Towards A Precariat Society

NEP in a Nutshell

Rohan D’ Souza

The New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) has a declared ambition to overhaul India’s education sector. While the NEP is yet to be debated in Parliament, actual outcomes will greatly depend on the details of implementation. In truth NEP doesn’t look to build on existing strengths in higher education. Instead, its aim is total disruption: a drastic modification in the meaning of higher education itself and the facilitation of edtech.

For higher education, though, the pathway is being made clearer by the day through a series of new rules and directions from the University Grants Commission (UGC). In contrast to the current ‘mode-for-learning’ approach—which privileges critical thinking and citizenship training—the NEP intends to make dominant a ‘mode-for-instruction’ framework centred on information, exams, vocational training, and skilling.

This shift to a mode-for-instruction requires that the notion of the university classroom be dismantled or, more accurately, fragmented. This involves transforming the previous arrangement of having students seated before a shared blackboard, to becoming instead an online virtual collection, disconnected by individual digital screens. The NEP emphasis on the online module is to ultimately overrun the current academic-professor-centred system with an educational-influencer economy.

In March, the UGC chairman announced that plans were afoot to allow for the ‘lateral entry’ of ‘professors-of-practice’, at universities and colleges. These professors-of-practice would not be required to have a PhD nor pass the National Eligibility Test (NET). Their domain experience by itself is thus considered enough to allow them to skip academic qualifications that are otherwise essential for a university position.

The introduction of the lateral entry professor as part of the NEP announces two very significant ruptures. First, there is a clear intention to disconnect the notion of the professorship from academic process. Notable is the fact that the professor-of-practice gets to entirely bypass all academic institutional performance markers.

These markers refer to an academic standing earned by intellectual labours such as research, teaching, peer-reviewed publications and, most importantly, by advancing the disciplinary field. In ideal terms, the academic professor is expected to be only formally responsible to the institution or the university. The more meaningful accountability of the professorship, in fact, is to the global community of scholars and being constantly vetted by peers within the discipline.

The professor-of-practice, on the other hand, as currently imagined by the UGC, remains restricted to being, at most, an information service provider: a subject expert who is, comically enough, outside the academic process.

At the heart of the edtech investment in online technologies is the call to disrupt the ‘aura’ of the classroom.

Historically, the classroom lies at the very core of the learning endeavour of the modern university and college. Ideally, the classroom lecture format aims to co-evolve the understanding of the teacher and student through interactions around ideas. It draws the teacher and the student into an intellectual entanglement, that gets further circled with questions, doubts, and contingent claims. The classroom is thus not just a physical space to synchronise teacher-student interactions, but it is literally ‘the’ place where learning as a social activity happens.

In contrast to the ‘analogue’ classroom, the edtech strategy for online learning is fundamentally driven by an ‘algorithmic architecture’ and by ‘business models’.

At heart, flexibility and 'multiple entry and exit' are as much about dismantling the integrity of the classroom as it is about destroying the very idea of achieving group solidarity through learning.

The much talked up customised education products involves training the user-student with algorithms while continually collecting the latter’s data exhaust. Every digital indent, in the form of a like button, an emoji, a quiz, a survey or a click adds to the assembling of the user-student’s behavioural-psychological profile, which in the absence of legal protection, can be turned into an exclusively owned raw material to be repurposed by the platform. Abstract automated instructions of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are designed to train and modulate an individual for the passive acquisition of skills, which is in stark contrast to learning as a social activity that involves critical thinking.

For the NEP to succeed as a disruptor, however, it also needs to sweep aside or seriously damage the previous intellectual standing and the goodwill of India’s public higher education institutions.

The conceptual grounds for the NEP may well have been laid when an unprecedented anti-intellectual campaign was launched during the first term of the Modi-led government (2014-19), targeting, amongst others, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jadavpur University, Ramjas College (Delhi University), Film and Television Institute of India, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia , Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), and University of Hyderabad. The anti-intellectual campaign, the first in independent India, aimed for the ‘ideological cleansing’ of public universities and colleges by ridding campuses of ‘anti-nationals’ and those found to be ostensibly abetting ‘seditious’ academic cultures.

What was particularly striking about this assault was how a double whammy of pro-government electronic media channels and social media acted in concert to manufacture a popular appeal for denouncing university students as slackers, hounding researchers as parasites on tax-payers money, and thought it fit to accuse many a faculty of harbouring anti-patriotic sentiment. The campaign proved that the public imagination could be successfully captured by a combination of trolling, misinformation, social media antics, and even by some standard propaganda delivered by pro-establishment news channels.

It is probable that awareness of this deep chasm in teaching outcomes between the mode-for-instruction and the mode-for-learning has caused the government and the NEP to talk up the need for skilling, up-skilling and vocational training.

On the surface, there may be a point in arguing that employment opportunities in the near future will be beset by challenges such as fast changing technologies, obsolescence, redundancy, and the need for the average person to make several career shifts. Consequently, it could be claimed that existing higher education design and public universities would be ill-equipped in meaningfully preparing students for dealing with Industry 4.0 - the new economy based on digitalisation, artificial intelligence, block chain, big data, genome engineering, the start-up economy etc.

On the other hand, there could be a more effective counter. Higher education in the age of the half-life of skills requires that students, more than ever, need to develop durable capacities such as critical thinking and citizenship training, while maintaining strong emotional bonds with their classroom peers and batch mates. That is, only with learning that is enduring can students meaningfully adapt and stay ahead of the rapid pace at which technological changes are happening.

The NEP, when stripped of its high rhetoric and fantastical tone, reveals a more straightforward plot. It is an education policy that sets the tone for India’s youth and learners to join the ranks of what the activist scholar Guy Standing describes as the precariat—a work force dominated by flexible labour contracts, temporary jobs, casualisation, self-employment and part-timers. In the society of the precariat extreme wealth is concentrated in a few hands. Education will neither drive social mobility nor strive for citizen empowerment.

A precariat society, however, may not necessarily spell the end of the privately run corporate university. Instead, private universities would effectively serve as finishing schools for the rich and privileged by skirting the political question of challenging the existing status quo. Within the last decade or so, India has in fact witnessed a dramatic addition in the number of self-financed private universities. In March, for example, the Gujarat Assembly unanimously passed The Gujarat Private Universities (Amendment) Bill (2022), which paved the way for 11 new private universities, to be set up by corporates, and religious and social trusts.

Private universities are currently neither legally bound nor incentivised to enable the social mobility of discriminated caste and marginalised economic groups. The NEP, interestingly enough, makes no mention of the term caste-based reservation and offers only a vague gesture about making available measures to ‘incentivise the merit’ of those who are socially and economically discriminated. No surprise then, that in the absence of any legal means to address discrimination and social mobility, higher education in brick-and-mortar private institutions in India could only be expected to reinforce privilege.

India’s higher education system has been in a tailspin for several decades now, dogged by financial cuts, mismanagement and crumbling infrastructure. Calls for drastic change are not surprising. That said, despite years of institutional decline the public university is not a write-off. If anything, the commanding heights of India’s higher education continue to retain some of the best professors in the country, sustain the university classroom as ‘the’ place for learning, encourage academic freedom and enable social mobility through affirmative policies such as reservations.

[Rohan D'Souza is a professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, Japan]. 

Back to Home Page

Vol 54, No. 49, Jun 5 - 11, 2022