MAKING THE CUT Capacity expansion must proceed along with improvement in access, equity and quality, says G. Ananthakrishnan

A massive expansion of the higher education system is being widely discussed and the Planning Commission and the University Grants Commission await the finalisation of the Twelfth Plan to firm up plans. A new model for governance through a National Commission for Higher Education and Research and facilitation of foreign providers of courses is among the items on the agenda.

Without steady growth in colleges and courses, it would be impossible to take the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) from the current estimate of about 20 per cent, to a targeted 30 per cent.

As the UGC acknowledges, capacity expansion must proceed along with improvement in access, equity and quality. Ensuring all three principles will require a massive infusion of funds and the investments must go beyond what is already envisaged. The goal is to raise government expenditure on higher education from the existing level of 1.12 per cent of the GDP. The Planning Commission thinks an increase of 0.38 per cent in the 12th Plan — raising the level to 1.5 per cent — would provide an additional Rs.25,000 crore to the sector.

Many would argue that this is too small, given the systematic withdrawal of the State from expansion of higher education for many years and the strengthening of the for-profit sector in this area.

Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal told Parliament in May that a centrally sponsored scheme to incentivise the States to expand the higher education sector would be worked out after the finalisation of the 12th Plan. The proposed scheme will encourage the States to set up new institutions and expand the existing ones.

This approach seeks to build on the funding offered to the States two years ago to open 374 model degree colleges in districts with poor enrolment.

Surprisingly, only 86 proposals in 12 States secured approvals, while 33 were rejected and clarifications sought on 34.

The Centre also thinks the approval granted to 16 Central Universities, eight IITs, seven IIMs and 10 National Institutes of Technology over the past few years is a positive step in improving access to higher education.

More investments from the private sector, which the Planning Commission describes as an urgent need, would improve capacity, although affordability issues would crop up. The key question that many educationists pose is about equity in higher education. Here, funding a massive State-led expansion would be less difficult than it appears.

The 2 per cent cess on Service Tax imposed by the Centre is estimated to have raised about Rs. 27,000 crore for schools during 2011-12. An additional 1 per cent goes towards higher education. Casting the resource net wider to fund higher education could help open more public colleges with courses in engineering, sciences, arts, law and agriculture.

The United States offers a case study in public leadership in higher education. The Morrill Act of 1862 (which liberally granted land to States to help start colleges offering technical, and agriculture courses) created well-known public universities in that country. The massive funds raised through taxes and a cess in India could similarly lead to a scale-up of education infrastructure in a partnership with the State governments.

On June 26, speaking at the 150th year celebrations of the Morrill Act, Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underlined the priority for public education today: to get more public funds, help young Americans take courses matching their aptitude, and improve the performance of colleges. This could be achieved through a hybrid model of classroom interactivity and use of newer, post-television era technologies.

Lectures on difficult concepts could be delivered by the most talented lecturers from anywhere using video and classrooms turned interactive as a follow-up. Innovations such as these may augment conventional methods in the Indian context as the goal of opening more colleges and courses is pursued.

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