The NEP 2019 through the Scope of Neoliberalism

The National Education Policy 2019 (NEP 2019 from now on) is a classic example of a policy document intersecting the dominant discourse on development, childhood and education to promote the neo-liberal project of commodification and commercialization of education. Starting from Macaulay’s minute in 1835, Indian education policy has developed over time from colonial administration to Indigenous oversight. Several policies have been formulated and numerous recommendations have been provided by foresighted bodies like Kothari commission (1986). Yet, India still has the highest number of illiterate population, unacceptably high level of dropout rates, very low rates of gross enrolment ratio in Higher Education Institutions in comparison to global standards, and below par public expenditure on education. The country on the other side has seen a boom of private institutions at all levels of education from 1990’s, when India had to undertake Structural Readjustment, including spurt of low budget private schools which have provided an avenue for relatively better quality of education to poor children. Some private liberal arts institutes like Ashoka University and Jindal Global Law School are redefining higher education in the country. At this juncture it became important for the state to take a decision whether to improve the quality of education through public system of education or give a free run to private actors to rejuvenate the education system in the country. The adoption of NEP 2019 reflects that the state has gone for the latter, and thus, this essay tries to understand these developments based on the political economy of India.

Creation of a Marketable Human Capital

A) Basic Curriculum

The earlier National Education Policies (1968 and 1986) put a lot of focus on equality and justice in the area of curriculum and pedagogy. The NEP 2019 marks a paradigm shift from such value framework and majorly focuses on the issues of ‘growth’ and ‘development’. The draft mentions that its objective is to minimise rote learning and development of a person with scientific temper. It encourages critical thinking, multilingualism, problem solving, social responsibility and digital literacy, all of which fits into the centre’s plan of growth-focused human development.

All of these objectives come under the objective to create a knowledge economy under the liberal framework of education. It wants the curriculum to give importance to practical knowledge, experiential learning, critical thinking and greater flexibility in the choice of courses. From class 9th onwards, it suggests to divide the academic year into semester system and give choice to students to choose subjects according to their preferences ranging from world history, geography, math, physical education to early Indian culture. In para 4.4.3 it emphasizes that all students will be able to engage in studies of humanities as well as sciences atleast till senior secondary education. Focusing on the part of employability in para 4.4.4 it states “During the school years, students will be exposed to different careers, and will be kept abreast of the ever-changing world of employment and the corresponding curricular choices available to them.” This is in accordance to western liberal system of education where students are shaped for the evolving economy of the world. The draft also gives importance to integration of digital literacy so everyone has a basic level understanding of hands-on assessment and worksheets.

At the college level, the draft policy suggests making undergraduate programs interdisciplinary by upgrading their educational program to include: (a) a typical main subject and (b) one/two area(s) of specialization. Undergraduates will be required to pick a region of specialization as ‘major’, and a discretionary zone as ‘minor’. Four-year undergrad programs in Liberal Arts will be presented and numerous exit alternatives with proper accreditation will be made accessible to the students. Further, within the next five years, five Indian Institute of Liberal Arts must be setup as model multidisciplinary liberal arts institutions in the country.

B) Vocational Education

The draft committee observes that in India less than 5% of the workforce receives vocational education. In contrast, USA provides vocational education to 52% of the workforce, Germany provides to 75% and in South Korea it is around 96%. So the committee recommends integrating vocational education programmes in schools, colleges, and universities. The draft policy proposes introduction of one mandatory vocational course from nine to twelfth, and offer vocational education to 50% of students in Higher Education Institutions (from now on HEI) by 2025.

The skilling programme in secondary education is in tandem with the government’s Skill India Mission which seeks to differentiate education from economic growth (Saraf, 2019). The skills that are to be taught involve low-level skills like carpenting, plumbing, basic mechanical work etc. For a population with high demographic dividend and low quality of academic education this seems like a quick fix to generate employment.

Radhika Saraf (2019) believes that such blue collar skill training would only perpetuate inequality and writes:

The emphasis on skills training at such an early age would serve to restrict social mobility and is a departure from recognising the intrinsic value of education which aims to enable every child to reach her full potential. For first generation learners—historically poor families, for those who live on the peripheries of globalisation, and for those who suffer from multiple disadvantages of their socio-economic being—education provides acculturation and is a means of social mobility and allows the transcending of class and caste hindrances.

Thus the education policy reflects the growing inequality in India where the rich aspires to increase their wealth through landing high-quality high-paying jobs while any aspiration of the poor for social mobility is crushed brutally.


Under the state of neoliberalism, education policy doesn’t limit its ideological basis to only the concerns of the national state. The onslaught of globalization created a conjunction between indigenous focus on education and global capitalist interest in the sector forwarded through guidelines by International Development Organizations, in the peripheral nations (Paula et. al, 2018). Something similar has happened in India since it went through structural adjustment reforms in 1991-92. According to World Bank guidelines, higher education in the peripheral countries should be linked to private initiative and not protected by the government power. Following on these guidelines, low “budget” private schools and private colleges mushroomed in India because of lifting of restrictions put on the licensing of these institutions (PROBE, 2006). Indian education system has now become a hunting ground for global venture capitalist like International Finance Corporation, Gates Foundation and Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (Ball 2012).

Ramamurthy and Pandiyan (2017) explained the privatisation of higher education, in the NEP 2016 which has formed the basis of NEP 2019, as follows:

Globalisation demands a “laissez-faire” approach on the part of the native state, with respect to all the economic activities concerning the various sectors of a polity. The state must withdraw itself from public spending and desist subsidising any economic activity. It must do away with all restrictive provisions, privatise all the sectors of production and adopt global yardsticks to facilitate bilateral global interactions, of all kinds. Transparency in all sectors, for the desired play of global forces, has to be conceded.

This is important to note because even though Para 8.3 of draft report notes that education is not a marketable good and suggest a regulatory framework, it still praises the “role-played” by the private institutions in expansion of education and encourages more investment by private “philanthropic” bodies in the future. The focus on private investment in education needs to be put in the political economy of the budget allocation which can be seen from table 1.

Table-1: Public Expenditure on Education and Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Year Percentage of GDP Expenditure on Education
1951-52 0.64
1970-71 2.11
1991-92 3.84
2000-01 4.14
2011-12 3.82
2018-19 3.4

Data Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India
PRS India

Table-2: Management Wise Segregation of Colleges

Year Number of Private Aided Colleges Number of Private Un-aided Colleges Number of Government Colleges Total Colleges
2000-01 13150
2010-11 2344 9735 4420 16499
2017-18 5083 24620 8358 38061

Data Sources: AISHE Report 2017-18; AISHE Report 2010-11

Observations from table 1 and table 2 shows us that the government expenditure on education peaked in 2000-01 and then on started falling while there has been a concomitant rise in the number of private colleges in the country. This can be seen in the correlation with the World Bank guidelines on private initiative in higher education. The NEP 2019 tries to address the issue of falling investments and gives an assurance of increase in investment by the government because of growing GDP of the country and rising tax-GDP ratio. This is a characteristic argument of a body working under neoliberal economics which believes that everything will be solved with attaining a higher GDP growth. But if past statistics are to be considered, even though GDP of India has increased two-fold in 2018-19 from 2000-2001, the public investment has fallen by 0.7 GDP points.


The NEP 2019 has shifted from its predecessor’s approach of increasing enrolment in primary education as well as higher education by proliferation of institutes to focussing on quality to achieve the goal of universal elementary education. The draft talks about introducing transport and hostel facilities for girls to ensure their safety. Tracking attendance and learning outcomes of enrolled children. Hiring health workers to ensure that children don’t remain out of school because of health reasons and most-importantly increasing the scope of RTE from preschool to 12th grade. The expansion of scope of RTE is to get children into the fold of education from a very early age so they get used to schooling when they reach the level of primary schooling and are able to complete class 12th so they can get better job opportunities.

There are 4.5 crore children out of school according to the 71st round of NSSO data, and surely there was need to change the approach for increasing enrolment of children into schools. But, this policy would help more with retention of drop-out children than ensuring the enrolment of children out of the system. This is because most of the children who are out of school system live in remote areas who don’t have “neighbourhood” access to schools. So there was a further need of proliferation of government schools to make schooling accessible to these children.

Furthermore, there have been no substantial talks in the NEP for the investment in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). This opens up the market for private players to bank on this newly opened market and further accentuate inequality among children on the basis of class.  The policy tries to counterbalance this surge in private activity by recommendations of forming school complex systems (clubbing several small government schools to form a more authoritative unit) and special education zones for the under-represented sections of society as the draft policy puts it. Overall, the special emphasis on universal elementary education comes from the pressure from international organisation as a reaction to India’s failure to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal related to the same.

        Coming to the policy on Higher Education Institutes, the policy fails to draw up any solution to increase the enrolment ratio in higher education. The Gross Enrolment Ratio in India is 25.8 in 2017-18(AISHE 2017-18). This is quite low in comparison to OECD countries or even other South Asian countries. Kumkum Roy (2019) points out that the NEP 2019 further damages any chance of moving in the positive direction. The NEP 2019 wants to consolidate the current 40,000 HEI into just 15,000 excellent institutions. This would reduce the number of seats in these colleges and increase the competition which would in turn benefit the middle class population of the country.

Theorising this development in the political economy, I believe that the recently grown middle-class of India fears its proletarisation because of a failing economic system and decreasing employment opportunities. Thus, by reduction of government investment in education and cutting down on the number of colleges, it wants to restrict the opportunity of social mobility to the less privileged groups. This fear of proletarisation fuels the character of fascism in the superstructure as it happened in Germany and Italy in the 1920’s. This budding-fascist political superstructure uses culture to legitimise and propagate itself which can be seen from the neo-culturisation policies present in the draft.


A term borrowed from Ramamurthy and Pandiya (2017), the draft policy tries to emulate a new Indology based Sanskritized version of culture in the children which can be called neo-culturisation. Even though three-language policy has been recommended since the Kothari commission, it still arose immediate rage in southern states, especially Tamil Nadu which considers it as an imposition of Hindi. While the policy talks about teaching Southern Indian languages to students in North India, it is known from practice that North Indian schools opt Sanskrit in place of Modern Indian languages as the third language option. An important reason for reinvigorating the issue of three-language formula in this policy is to facilitate the creation of one-single national market where Hindi provides an ease of communication. This single market forms the basis for the larger neoliberal project in the country.

Secondly, there has been a distinct focus on Indology. The draft encourages reading the works of Charaka and Susruta, Aryabhata, Bhaskaracharya, Chanakya, Patanjali and Panini, and ‘numerous others’. It is commendable that the policy brings focus back on indigenous knowledge, but all the scholars mentioned belong to the Sanskrit knowledge system, quietly ignoring the scholars produced by vernacular system of knowledge pool. This neo-culturisation fits in the broader policy of the present regime to go back to the distant past and present it in its ‘pure form’ creating a feeling of Brahmanical nationalism in the people. This policy can be seen as the victory of Brahmanical ideology which dictates the politics and policy in the present age.

New Managerialism

Hugo Ladice, a professor at the University of Leeds conceptualised the impact of “New Public Management” or “New Managerialism” on education in the United Kingdom. New managerialism is considered as the management arm of neoliberalism. It is a peculiar combination of Stalinist hierarchical control and free market. It restructures values, structures and processes of public sector to fit command-and-control system of business management to ensure great cost effectiveness (Radice 2013).

The draft policy proposes to create a competent and committed Board of Governors (BOG). Instead of academic excellence, they will focus on leadership and management, and will create Institutional Development Plans. The Vice-Chancellor would be re-designated as Chief Executive (CE) who would be free to close, reconstitute, redefine membership and change structures currently existing within the HEI. This is a symbolic and substantive shift in thinking of education as a public service to restructuring it as a business enterprise.

On a more structural level, it proposes dilution of AICTE and UGC, and other concerned HEI authorities and creation of the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA) which will be the apex body for education. It would be responsible for developing, evaluating, implementing and revising the vision of education in India. This body would supervise every other national body on education in the country including the NCERT and it would be headed by the Prime Minister himself.  This step will bring Higher Education directly under the control of Central administration. HEI’s are supposed to be places which are critical of government policies and act as a check and balance mechanism through strengthening the civil society. However, a government which lacks legitimacy based on welfare policies and emancipation of the under-privileged, it certainly needs to curb dissent to manage the state in a more centralized and controlled manner.


India is currently passing through imperialist mercantile neo-liberal phase of development where global forces are reshaping the institutions of country which benefits the global capitalist as well as ruling class of the country. The NEP 2019 gives a lot of emphasis on inclusivity and equity by recommending policies like special education zone, teaching in regional language and increasing public expenditure on education. But, this looks like a hollow promise when seen from the broader framework of the policy and political economy.

The policy tries to create a resource of human capital marketable in the global market by introduction of liberal arts education encouraging scientific temper and innovation, and pressing importance of vocational education to create a blue collar workforce for the world. It talks about continuing with the trend of privatisation at all levels of education, and increasing enrolment through restructuring education system in a qualitative way. The new model of governance and cultural diffusion go hand in hand with Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision of creating a centralised and top-down managed system based on legitimacy derived from Brahmanical ideology.

Education in India has moved from the issues of accessibility and justice to growth and development and it is for the world to see if it delivers a new vibrant class of critical thinking and innovative individuals or army of robotic workforce controlled and managed by the state.   

(Priyansh Khandelwal is a student of Masters in Public Policy at NLS Bangalore. His interest mainly lie in the areas of education, economic history and national politics. He tweets at @priyansh_kh and can be reached at


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All India Survey on Higher Education 2017-18. Government Of India, Ministry Of Human Resource Development, Department Of Higher Education, New Delhi, 2018.

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