Mumbai: The National Education Policy 2020 is out, and it covers the entire gamut of education from primary to higher secondary. In the context of higher secondary education, it talks about many new things including wholistic and multidisciplinary education; an undergraduate programme whose duration could be three or four years; a postgraduate programme of one to two years’ duration; and discontinuation of the Master of Philosophy programme.

What are the issues with higher education in India that this policy is trying to address? How can it be implemented, and what could be the potential timelines?

We speak with Dinesh Singh, professor, KR Mangalam University. Singh is a former vice-chancellor of the Delhi University, a distinguished mathematician and educationist. He has studied at St Stephen’s College and holds a Ph.D. from the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London.

Edited excerpts:

How are you reading this new education policy, which has been in the making for a while?

I welcome it. It has some good features, and I hope and pray that we can use these features and the recommended changes to [our] advantage. Indian higher education--[and] education in India--is in quite a mess, and the sooner we reform it, the better for us. Perhaps this policy will give us the impetus that was needed. In the context of higher education, if you look at the Acts of various universities, they have a fair degree of freedom and autonomy to do things. But for various reasons, universities just do not want to stir themselves. So perhaps we need a policy.

Otherwise I would have said, “why do you really need a policy?” If you look at Harvard, no policy made Harvard. In fact, Harvard began to be the Harvard that we recognise today when the government moved away--it sort of let go of Harvard. You look at Cambridge, Oxford--the governments have not messed with them, so they have developed. But in India, things are pretty bad, and I suppose we needed an external stimulus, so I welcome this policy. I believe much good can come from it.

You are quite well known for having tried to change the structure of undergraduate education from three to four years in Delhi University. Tell us about how that attempt connects with the policy response in the form of this new policy. How does this policy address these gaps that you were trying to fill in your time?

I looked at the features in the policy for undergraduate education, and what we had done in Delhi University 2013 onwards, and I honestly do not see any difference--they are near identical, with minor differences here and there. And because we tried those things at that time with much success at Delhi University, I am enthused about the recommendations here. They work. They bring you results.

The kind of things that began to happen at Delhi University at the level of undergraduate education was phenomenal. I am not a great believer in rankings, but in most global rankings, the University beat almost all the IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology], except, I think, IIT-Kanpur. And each IIT is like one tiny college of Delhi University; we have 80-odd colleges. And yet we were able to shoot ahead of the IITs. In terms of science education and research, we beat all the IITs hollow and our rankings shot up significantly at the global level.

But that should not be the only measure. I managed to see that undergraduates had begun to do research, become entrepreneurs, get patents--because we had this opportunity to connect the needs and challenges of the nation and the society with our curriculum. And nothing enthuses a young mind than some challenges, particularly because they are all very idealistic--so they love getting into things that will benefit society or the nation.

What are the challenges that the National Education Policy seeks to address? And will it, or can it?

The biggest challenge is that our graduates really amount to nothing. There is enough evidence for this. When I became the vice chancellor at Delhi University, I managed to get a well-known multinational firm that deals with finance from Mumbai to come and interview our students for jobs. They had hundreds of [jobs] because they were expanding in India in a big way. And they were looking for graduates with any subject specialisation, because they did not need much--they just needed good communication skills, some awareness of how to handle data and stuff like that. We advertised widely, because they were offering good pay also. We shortlisted 1,200 of the best resumes. The whole team flew down from Mumbai and spent many days, and we did not let them know anything about the student besides their discipline and marks--no social background, no college. Guess how many they selected? Just three. They told me that they are not going to come back again. That was the state that higher education has been in India. And if you think that was peculiar only for Delhi University for that year, no. Wherever I have delved into things, I find that they are pretty bad.

And let us not be too proud of the IITs. I admire them for many things, most of all because they attract really good students. But the environment they have been giving, in general, over the past many decades has not really stimulated students. These are all mechanical rote-learning things. Let me explain why, very briefly. Every IIT teaches fluid dynamics and aviation engineering and computer science, and India has not been able to produce one aircraft so far on its own. It is a telling comment, because you compare this with institutions abroad of a similar nature. Like the IIT Delhi was connected with Imperial College in the UK--the Concorde was designed in the Imperial College.

In today’s context, look at all the educational institutions that deal with medicine, or any institution in India--how has it responded to the novel coronavirus crisis? When they have really exerted themselves, they could come up with a sanitiser. That is all. Look at Imperial, Oxford--they are designing state-of-the-art vaccines and the whole world is waiting with bated breath. That is what a university system must be doing. We are doing nothing--not even producing good, employable graduates, nor are we producing state-of-the-art knowledge. Where are we?

How is this policy likely to address some of these problems or gaps that you have just pointed out?

This is what we had done in 2013 at Delhi University, and here is a chance to do it again. They have put features into the policy that will allow each university to build their curriculum with freedom. You build your curriculum around the needs and challenges of the nation and of society--it could be environment, energy, transportation, pollution, global warming. This is emphasising transdisciplinarity and hands-on [learning]. So skills and knowledge will become two sides of the same education coin. They must go hand in hand. So you delve into the real world, use your skills to gain what you can to understand, bring the problems into your system, see what knowledge you can either generate or use, apply that, and put it into action. That is where we can really rise to the occasion. That is what is allowed here, with flexibility.

Suppose I enroll in a math programme and halfway through, I realise I have to learn to do some coding, as I need some good algorithms because I have interest in Sanskrit grammar--and it is all algorithmic. If I am good at coding and I have mathematics, now in this programme, I will have the freedom to get into Sanskrit grammar and develop a minor in that, if I like. So there is so much potential here. I can even get into entrepreneurship. And if I play cricket, why is it not counted as learning or education? They have a chance now, because it emphasises [multidisciplinarity]. Break the barriers between the so-called traditional knowledge disciplines and these so-called extra-curricular or co-curricular or sports activities.

How do you see the multidisciplinary approach being rolled out, in terms of timelines? Where could it first start coming into effect?

That is where the real challenge lies. We have to focus on two things: Bringing our teachers, our faculty up to speed, and building good learning material.

We have all been schooled in this traditional way--my own subject, and nothing else matters. So you have mathematicians who know nothing about Sanskrit, and people who study Sanskrit but know nothing about mathematics. The reason why Pingala before Jesus Christ could produce deep mathematics through Sanskirt poetry is because he knew maths and Sanskrit both. Similarly Chomsky could do that, because he knew maths and Sanskirt, he could do wonderful work in linguistics. We did not have the chance. Now we can bring them all together.

How do I do that? Our teachers are just not used to it. You have to orient them. That is what we did at Delhi University; a huge amount of effort went into re-orienting the teachers. But they adapt because it excites them; they like doing new things. So for the country as a whole, it is a huge challenge, but it is not [that we have to implement this] altogether [at once] for all levels of education. You start with first years, and build it up gradually, and learn from each other’s experience. It can be done, I really believe that.

The second thing is good learning material. That is not just standard textbooks. You build a wholistic system of learning, technology comes into play, things happening in the world around you come into play--all of that leads to learning. If you build that properly, then this will succeed.

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.

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