in the long run,” he says. After the formation of Telangana, while formulating the curriculum for the TSPSC, Haragopal talks about how despite having a committee of 18 members from the state, complaints poured in over the exclusion of certain regions and committees. “If that is the result in spite of having a local committee, imagine the effect of something like NEP 2020,” he says.

Experts also allege that the Union government has not even respected the powers conferred to the state governments through the Concurrent List. “Looking at NEP 2020, it is as if the present government is almost converting it (education) into a Union List item,” says educationist Vasanthi Devi, former vice-chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tamil Nadu, who has been one of the vocal activists opposing the imposition of NEP 2020 on states.

Echoing Haragopal’s arguments, she says that a policy like NEP 2020 is “totally unacceptable” in a country of immense diversity as well as regional imbalances. “In education development, you can’t have one single system operating for an educationally developed state like Tamil Nadu and relatively backward states like Bihar. Decision-making must be completely left to the federating states,” she says.

Haragopal points to the Union government’s recent proposal to conduct a common entrance test to all central universities (Central University Common Entrance Test). The test, which is held for 14 new Central universities, was set to be expanded to cover 45 Central universities including reputed institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU) etc., in accordance with the NEP 2020, starting from 2021-22. Haragopal questions the feasibility and rationale of conducting such centralised tests, which can also be unfair to students. The CUCET has now been postponed to the next academic year, citing the pandemic as the reason.

However, before it was postponed, several students and educators objected to the move, expressing concern that such a centralised test could lead to a culture of coaching classes similar to JEE and NEET, and turn disadvantageous for students who cannot afford such classes. This has also been one of the main reasons for Tamil Nadu’s resistance to NEET, arguing that such a test goes against the principles of social justice.

Shyam Menon, former Professor at the Central Institute of Education in University of Delhi, points to more practical difficulties put forth by NEP. “Bulk of the expenditure in education is being incurred by the states. However ambitious the policy may be, implementation of the same is dependent on how much money is available. Here, it should be noted that the budget outlay as well as actual expenditure for education by the Union government has been showing a declining trend proportional to the total outlay and the GDP during the past seven years,” he says.

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Why states need to make their own education policies

On August 13, Tamil Nadu Minister for Finance and Human Resources Management, PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan, announced that the state government was on its way to formulating its own State Education Policy (SEP). While presenting the revised budget for 2021-22, the minister said that the DMK government will appoint a high-level committee of educationists and experts to come up with a distinct SEP for Tamil Nadu, “in keeping with the historical legacy, present situation and future aspirations” of the state. Having a separate SEP for Tamil Nadu, as a counter to the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020), was part of DMK’s 2021 election manifesto, along with making efforts to restore the subject of education back to the State list from the Concurrent list.

Many educationists across the country say that other states should follow suit, as a first step in getting education back to the State List.

In the context of seeking exemption from NEET, and later objecting to the NEP 2020, this demand (to revert education to the State list) has gained momentum in Tamil Nadu in recent years. The NEP 2020 has been strongly criticised for indirectly attempting to further transfer education from the Concurrent List to the Union List, through excessive centralised regulation and homogenous policies to be implemented across the country. While Tamil Nadu has actively rejected the NEP 2020, states like Andhra Pradesh have diligently begun to implement the policy, despite some opposition from educators within the state.

Many critics have pointed out that the NEP worsens unequal access to education, subverts the Right to Education Act and makes way for further commercialisation of schools and colleges. Vasanthi Devi notes that the policy document makes no mention of affirmative action. “It talks about providing for deprived sections, but this is only possible by providing widespread reservation,” she says. Gajendra Babu says that as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, defending the social justice schemes currently being implemented by the state government is a key aspect of resisting the NEP.

According to the 2014 National Sample Survey’s e stimation of out-of-school children in the 6-13 age group in India, out of a total 60.64 lakh children who were out of school, 32.4% were from Scheduled Castes, 16.6% from Scheduled Tribes, and 25.7% were Muslim. While the Kothari Commission had recommended a Common School System to “equalise educational opportunity”, which also finds mention in the NPE 1986, the NEP 2020 makes no mention of such a system. However, it talks about enhancing “positive synergy” between public and private schools by pairing them to “learn from each other, and also share resources, if possible.”

“In all advanced countries, education is an area with maximum decentralisation. Powers are given not just to federating states but to local governance bodies too. This policy (NEP 2020) talks about attaining global standards but completely deviates from those models,” Vasanthi Devi says. Noting that India has already deviated from the fundamental principle of universal state-funded education with adequate standards seen in advanced countries, the NEP 2020 further commercialises education, striking at the fundamental obligation of states to provide free education, she says.

Anita Rampal, former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Delhi, notes how the STARS (Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States) project, aligned with the NEP 2020 and partially funded by the World Bank, is being implemented in six states as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme. Under the project, interventions in school education will be made in the six states “with direct linkages to scores on various parameters defined as education outcomes”. Rather than make schooling more inclusive and equitous, it will focus on “school to work transition strategies for improved labour market outcomes,” Anita notes. Apart from the interventions being centrally designed, not having them contextualised to students' experience, knowledge and lives, and monetising 'delivery outcomes' and linking scores in centralised tests to funding will lead to an outcome-centred teaching approach, rather than meaningful learning, she says. Worryingly the project pushes even well provisioning states towards problematic measures, such as vouchers and private service providers, Anita adds.

Experts insist that states are better placed to design interventions, especially when it comes to school education. “States have different needs and regional imbalances. Education is part of culture, and when culture differs, the learning process also differs. There cannot be one benchmark for all of India,” Gajendra Babu says.

The NEP has also drawn flak for overly centralised regulation of higher education, while also pushing it towards privatisation. The proposed Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will have four verticals according to the NEP, one of them being the National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), a single-point regulator for the higher education sector. Gajendra Babu says that this amounts to a constitutional violation. “In higher education, coordination of standards is in the Union List but regulation is very much in the State list,” he points out.

Based on The Draft Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act, 1956) Bill, 2018, experts fear that having such a body could interfere with faculty appointments, research, curriculum and course design and free thinking on campuses, with the government able to exert its own political agenda through central regulatory bodies. “Our higher education has been starved of funds. Bodies like UGC need to provide grants, while decision-making on teaching, research etc. must be left to universities. But with such policies, the burden of funding is being transferred to states while control is being retained,” Haragopal says, insisting that universities must remain self-governing bodies.

Beyond the Union-state relations that come into play through a centralised policy, the NEP 2020 in particular, which envisions “an education system rooted in Indian ethos”, is aimed at building a Sanskritised, monolithic culture while ignoring deep social inequalities, warns Gajendra Babu. Insisting that states can provide education in a better way, he calls for rejecting centralised policies aimed at constructing an India based on monocultural nationalism, and instead design their own policies, as in the case of Tamil Nadu.

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