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Updated: October 14, 2009 14:38 IST

Mountain of data, missing vision

V. VASANTHI DEVI
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This book deals with the contested terrain of higher education in India. The National Knowledge Commission says higher education faces a “quiet crisis,” while a former Human Resource Development Minister called it “a sick child.” It is uniformly recognised that there is need for a major paradigm shift in education as a whole, including in higher education.

The recent reports of the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee, the 11th Five-Year Plan providing a nine-fold increase in outlay for higher education, and the United Progressive Alliance government seeking to focus on public-private-partnership and on opening the country to foreign universities, — all these together constitute the immediate context for the heightened pitch of ongoing debate.

Issues

Authored by Pawan Agarwal, an IAS officer who has had the advantage of viewing the education scenario from a vantage point, the book is an impressive collection of relevant, valuable and diverse data, assiduously gathered from many sources, and this makes it a “useful base document for opening a fresh debate” on higher education policy.

The basic issues identified as central to Indian higher education are access, equity, relevance, and quality — the 11th Plan puts them as “expansion, inclusion and excellence.” The book has marshalled a vast array of data related to these areas. The inferences that may be drawn from them need not be the same as the author’s; in fact, they may even be antithetical to his.

The book presents international comparisons that could be valuable reference points for policy making — as for instance India’s public expenditure on higher education per student is $400, as against $575 in the Philippines, $2,728 in China, and the highest being $ 13,035 in Sweden. It also brings out the huge disparities in enrolment, the highly skewed funding, where 85 per cent of the total central expenditure goes to support only three per cent of students.

Low ratio

On many issues of vital concern, however, the author is bafflingly non-committal; he stops with merely juxtaposing contradictory positions. Take, for instance, the first of the fundamentals, access or expansion, that subsume equity and inclusion. The general enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education in India is around 10 per cent, which is pathetically low compared to the 25 per cent recorded by many developing countries — the ratio in developed countries is far higher, ranging between 55 per cent and 91 per cent.

The 11th Plan fixes a target of 15 per cent, with the figure expected to rise to 21 per cent by the end of 12th Plan. We have a long way to go even to attain such modest levels. If 90 per cent of the relevant age-group remained outside the realm of higher education, it is mainly because this segment cannot afford the cost. As the growth in higher education over the past three decades has come about in the high fee-charging private sector — many of the institutions are apparently driven by the profit-making motive — and the state virtually surrendering the field to them, the vast majority has perforce to stay outside the charmed circle. Increasing the GER is possible only if public-funded institutions are set up in large numbers, where the state invests and charges low fees. This elementary logic seems to elude the champions of further privatisation of higher education and Public-Private-Partnership. Agarwal, unmindful of the grim reality, regrets that “though private higher education enhances access, it is often viewed with suspicion and seen to compromise equity in access.”

Linkages

For a book that is meant to straddle the whole world of higher education and that claims to “envision the future,” it is surprising that it has not visited the important epistemological issues underlying higher education.The exhaustive discussion of the linkages between the workforce requirement and the skill development role of higher education seems to imply that the latter is the primary, if not the exclusive role of higher education. To be fair to the author, he acknowledges that the book’s emphasis “on the economic role of higher education reflects …contemporary reality, though civic, moral and intellectual purposes of higher education are important and will continue to be so.”

In the ‘Introduction,’ Agarwal regrets that “rather than pragmatism, it is populism, ideology and vested interests that drive policy.” Ideology is a bad word, while pragmatism that grants primacy to the immediate-over the long-term vision is the supreme virtue. This is the undertone of the entire book. What is the driving force behind the so-called pragmatic policy making? Is it not, to a great extent, the power of the “vested interests”, Agarwal bemoans in the same sentence. I wonder if he would dismiss as ‘ideology’ a basic premise of the Yashpal Committee report that says “revitalising the idea of university in an entirely new egalitarian context is the need of the hour.” Overall, the book is a highly useful compilation of valuable information, but somewhat flawed by a limiting vision.

Overall, the book is a highly useful compilation of valuable information

INDIAN HIGHER EDUCATION: Pawan Agarwal; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 895.

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