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India’s impressive new education policy could create opportunities for Australian universities and young people

In recent days, the Indian government approved a new education policy — the first for 34 years. The policy comes after an expert group produced a draft report last year.


Read more: India is reforming education for the first time since 1986 – here's why Australia should care


What’s in the policy?

The National Education Policy (NEP) is an impressive document. It would help deliver a school curricula that’s more flexible and multidisciplinary, and less exam-focused.

It is also ambitious: the Indian government plans to have 50% of 18-21 year olds enrolled in university by 2030, an almost doubling of enrolment in ten years.

Among many notable features, the report focuses on universities as sites for holistic student development; calls for multidisciplinary approaches that combine physical, emotional, moral, social, intellectual and aesthetic learning; and seeks to break down the distinction between “curricular” and “extra-curricular” activities, for example via internships and community-related work.

“Service” is a key theme running through the document. Drawing on historical examples of India’s contributions to university development, the report calls for a new focus on universities as sites in which faculty and students serve their local and regional communities to help fulfil the public mission of universities. As the National Education Policy notes on page 33:

The purpose of quality higher education is, therefore, more than the creation of greater opportunities for individual employment. It represents the key to more vibrant, socially engaged, cooperative communities and a happier, cohesive, cultured, productive, innovative, progressive, and prosperous nation.

Building on this vision, the National Education Policy sets out a series of sweeping changes to university education in the country. These include:

  • establishing a single national regulatory body to oversee all aspects of university functioning

  • setting up a National Research Foundation

  • introducing four-year multidisciplinary degrees with multiple exit options (after one, two, three or four years)

  • encouraging internationalisation, for example through allowing foreign universities to operate in India

  • developing a set of elite multidisciplinary universities geared towards achieving the standing of Ivy League institutions in the US. The National Education Policy sees India as becoming a “world teacher” (vishwa guru).

Will it work?

There are many issues to think through in relation to implementation. For example, it is not wholly clear how the National Education Policy’s move to introduce a new national test for university sits alongside the emphasis on moving away from exams. Moreover, the process through which universities that currently work in specialist areas transition to become fully multidisciplinary institutions may be difficult.

The National Education Policy will require careful negotiation with state governments, who share responsibility for education, as well as consideration of how to ensure the benefits of educational change occur in all regions of India and benefit communities underrepresented in higher education.


Read more: India Tomorrow part 6: what young Indians want


But these comments must be read in context: the National Education Policy navigates numerous complexities quite effectively and contains a wealth of important ideas.

What does it mean for Australia?

The policy allows for universities in the top 100 in the world to set up in India. Ultimately, this might encourage some Australian universities to start facilities in India. But this change will require the passing of a new law, and foreign universities are unlikely to build new facilities in India in the short term.

Students gather at a university in India.
The new policy could also help both countries reflect on the role of universities in the 2020s and beyond. Shutterstock

What is more likely in the short and medium term is that Australian universities will use the National Education Policy and its emphasis on internationalisation and flexibility as an opportunity to enhance collaboration in specific areas such as:

  • the co-development of new subjects and programs

  • the collaborative design of open and distance learning products and facilities, such as virtual classrooms

  • greater joint PhD supervision between Indian and Australian researchers

  • the development of post-doctoral research opportunities that bridge both countries building on the example of the New Generation Network developed by the Australia India Institute

  • greater research collaboration on areas of mutual interest, for example in relation to water, health, education, energy, information technology, and the successful implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals

  • greater reflection between Australian and Indian higher educational institutions on how universities engage with industry, government and the community

  • building on the principle of India as a “vishwa guru”, efforts by Australian educator and administrators to examine what can be learnt from India’s history of education.

Such collaboration could improve the quality, diversity and relevance of university education and research in India and Australia. It could widen understanding within both countries of the contributions of the other globally.

It could also help both countries reflect on the role of universities in the 2020s and beyond, a theme woven through the National Education Policy and now deserves much greater global discussion.

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