Why objections over ‘quotas’ in National Education Policy is misplaced

Photo: For Representational Purposes Only.

By Dr Pranav Kumar and Dr Tapan Kumar Bihari

After a considerable gap of 34 years, the country has received its new National Education Policy (NEP),  being hailed as a game changer policy for 21st Century India.

However, some commentators have argued that the National Education Policy fails to address the concerns of reservation and affirmative action. They emphasise that the “NEP turns a blind eye to the deep-rooted inequalities as caste and reservation take a backseat”. Hence they conclude that the “new education policy is nothing but a national exclusion policy”.

The NEP 2020 is a product of intensive deliberation and extensive consultation and reflects the long term vision of the government. In the last six years, the government has shown a proactive approach for the initiation and proper implementation of reservation and other affirmative action provisions in the education sector.

Despite the provisions of 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), their representation in positions of Associate Professor and Professor was negligible during previous governments.

The National Democratic Aliance (NDA) under Narendra Modi government has ensured a 27 per cent OBC quota across all direct-entry level faculty positions in universities, including Associate Professor, Professor and Senior Professor level positions.

In school education, this year itself, the government has announced that the students of Other Backward Class (OBC) will get 27 per cent reservation in Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) and the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs) from 2020-21.

This government has especially focused on the rights of Persons With Disabilities (PWDs). The most important intervention from the government for divyangas is ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016’. This Act expands the reservation to PWDs (divyangas) both in terms of extent and percentage.  The Act reserves five per cent seats in government institutions of higher education and four per cent seats in every other government establishment for divyangas.

The government has also initiated a new provision of reservation by creating a category of EWS (Economically Weaker Sections). In January 2019, the persons belonging to EWS, who are not covered under the scheme of reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs got 10 per cent reservation in direct recruitment in civil posts and services in the Government of India.

There have been some concerns about the missing words, like quota, reservation and affirmative action in NEP. However, they seem to ignore the fact that the NEP is using a more comprehensive terminology to include multiple types of discrimination and disadvantages in its multidimensionality.

So, the word SEDG (Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Group) has been used 35 times in the document. The commitment towards equitable education and empowerment can be gauged from the fact that the word equitable appears 24 times and the word inclusive appears 14 times in this document. Apart from these, the terms Scheduled Cates, Schedules Tribes, Other Backward Classes, minorities, divyangas have also been mentioned at several places.

Affirmative action is understood as the positive steps taken to increase the representation of historically marginalised sections of society in different areas. Generally, major goals of affirmative action policies are:

  • to reduce and eliminate the existing barriers for the targeted groups and individuals belonging to these groups,
  • create conducive environment for their empowerment to move towards equality of opportunity, and
  • Provide support at individual levels to improve the prospects of access and participation.

Unfortunately, affirmative action has been reduced to be a mere synonym for reservation in India. Reservation of seats is the core of affirmative action in the country. The policy of reservation in India derives its legitimacy from the Constitution of India. It is beyond the ambit or authority of this NEP to initiate or stop the policy of reservation.

The issue of reservation is a settled fact in India. At the same time, there are major limitations of reservation policies. Hindrances to access, participation and output continue to exist for marginalised sections despite having a system of reservation in place for several decades.

The NEP tries to provide answers to this question through a plethora of provisions, which directly and indirectly addresses the issue of inclusive and equitable education through explicit and implicit affirmative action content.

There is a major issue of performance gap for marginalized students. Apart from many other important reasons, the roots of the performance gap can be seen going deep into early childhood.

The NEP has very aptly highlighted the findings of recent research that “over 85 per cent of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of six”. This is the foundation, which children carry towards their youth.

Many times, the young school-going and college-going students from marginalised sections, put extra effort to cover the lacunae of their childhood. However, it would be best that from the beginning the issue of equal development of all children is taken care of.

Early childhood care is quite prevalent in urban areas, but poor people cannot afford it. Therefore, universalising the early childhood care is a step towards creating a fair starting point for all, despite their social and economic status and position.

“Universal provisioning of quality early childhood development, care, and education must thus be achieved as soon as possible, and no later than 2030, to ensure that all students entering Grade One are school ready.” This provision is crucial for empowerment of historically marginalised groups.

In addition, the document also sets a goal to achieve 100 per cent Gross Enrollment Ratio in preschool to secondary level by 2030. So, by 2030, no child will remain out of school. Therefore, this is an all-inclusive provision in school education.

The NEP recommends that the medium of instruction until at least Class Five to be in the local language or mother tongue or home language. It has been substantially proved by research that learning in one’s mother tongue is not only more effective and efficient, but at the same time leads to more inclusive education.

This initiative would be a great leveler for the children from marginalised section of society coming from vernacular background, and will improve their learning and reduce the dropout ratio after Grade Five.

The government is making efforts to address the phenomenon of dropouts in higher education. With a concerted effort and multi-pronged strategy, there has been some success in this area.

In the year 2015-16, the dropout rate percentage for Indian Institutes of Technology were 2.25, for Indian Institutes of Management 1.04, and other Higher Education Institutions, it was 7.49. In the year 2019-20 this has drastically reduced to 0.68 per cent, 0.78 per cent and 2.82 per cent, respectively.

It is expected that the multiple exit and entry programme at the undergraduate level will help reduce the dropout percentage to near zero in undergraduate courses in higher educational institutions.

It is not a great secret to discover that in general the dropout students belong to socially and economically marginalised sections of society and especially women.

With the facility of credit banking, now it can be ensured that even after leaving the higher education, students can come back any time to continue and complete their studies. In the worst-case scenario, if the student is not able to come back, she/he will still hold a certificate for his academic achievements.

During the process of implementation, there is a need of better coordination between all Higher Education Institutions of the country so that the credits can be carried forwards both in terms of space and time.

Given the increasing facility of e-learning and distance education, if a student wants to shift from regular mode to distance mode, the transition will be smooth and easier. This provision will have a direct impact on the empowerment of marginalised groups of society.

Another unique and innovative provision in this document is to understand and recognise the fact that there are many geographical areas in the country which contain significantly larger proportions of SEDGs.

The document proposes to establish “more high-quality HEIs in aspirational districts and Special Education Zones containing larger numbers of SEDGs”. This effort will ensure an overall social and economic change in these areas through fundamental changes in educational landscape.

The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in higher education is also increasing in India. According to the Ministry of Education, the GER in Higher Education stands at 26.3 per cent.

This is a major increase, as compared to 10.0 per cent in 2004­05. For higher education, according to the education ministry, the GER is defined as the total enrollment in higher education as percentage of the population in the 18­23 years age group.

The NEP sets a clear target of 50 per cent GER in higher education by 2035. This doubling of GER in coming 15 years in higher education is specifically focused on SEDGs.

In 2018-2019, the GER for Scheduled Castes was 23 per cent and for Scheduled Tribes was 17.2 per cent. In the light of lower GER for marginalised sections, the NEP clearly emphasises to “set clear targets for higher GER for SEDGs” in higher education.

Any policy is not a static entity. The policy reflects the vision of the policy makers and at the same time is formulated in certain historical context. In India, the historical context is of aspirations of millions of young people, who wish to break the shackles of social prejudices and economic limitations.

This policy has the potential to serve the needs of the marginalised people and create environment of inclusion at every level in education sector. It is impossible for any policy to include all the probable factors of analysis in its formulation; therefore, there always remain scope for improvement and adaptation according to the needs during the phase of implementation.

Finally, at the implementation stage, the need is to focus on solutions and move away from mere slogans.

(Dr Pranav Kumar is an Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Dr Tapan Kumar Bihari is an Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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