Kerala has done well in the field of higher education and holds much promise. But further policy initiatives are needed to sustain the momentum and prepare for future challenges.

Kerala, almost alone among Indian States, has pursued a consistent and in many ways successful higher education policy. It educates 18 per cent of its young people, double the national average, and has universal literacy. It is worth looking at what might be called “the Kerala model” in this sector to see if it has relevance to the rest of India.

The State's approach to higher education is somewhat unique in the Indian context. Most higher education in the State was at one time supervised and funded by the State government. However, this situation has been changing, especially during the last decade. Resource crunch and budget constraints have forced universities to change their priorities. The Central government has, with a few exceptions, ignored Kerala in this sector. But, given its commitment to sponsor at least one Central university in each State, plans are on to build a Central institution in a rather isolated location in the northern part of Kerala. The rationale behind this move is unclear to most higher education experts in the State, for it is unlikely that such an institution located far from academic or urban centres can succeed.

In keeping with its egalitarian philosophy, the government has provided generally equal support to all of the universities and has not identified any one of them as a “flagship.” Thus, there are few nationally or internationally prominent universities in the State. One exception is the Cochin University of Science and Technology. The Central Ministry of Human Resource Development recognised its excellence and supported its upgradation to the level of an Indian Institute of Technology. However, a campaign against its conversion into an IIT forced the authorities to shelve the plans. The Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology was recently established by the Central government in Thiruvananthapuram, the State capital. The Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram is another exception: it has the status of a university and offers postdoctoral, doctoral, and postgraduate courses in medical specialties and health care technology. It is under the administrative control of the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India. The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Thiruvananthapuram, established in 2008, can also be considered to be nationally prominent. It is an autonomous institution affiliated to the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development. Kerala might be well served if these high-quality institutions were closely linked or even merged in order to produce a world-class scientific institution.

Several arts and science colleges that have a long historical tradition — such as the University College in Thiruvananthapuram, or the Maharaja's College in Kochi — attract bright students. But the facilities in these institutions are far from world-class. Most of the top students prefer to take professional courses in engineering, medicine (which is an undergraduate subject area in India), and business. There are 96 engineering colleges in Kerala. Almost 90 per cent of them were started during the last decade, and only 11 of these are government-sponsored. Of the 96 colleges, 60 are purely in the private sector. In general, their facilities are no better than the average found in the State.

Kerala has instituted some significant reforms, suggested by national authorities but not initiated widely so far. These include the semester system and reforms in undergraduate examinations. The idea is to provide better assessment through more frequent examinations and evaluations tied closely to course content. This reform required significant changes in the way the curriculum is organised, how courses are taught, and how students are assessed. Policymakers hope that it will result in improvements in teaching. The Kerala State Higher Education Council was set up to provide advice to the State government, conduct research on higher education issues, and serve as a forum for discussion on higher education.

Kerala, like other Indian States, is grappling with the rapid and largely unregulated expansion of private colleges and specialised post-secondary institutions. There is a need for greater access, which the new colleges provide. But many of them are of dubious quality and meant to earn profit. They serve high-demand fields such as management, information technology and related technical fields. A few are medical colleges. A good deal of grumbling about these institutions has taken place, but there has been little action to regulate them.

Although there has been an increase in the number of higher educational institutions and student enrolment over the last two decades, inequalities based on the quality of primary and secondary schooling have been on the rise. One of the most observable effects of this change is in the correlation between the type of school attended and admission to professional colleges. This is evident in the outcome of the medical-engineering entrance examinations conducted by the government annually. Entry to medical and engineering colleges is largely based on the examination. Students from schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education and the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations have a better chance to bag the top ranks in this examination.

The majority of the rank holders are from the middle and upper strata of society. Their parents have the financial capacity to send them to coaching centres. Students and parents these days are quite conscious about the link between academic choice and careers. The emergence of a new middle class in Kerala has accentuated this phenomenon.

Way forward

Kerala has quietly provided acceptable-quality higher education, by Indian standards, to a remarkably large part of its population. It has implemented meaningful reforms in recent years, and higher education remains an issue of concern for the government and the public at large. A few policy initiatives may be useful to further improve the system.

The State's higher educational institutions are largely similar in terms of quality, focus and funding. With the few exceptions noted here, none of them stand out either within the State or nationally. A mass higher education system needs to be differentiated — with institutions serving different missions, patterns of funding, and quality. Kerala needs at least one “world-class” university that can attract the best students, be recognised among the top universities in India, and gain visibility abroad. This will not be easy since Kerala has a strong tradition of egalitarianism, but it is essential if the State is to fully participate in the global knowledge society of the 21st century. It is likely that the University of Kerala, perhaps merged with several high-profile scientific institutions located in the capital city, will be the logical choice, probably along with CUSAT. This does not mean that the other universities can be neglected. Some will focus largely on teaching and serve specific regions, while a few, perhaps those focussing on science and technology, retain a research mission.

As in all the regions of India, the large number of colleges affiliated to universities need to be appropriately supervised but at the same time permitted the leeway to start innovative programmes and have a degree of autonomy. A special problem concerns the growing number of new private “unaided” colleges, a majority of which are for-profit. Perhaps an effective accreditation system, supervised by the Higher Education Council or some other government body, could provide a basic standard of quality for colleges and remove some of the burden from the universities.

Kerala's universities have the potential to jump-start the State's move into the knowledge era. They can provide the training needed for a new generation of professionals ready to work in information technology and other knowledge industries. Kerala has the disadvantage of having started late. The giant info-tech superpower of Bangalore, for example, is far ahead — even though the first “Technopark” in India was established in Thiruvananthapuram. But Kerala has a well-educated workforce, a tradition of hard work, and an ability to collaborate with people from different backgrounds.

An important step would be to immediately improve the quality of engineering education. The info-tech companies estimate that only one-fifth of the new engineering graduates can be immediately put to work; the rest need additional training. If Kerala can provide an engineering education that can produce engineers who can be put to work straightway without expensive further education or training, it will improve its prospects of attracting high technology. Moreover, these graduates will be quite competitive in the international job market.

The State's higher education future is complex but practical. Expansion will continue, although the pressures may be less than in other parts of India because of Kerala's impressive access rates. Careful attention needs to be given to the organisation of the higher education system. Additional funds are required to transform at least one university into a research-intensive institution, while at the same time supporting a better-defined differentiated higher education system.

(Philip G. Altbach is the Monan University Professor and Director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. Eldho Mathews is research officer at the Kerala State Higher Education Council.)

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