Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Aug 06, 2020
The National Education Policy 2020 and the future of cooperative federalism in India

On 30 July, the Union Cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, paving way for nation-wide sweeping changes in school and higher education sectors. The NEP which aims at making existing education system holistic, flexible and multidisciplinary for the new generations, will replace the 34-year National Policy on Education (NPE). A standout feature of the new policy is that it has taken the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals into account and believes in transforming India into a vibrant knowledge society. Importantly, the NEP which provides a forward-looking framework that aims to introduction of a four-year multidisciplinary undergraduate programme with multiple exit options, dismantling of University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) apart from allowing foreign universities to open their campuses in the country. Whereas in school education, the new policy sets to overhaul the curriculum, opt for “easier” Board exams, visible reduction in the syllabus, and thrust on “experiential learning and critical thinking”.

While the NEP 2020 looks forward-looking and sweeping in its scope and reach on paper, critics find it ambitious and over-centralizing. The most vociferous criticism has come from the Left parties which claimed the NEP is “unilateral drive” to “destroy Indian education system” by “greater centralization, communalization and commercialization”. To them, the NEP 2020 robs the autonomy of states by vesting overarching powers to the Union government on host of issues that have been state domains for many decades.  In short, the new education policy goes against the federal principles. Is NEP centralizing and unitary in its approach? How about the past policies around education sector? This calls for a stock taking of evolution of education federalism in India.

Evolution of education federalism in India: A quick glance 

The relationship between education and federalism goes back to the colonial period when the Sadler Commission in 1917 made education as state subject while allowing central government considerable coordination powers. After India became independent, the constitution framers continued to keep education under the domain of state governments, while vesting the Union   government with major responsibilities to ensure equity and standard in education. To illustrate in details, the Entry 11 of List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution clearly laid out education including universities, subject to the provisions of Entries 63, 64, 65 and 66 of List I and Entry 25 of List III should be a state subject. Yet, the constitution framers divested several key educational responsibilities to the Union (the entry nos. 62, 63, 64, 65 and 66 in the Union list) in vital areas of national importance such as technical education or agencies that determine standards for institutions of higher education and scientific research. In addition, the Concurrent list  (under Entry 20) allowed the Union powers related to economic and social planning in the field of education. Further, constitutional provisions like the Directive Principles of State Policy (Art.45) which envisaged for free and compulsory education for children below the age of 14 years, facilitation of education needs of weaker sections of the society among others earmarked major role for the Union. Despite these “exceptions” supporting selective intervention from the Union, the initial decades of independence saw states dominating both school and higher education sectors in India.

The game changer was the 42nd amendment to the constitution in 1976 which dramatically altered the balance in favour of the Union government. In a major departure from the original constitutional division of powers, the 42nd Amendment moved education to Concurrent list. The implication of this change was that it made education a “joint responsibility” whereby both Union and sates became “equal partners”. The trends of centralization in education were furthered by the passage of the National Policy of Education (NPE) in 1986. By conferring statutory status on central-level regulatory bodies such as the AICTE and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), the Union government assumed major role in educational decision making for the country. Another critical turn earmarking bigger role for the Union government came with the enactment of Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009. The RTE Act which made free and compulsory education (from the age of 6 to 14 years) a fundamental right, put the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development in pivotal role of education planning, finance and regulation. Beyond these, the Union government has been able to occupy vital position on education via numerous centrally sponsored schemes. For instance, the flagship Child Development Services Programme (ICDS) with critical Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) ensured the Union plays a crucial role in early school education as well.

NEP 2020 and the vision of (de)centralization

A quick scan of seven decades of policy evolution clearly points that education sector has oscillated  from being a state subject to a joint responsibility of the states and the Centre, albeit the latter accumulating significant hold on key education governance, regulation and finances. Will the NEP 2020 be any different from the continuing trends in education? Will it drastically alter the balance in favour of the Union government as claimed by many analysts? While it is too early to clearly visualize the nature and extent of distribution of responsibilities and division of roles among principal constituent units or stakeholders to push the objectives of the NEP 2020, there are several discernible features that helps to make some basic assumptions.

First, with Union playing the seat anchor role in drafting and shaping critical contours of the NEP, there is should be no illusion it would not dominate the roll-out processes. These were the trends during the previous polices starting with 1986 NPE, so will be the NEP 2020. Further, with the ruling party enjoying full majority on its own and having governments in many states, the NEP execution landscape is likely to witness unilateralism on many vital areas of the new policy.

Second, the most likely area of the central dominance will be on the issues of regulation. The NEP has proposed to bundle out several existing regulatory bodies including UGC, AICTE, National Council for Teachers Education (NCTE) to create a singular entity called Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) to regulate key aspects of education. Even considering there will be four verticals within HECI separating key areas of conflicts such as regulation, funding and accreditation, this is going to be a top-heavy body with massive intervening powers for a huge country. No other established and large federal system has such an overarching regulatory body for the entire country.

Third, there are similar proposals to create centralizing and overarching educational bodies to translate the broad goals of the NEP. The idea of having a National Testing Agency to offer common aptitude test for entire country is one such highly centralizing tool to ensure common standards to enter university system. Yet, the controversies surrounding the introduction of NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) in 2016 to standardize medical education points to challenges (several states like Tamil Nadu openly challenging the Central government) lie in having a single entity for a large and diverse country. The principles of federalism demands that states should be treated as equals in key decision making processes involving education which incidentally is their primary forte. The NEP proposals indicates the opposite.

Yet, the federal camp should not give up on NEP. Given the new policy is going to be a colossal exercise of massive proportion for a country with a continent size population, all vital decisions with regard to execution of NEP will have to be collaborative and consultative in nature involving both the Centre and states. Education being part of Concurrent list will require states remaining vital actors at each stage: from enacting framework legislations for public universities, rolling-out actual policy, remaining active partners in regulation, governance and importantly financing of the programme. For instance, while there will be a single overarching regulator for higher education at the central level, this body will have to mediate with a large number of state level institutions to generate desired outcomes. As an example, the proposed national assessment body or PARAKH and its realization requires active cooperation of as many as 60 education boards across the country. This would involve extensive consultation between the Central and state level institutions handling education sector. To sum up, while the NEP appears centralizing and unitary on paper, such complex and mammoth exercise will have to navigate in a cooperative and decentralized framework to see the daylight.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.