By Dr MC Mahato
The National Education Policy 2020 is accepted, authorized and passed by the country’s highest executive body (Parliament) after supposedly detailed deliberations. It reflects the vision, thinking and ideology of the majority of the country’s lawmakers. We are obliged to follow the policy memorandum in NEHU. It is a 65 page document consisting of an introduction and the rest is divided into 4 parts titled: Part I School Education, Part II Higher Education, Part III Other Key Focus Areas and Part IV Making It Real. To discuss science education in the NEHU as a Result of NEP-2020, a focus on the Introduction part and on part II will suffice.
The introduction part is really puzzling in its logical contradiction and inconsistency. But it in a sense determines the fate of science education, especially university science education, in the country. The vision of the policy is to give students a deep-seated pride of being Indian not only in thought, but also in mind, intellect and deeds, and to develop knowledge, skills, values and dispositions that support them. responsible commitment to human rights, sustainable development and living, and global well-being, reflecting a true global citizen. The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has guided this policy. For the purpose of education in ancient India was not merely the acquisition of knowledge in preparation for life in this world, or life beyond schooling, but the complete realization and liberation of the self (from this everyday life in this world). I really wonder how this vision and the guiding light can be in line with some of the principles of the policy, namely developing rational thinking and acting, and scientific temperament! (Italics in this paragraph are mine.)
However, some fundamental principles of the document are relevant to our discussion, namely (a) no hard divisions between arts and sciences, between curricular and extracurricular activities, between vocational and academic streams, etc. and (b) multidisciplinary and holistic education about the sciences , social sciences, arts, humanities and sports for a multidisciplinary world to ensure the unity and integrity of all knowledge. These principles are elaborated in Part II: Higher Education.
Higher education should enable an individual to study one or more specialized areas of interest at a deep level, as well as develop character, ethical and constitutional values, intellectual curiosity, scientific temperament, creativity, service, and 21st century abilities about a range of disciplines including sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities, languages, as well as professional, technical and vocational subjects. In short, a person pursuing higher education should not only be familiar with all kinds of knowledge humanely imaginable in the world of our 21st century, but also have acquired knowledge at a deep level in one or two subjects.
NEP 2020 Policy Paper (Sec. 9.2 and 9.3) lists some of the major problems that the higher education system in India is currently facing and also provides suggestions on how to solve the problems. Here we list some main problems and their solutions relevant to our discussion as outlined below.
(a) Problem: A rigid separation of disciplines with early specialization and flow of students into narrow areas of study.
Solution: towards a more multidisciplinary bachelor’s degree.
(b) Problem: Limited teacher and institution autonomy.
Solution: Governance of Higher Education Institutions (HEI) by highly qualified independent boards of directors with academic and administrative autonomy.
(c) Problem: An ineffective regulatory system.
Solution: “light but tight” regulation by a single supervisor for higher education.
Section 12.2 prescribes how to achieve such goals. First, to foster creativity, institutions and educators will have the autonomy to innovate in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment within a broad higher education qualification that seeks consistency across institutions and programs and in open distance learning (ODL), online guarantees , and traditional ‘in-class’ modes. Accordingly, the curriculum and pedagogy will be designed by institutions and motivated teachers to ensure a stimulating and engaging learning experience for all students. Sections 13.2 and 13.3 describe ways to motivate the faculty. As the most basic step, all higher education institutions will be equipped with the basic infrastructure and facilities, including clean drinking water, clean working toilets, blackboards, offices, teaching materials, libraries, laboratories and pleasant classrooms and campuses. The teaching duties will also not be excessive and the student-teacher ratio not too high, so that the teaching activity remains enjoyable and there is enough time for interacting with students, conducting research and other university activities. Before discussing institutional autonomy and acquiring in-depth knowledge in one or two subjects, let us ask ourselves whether the NEHU and its affiliated colleges are ready to implement NEP 2020 recommendations.
The plain truth is that at least the physics department of the NEHU does not meet the most basic minimum requirements. The university does not provide clean drinking water, there are no adequate faculty or laboratory facilities. Let’s see if the affiliated colleges are ready to start a 4 year bachelor’s degree in physics. As an example, consider St. Anthony’s College, Shillong, as one of the best equipped colleges with permanent affiliation with NEHU. The college admits about 50 students for physics. Let’s assume 30 of them go through to VI semester. Suppose that out of 30 only 15 choose the 4th year B.Sc. Honors course in physics. There are 7 faculty members in the physics department, of which only 3 have a Ph.D. degree and thus qualified to supervise research which is an integral part of the course. Unless the number of students opting for the course comes to 6 or less, it will be very difficult for the college to provide the necessary faculty and infrastructure required to continue the course. This is not alarming talk. Personally, I would find it very difficult to find simple problems for more than three students at a time. Because the problems have to be solved in six months with a different workload. Therefore, implementing a quality 4-year program in NEHU is in any case out of the question for the next five years, unless massive investments are made in faculty upgrading and other infrastructure facilities.
With all due respect to all the rhetoric about the desirability (also necessity) of interdisciplinary studies, I beg to differ in the details. I am a humble physics teacher with little exposure to teaching methods of the advanced countries. Still, I can confidently state that if one has in-depth knowledge of a particular discipline, it is always easier to navigate to other disciplines as and when the demand arises and make substantial contributions. Such examples are numerous in the history of science. Many physicists and mathematicians have made fundamental contributions to the advancement of the biological sciences, despite having no prior formal training in biology. Last year, half of the Nobel Prize in Physics (2021) was shared by Professor G. Parisi for his contribution to environmental sciences. He is a hard core physicist and his contribution in the field of environmental science has been nominal compared to his contribution to other branches. Still, his contribution was considered worthy. A deep understanding in one discipline also helps to contribute in other disciplines: for meaningful research success, the need for a well-prepared mind is a rule, serendipity is not. Therefore, it is counterproductive to advocate in-depth knowledge in one discipline but give less than a minimum weight to the discipline in favor of other interdisciplinary subjects in higher education. It will have adverse consequences for science education in a country where science education is gradually receiving less support than necessary. Let’s take a look at what NEHU proposes for undergraduate studies.
The facade of academic autonomy is already being thrown to the wind. We are told to change our mindset and follow the syllabus structure recommended by the UGC.
A comparison of the credit hours awarded for physics major in the current syllabus and the credit hours that NEHU will allocate in the proposed (NEP-2020) syllabus, assuming NEHU will have a three-year undergraduate course, is presented in tabular form. I counted the minimum possible number of credits for the laboratory (P) courses in the current syllabus while preparing the table. The paper codes in the proposed syllabus are as per the recommendation of the NEHU executive committee and 15 class hours are allocated for each credit. Obviously, the proposed syllabus structure allows a total of only 530 credit hours for a physics major, compared to a minimum of 1080 credit hours at the moment. Even if we include 120 (unreasonable) credits of Introductory Vocational Training IC(US) as part of physics (accepting the literal meaning that there is no hard division between vocational and academic streams), the suggested credits (maximum) turn out to be 650 alone. My experience with postgraduate physics education in NEHU tells me that even with these 1080 credits of undergraduate education the students have a hard time coping with the current PG syllabus, which itself is quite simple in nature. We will have no alternative but to largely water down the postgraduate syllabus. In fact, we are going to sacrifice deep knowledge for multidisciplinary generalists in science. The claim that with the proposed syllabus structure (NEP-2020) we will be unparalleled in the world in the coming years is just a pipe dream because the premise itself is wrong and the introductory preamble is colored. In the past, at least we had the academic autonomy to frame our syllabus. The time is not over yet and if we are not too eager to implement the recommendations of the UGC dictum in the letters, we still have a chance to slow down the decline of science education. However, that chance seems rather small, given the eagerness among the academic fraternity to conform to the dictum and the bizarre carefree silence of the actual staple holders in the current country. I wish people like Professor Satish Dhawan were there to give us some courage. I close this note with the sincere wish not to have to witness the latest twist in science education.
(The writer teaches physics in NEHU)