Evolving Contours of National Education Policies in India – 19th, 20th and 21st Century: Transition, Constructs, Impact and Way Forward

On August 4, 2020, Center for ICT Development (CICITD) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi organized a special lecture on Evolving Contours of National Education Policies in India – 19th, 20th and 21st Century: Transition, Constructs, Impact and Way Forward by Prof Sachidanand Sinha.

Prof Sachidanand Sinha, Professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, delivered a special lecture to discuss and highlights the evolution of India’s National Education Policies over the last three centuries. The Union Cabinet approved a new National Education Policy on July 29, 2020.

The National Education Policy, 2020 (hereafter NEP 2020) is meant to provide a robust vision and a comprehensive framework for primary, secondary and higher education in India. Prof Sinha traced how the ideas in the NEP 2020 came about, NEP 2020’s similarities and dissimilarities with colonial era education policies, the national concerns with respect to education during the colonial rule, and the administrative measures introduced by colonial rulers to fulfil their goals on education. 

According to Prof Sinha, while India is now a free and independent country after 200 years of colonial rule, our objectives and ideologies on education are very similar to those of our colonial rulers. The evolution of India’s education policies can be traced from Charter of India Act, 1813, to Wood’s Despatch in 1854, the first Indian Education Commission in 1882, and subsequently the reforms that were introduced through such policies.

While there seems to be some consensus that India did not have a structured system of formal education in the 19th century, evidence suggests otherwise. Dharmapal, in his book ‘The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (1983)’, makes a mention of an indigenous education system; William Adam authored Adam’s Report in the first quarter of the 19the century, and noted the presence of vernacular education in Bengal and parts of northern Bihar; and Collectors of Bellary, Bombay and Calcutta wrote reports on India’s native schooling system.

While Ashramas, Pathshaalas, Madrassas existed, they were exclusive and inaccessible, as education was seen as the prerogative of a certain class of people, i.e., Ashramas and Pathshaalas were open only for men from various Brahminical castes, and Madrassas for Muslim men. It was believed that since a large portion of our population belongs to an agrarian background, formal education is not needed, and any necessary skills could be acquired through apprenticeship. India’s non-agrarian activities were systematically destroyed by the colonial administration and our agrarian structures were brought under severe transformation that brought about massive instability. As a result, local rulers who held some influence over education ran out of resources as well.

Prof Sinha says, “Colonial rulers wished to popularise education, not as a favour to their subjects, but they wanted to invest in education, as such an investment would offset the expenditure they were likely to incur for importing manpower and expertise from England.” The 1854 Wood’s Despatch, according to Prof Sinha was a fairly well-balanced document which stood for expansion of the formal public education system in vernacular languages. It was inclusive, non-discriminatory and accessible to all. However, not everyone could access education because of various social obligations and restrictions.

Soon, the National leaders acknowledged the significance of education for the Nationalist movement and wanted to encourage the spread of education in India. The colonial administration, seeing this, wanted no direct involvement of the State in education, and assigned this responsibility to local bodies who would also mobilise resources to expand education in different parts of India. The colonial administration was not willing to spare the massive resources required for expansion of education.

The Brahmins, the traditional educated class in rural India got jobs in the colonial administration, and became urbanised. As a result, the rural society suffered from a power vacuum. This created a competition among communities in India. In Kerala, local communities, through philanthropic grants, started local schools. At the same time Christian Missionaries and Arya Samaj Movements were other not-for-profit movements that aimed at expanding education.

While there is much to criticise about the colonial administration’s policies on education, for the first time, the State accepted responsibility for public education. The princely States never introduced a formal system of education or formally invested in education. Education, by the efforts of the colonial administration, was for the first time in India’s history, made open to all.

At the time of independence in 1947, India had 23 universities, nearly 500 colleges, 2.1 lakh primary schools, nearly 17,000 upper-primary schools and approximately 9,000 secondary schools. The structural ratio in relation to the nature of promotion of children from primary to secondary school is crucial to ensure upward mobility of students. If infrastructure is not available for fulfilment of educational objectives at each level, the education policy in itself is not of much use.

Education became a responsibility of the local bodies, with no direct involvement of the State, philanthropy was promoted along with grants-in-aid to expand education. Universal education became a crucial agenda, however, the Indian State did not have resources to fulfil this goal under diarchy. “Three decades of diarchy was wasted because we lacked resources.”

However, according to Prof Sinha, the acknowledgment of education as an instrument of change, and education being made open to all sections of society was a remarkable feat achieved by the Indian Government. The medium of instruction remained vernacular language at the primary level, but English at the secondary level. As Rudolf Steiner had said, “the education system in India was an institutional transplant from England.”

There was a need felt to restructure India’s federal government system, settle conflicts in rural areas and reduces the inequalities and disparities that led to lack of resources, and encourage investment in agricultural modernisation, dams, etc. Till the early 1960s, initiatives taken to invest in education by the Indian Government were inadequate, according to Prof Sinha. The moment the British exited India, a large number of our educational institutions were devoid of trained teachers, especially colleges, medical institutions, engineering institutions.

But, some of the epochal shifts in India’s education system were the establishment of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1942, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1958, National Physical Laboratories in 1947, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in 1950s, and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) in 1960s. 

National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was set up in 1961 with the aim to train teachers in India. At the state level, centers for education training were created, and at the regional level there were institutions on the lines of NCERT. Until 1975, the involvement of the Central Government in education was limited. But, the vision of the Indian Government had always been to modernise and encourage scientific research. However, there was no distinction made between teaching and research colleges, even during the colonial era.

In 1968, the first policy on education by the independent Indian Government was titled ‘Education and National Development’, was along the lines of the National Education Commission set up in 1964, popularly known as Kothari Commission, that had examined all aspects of the educational sector in India, and had advised guidelines and policies for the development of education in India.

According to Prof Sinha, the Kothari Commission’s report is a thorough document encapsulating every aspect of national life. The National Policy on Education in 1968 called for a radical reconstruction of education, for the economic and cultural development of the country. Achieving the ideals of a socialistic pattern of society, free and compulsory education, granting academic freedom, improving teaching quality, language development to be given foremost importance, equalisation of educational opportunities between rural and urban areas, common school systems, emphasis on girls’ education, emphasis on science and research education, education for agricultural and industrial development, production of textbooks in regional languages, with facility of textbook production even at regional level, were some of the conclusions offered in the ‘Education and National Development’ policy.

A common school system, according to Prof Sinha, has still not been established in India with the numerous, public and private schools in the country, and different schools for tribal societies etc. This segregation that exists in our education system is a result of Indian society’s “class and caste orientation”, as Prof Sinha puts it. This has led to an unequal society.

In 1986, the government led by Rajiv Gandhi introduced a new National Policy on Education. The turning points of the 1986 policy were that – 1) it expanded the scope and spread of Kendriya Vidyalayas, 2) created a new cadre of schools, particularly in the rural areas in eastern districts, 3) Navodaya Vidyalayas in rural districts started and established by the Central Government.

From 1986-1991, and post 1991, with the global presence of ideologies such as Thatcherism and Reaganism, there was a shift in the education and health sectors, from sole public ownership to private ownership as well. India also introduced such shifts. After the structural reforms in 1991, Indian Government’s investment in education first declined, then picked up after seven years, but then it again declined. Only in the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-20012), did the education sector receive a considerable contribution, as a proportion of the GDP.

Legislative measures like Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan and Right to Education Act by the Indian Government in the 21st century have ensured tangible and measurable improvements in the Indian education sector. But what has suffered in this period is the appointment of teachers into the education system.

On the New Education Policy 2020, Prof Sinha advises that 50,000 colleges should come down to 1,500, a large number of small educational institutions should be closed down, and educational institutions with inadequate resources should become part of Special Education Zones.

The new policy focuses on ‘sustained education’, but early childhood care has been a primary goal of the Indian education policy since the 20th century. Prof Sinha criticises the NEP 2020 for referring to the Kothari Commission Report in 1986, as what use is it to refer to a past that “ has created this stratified society” we live in today. The NEP 2020 has not referred to well researched experiences in education from different parts of the world, but it has only two sources – 1) the colonial era policies from 1813-1854, and 2) World Bank’s reports on learning and working in a global context. It draws upon its new liberal framework from these two documents.

NEP 2020 proposes National Assessment Tests for third, fifth and seventh class students. According to Prof Sinha, such assessments will push out students from the education system, and into ‘vocational streams.’ The NEP 2020 will make the educational system more rigid due to mechanisms like the National Skill Training Framework.

“In the name of inclusion, it brings in more avenues of exclusion.”

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi opined that he timing of NEP during the pandemic has both sweet and sour connotation. It ignores the stale state of education system and state of affairs, and at the same time gives us hope by promising prospective aspirations and uncaging the sector. Implementation and Impact, however, remains to be seen.

Others who were part of the discussion are Prof Mohd. Hashim Qureshi, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Dr Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi & Fulbright Scholar, Ohio State University, USA; Prof Sohel Firdous, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Sikkim University, Gangtok; Prof Saswati Paik, Faculty, School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Other discussnats were Prof Sharmistha Mukherjee, Associate Professor, Geography, PD Women’s College, Jalpaiguri; Dr Reena Kumari, Assistant Professor, Chandradhari Mithila College, L. N. Mithila University, Darbhanga; Dr. Ruchika Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; Anindita Dey, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Mathabhanga College Coochbehar; Prof M S Jaglan, Department of Geography, Kurukshetra University; Prof Rajeshwari, Department of Geography, Kurukshetra University.

YouTube Video for Evolving Contours of National Education Policies in India – 19th, 20th and 21st Century: Transition, Constructs, Impact and Way Forward

Picture Courtesy: The Hindu


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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