The Ministry of Education, Government of India (formerly, Ministry of Human Resource Development), officially published the National Education Policy, 2020 ("the Policy") on July 30, 2020. Hailed as the first education policy of the 21st century, the Policy is the third of its kind since the first National Education Policy (1968) and replaces the second National Education Policy, which was introduced 34 years ago in 1986 by the then Rajiv Gandhi government. Envisaging revolutionary changes through a bottom-up approach, it is already attracting both support and opposition from various quarters. The measure of its success will be clear only when the actual implementation of the Policy reforms comes up against the forces of bureaucracy and politics. Our attempt here is only to understand what the Policy seeks to achieve, followed by the reforms it introduces to achieve the envisaged goals.

India, due to its under-educated and highly populated demographics, has a massive body of manual unskilled/semi-skilled labour, and the Policy opens with this terrifying reality which, sadly, tends to be discounted by the larger public. Recognizing the fast-paced advances in science and technology, the Policy acknowledges that many unskilled jobs will be taken over by machines, offering scope for growth to the privileged who are qualified to think, innovate, and create. The Policy paves the way for a corrective course that offers all its citizens, from their foundational years, the tools to learn and think critically and creatively. It envisions for India an education system by 2040 that is second to none, with equitable access to the highest-quality education, regardless of social and economic background – an ambitious goal that demands an overhaul of all aspects of the current education structure, including its regulation and governance.

The Policy proposes groundbreaking reforms to fulfil its aspirations of transformation of the current education system from the foundation: it replaces the 10+2 education structure with the novel 5+3+3+4 pattern, corresponding to the age groups 3-8 years (foundational stage), 8-11 years (preparatory stage), 11-14 years (middle stage), and 14-18 years (secondary stage). Universal, free, and compulsory education will now be made available from age 3 onwards (Anganwadis/Pre-School) up till Grade 12 (18 years) instead of the existing pattern of ages 6 -14, thereby extending the Right to Education to a greater number.

Whereas students used to start schooling from age 6, the Policy now offers a program of 3 additional years of free early childhood care and education (ECCE), aiming to hone critical thinking ability in the most crucial years for development of a child's mental faculties. Coupled with this early breakthrough, the Government seeks to achieve the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 100% in pre-school and secondary education along with increasing the GER to 50% in higher education before 2035.

To avoid the spiraling rate of dropouts due to the misconception that opting for petty employment, which brings in immediate meagre income, is more lucrative than an unbroken school education, the Government has introduced sweeping reforms to keep education attractive, holistic, and practical on multiple fronts such as: (i) the 5+3+3+4 model, which divides key learning skills (including vocational skills) for each phase, thereby reducing the stress of the 11th and 12th grade years; (ii) introduction of technology-oriented learning and emphasis on skills such as coding and those learnt from internships (6th grade onwards) under local vocational experts, such as carpenters, gardeners, potters, and artists; (iii) reduction of curriculum content in each subject to allow focus on its core essentials; (iv) no rigid separation among 'curricular', 'extracurricular ', and 'co-curricular', among 'arts', 'humanities', and 'sciences', or between 'vocational' and 'academic' streams; and (v) reduced emphasis on the do-or-die structure of the board examinations by introducing an option to improve scores if performance does not meet expectations, regardless of the reason.

While the above reforms relate to school education, the latter half of the Policy introduces reforms at the college/university level when students customarily opt for study at foreign universities. The proposals include the introduction of: (i) an Academic Bank of Credits, which entails digitally storing the academic credits earned from different higher education institutes for seamless transfer of accreditation to the student's final degree ; (ii) a credit bank system, which allows students to temporarily halt education for any reason and to continue the study course at a later date, if they so choose ; (iii) multiple points of entry and exit, which will allow students to pursue a course as per his/her needs; this will be duly recognized via a Certificate on the completion of one year of study, Advanced Diploma after two years, Bachelor's Degree after three years, and Bachelor's with Research after four years; and (iv) setting up college clusters/knowledge hubs for continuing the multidisciplinary approach to education, as allowed in schools through the Policy.

The reforms at the higher education level are not restricted to the changes in the existing structures, but also address the current shortcomings and lack of opportunities. The Government seeks to promote the country as a global study destination by providing premium education at affordable costs whereby foreign institutions will be facilitated, and relevant mutually beneficial MOUs with foreign countries will be signed. This measure aims to encourage high-performing Indian universities to set up campuses in other countries and, similarly, to facilitate the operation in India of select universities, e.g., those from among the top 100 universities worldwide. The Government has also reformed the regulatory sphere of education by trimming the system down to one main regulator with four independent verticals for uniformity of policies.

Having summarized the objectives of the Policy, we now analyze the expected effects.

The Policy, due to its very nature, does not mean that it will be implemented as is. It is only a policy, not a law, rule, or regulation to be enforced. As was the case with India's other National Education Policies, the NEP 2020 too relates to the needs of a specific period and time and tends to be visionary. However, the practical realities are stark when it comes to implementation. Education finds place as the 25th Entry under List III of the Indian Constitution, i.e. the concurrent list. Therefore, the Policy also depends largely on how the states accept and enforce the policy framework. The past record of periodic friction between the Central Government and State governments deprive students of the benefits of visionary policies.

Imparting high quality education is core to the Policy, as is evident from the new norms for the induction of teachers who will qualify for teaching. It is noteworthy that the Policy envisions the home language/mother tongue up to Grade 5 only as a medium of teaching. Its recommendation is advisory in nature, not mandatory. All the Policy aims is to create a more inclusive atmosphere where language barriers are not the reason for either imparting or receiving education. It purports that the inclusion of the native language will allow a faster grasp of a curriculum that has, at the same time, emphasis on English and Hindi/Sanskrit/any other foreign language as the second and third language.

Since private participation and commercialization of education have not been expressly dealt with, these aspects lack clarity. However, a scrutiny of the Policy establishes that: (i) the state will increase its GDP funding to 6% for the education sector (with heavy emphasis on research funding), and (ii) the Policy has nowhere either specifically sought an increased role for the private sector nor hinted towards a withdrawal of state support in providing education. In fact, the Policy addresses the issue of the current regulatory regime's inability to curb the commercialization and economic exploitation of parents by many for-profit private schools while, at the same time, all too often inadvertently discouraging public-spirited private/philanthropic schools. It being a given that both types of schools should provide quality education, the Policy allows for philanthropic efforts to support public education, with adequate checks on quality standards through the State School Standards Authority (SSSA), which, hopefully, will put a stop to the exploitation of parents by private schools. Its aim is for all education institutions to meet similar standards of audit and disclosure as a 'not-for-profit' entity.

A fair assessment of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly aspects of the Policy may be one that appreciates the overhaul in the education sector sought by the Government. From streamlining regulatory institutions to the multidisciplinary approach towards making education a practical and more inclusive experience, the revamp in the new education system aims to level the learning field by bridging the digital divide, which has been to the disadvantage of unskilled and semi-skilled manual labour. Time will tell whether its vision for India as a global knowledge superpower by the year 2040 is fulfilled. As of now, the initiatives it proposes are a positive thrust in this direction.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.