A qualitative expansion of higher education is urgently needed.

If the last decade of the 20th Century will be remembered in India for heralding the economic reforms, the second decade of the 21st Century seems poised to witness some far-reaching reforms in the education sector — especially in higher education. These become all the more imperative in view of the drift and malaise that set in over the past decade.

As in the case of industrial development, Tamil Nadu emerged as a major player in the education sector, maintaining a lead in primary, secondary, higher secondary, and higher education. Successive governments in the State have maintained this tempo and demonstrated how Tamil Nadu could be in the forefront in education reforms as well as its inclusiveness and universalisation. The State showed how admissions to professional colleges could be handled effectively and transparently, though it has now done away with the Common Entrance Test.

The advent of the second United Progressive Alliance regime in mid-2009, and the induction of noted legal luminary Kapil Sibal as the Minister for Human Resources Development has sparked a fresh movement towards education reforms. The increasing commercialisation of higher education and the mushrooming of professional colleges, notably engineering and management institutions, has caused serious concern and damaged the education fabric in the country. Over the past five years, many of these institutions have also become what are called ‘Deemed-to-be-Universities' — provided for under an Act of Parliament to provide greater academic autonomy to the management of educational institutions to introduce new courses, reshape the curricula, and bring about greater interface with industry.

Among the first announcements from the new Minister, Kapil Sibal, was a go-slow on the Deemed Universities. The Yashpal Committee had already raised an alarm about the dubious growth of these universities, which had failed to measure up to the standards laid down by the UGC to acquire that special status. In his two reports — interim and final — the Yashpal Committee noted that the Deemed Universities had “largely become business entities dispensing very poor quality education.” It also recommended an over-arching Commission for Higher Education and Research — an apex regulatory body that can bring under its umbrella the other bodies that were supervising various branches of higher education — such as the AICTE, MCI, and other councils. The committee advocated a seven-member body with a representative from industry and six others to be chosen by a high-power committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Chief Justice of India.

After taking charge, Mr. Sibal set up the Tandon committee to specifically look at the 126 Deemed Universities in the country. That committee too has submitted its report to the HRD Ministry, which not only accepted the recommendations, but also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court to say that 44 of these universities would lose the ‘Deemed' status, while another 44 would get a showcause notice to meet the norms. Only 38 of them had fulfilled the requirements for a Deemed University.

The Supreme Court may have temporarily stayed the move to withdraw the Deemed University status granted to 44 institutions. But the move now seems to be to scrap this very concept and encourage the formation of more full fledged universities, with a focus on research as well. Tamil Nadu's Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudi has endorsed this move and called for the scrapping of the Deemed Universities. What the government has not yet committed to is the opening up of medical education. The country badly needs more medical colleges with prescribed standards, so that they can produce the number of doctors needed to take health care delivery to the masses.

Importantly, Mr. Sibal has assured the nearly two lakh students in these universities that they would all get their degrees and the institutions would be affiliated to the local/regional universities — for example: the engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu would come under the respective Anna University, the arts and science colleges under the Madras or corresponding university, and the medical colleges under the Dr. MGR Medical University. Strangely, 16 of the 44 deemed universities in this list fall in Tamil Nadu and the Tandon committee found all of them to lack in proper management systems. They tended to be run as family institutions.

Another major issue taken up by the Central government relates to the setting up of more IITs and IIMs in the country — particularly in States that do not have one, as in Andhra Pradesh. Though it may be a welcome step to create more such specialised institutions of higher education, the Yashpal Committee had a word of caution: “Creation of a few institutes of excellence and some Central universities, without addressing the issue of deprivation that the State-funded universities are suffering from, would only sharpen existing inequalities.”

School education

On the school education front, Mr. Sibal caused some confusion over a proposal to do away with a public examination at the Tenth standard level — SSLC as it was called earlier. Most academics, parents, and even students seem to oppose this move arguing that a proper examination at that level becomes critical not only to assess the student, but also to provide for the boy or girl to branch away from formal or professional education to take up tertiary or diploma courses to take up jobs. Obviously, this needs to be debated at the national level before any State decides to implement it. Tamil Nadu has clearly opposed this suggestion and School Education Minister Thangam Thennarasu has made it clear that they do not want to do away with this crucial public examination.

The Centre has already adopted the Education for All Bill, to make school education compulsory and free. But, Mr. Sibal had noted that there is a whopping deficit in the budget required to achieve this objective. Only about Rs. 90,000 crore out of the estimated Rs.1,50,000 crore may be available, and the governments have to find out how to make up this shortfall.

The stage appears to be set for the entry of foreign universities in India — not very far from now. Many universities are already collaborating with counterparts in the west and east. But the bulk of the local universities need to gear up for competition. Now that the government is committed to “expansion, inclusion, and excellence” as the underlying principles for educational reform, it needs to expedite the process of monitoring, supervising and regulating all institutions of higher learning.

The goals are clear; the road map may be taking shape. But it needs political will and expert guidance to see this process of education reforms through. Any failure to complete them within the next five years may prove fatal for the sector. Tamil Nadu will have to demonstrate its leadership status in this crucial field and lead by example.