On Sunday, January 3, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will launch in Thiruvananthapuram a higher education scholarship scheme instituted by the Kerala government. The purpose is two-fold. First, it aims to enable needy and meritorious students to pursue higher education. Secondly, it seeks to promote the study of, and research work in, the social sciences, humanities, sciences and business studies.
By means of the scheme, the government hopes to effect a qualitative change in the field of higher education. Much of the interest in, and discussion on, higher education in the State is now confined to the field of professional education, which only a minuscule section of the total number of students actually pursue. Yet, they monopolise the attention of educationists and the State. In the process, the problems that affect the overwhelming majority of students are marginalised.
The Kerala State Higher Education Council that the State government constituted in 2007 has been seeking to promote a holistic view of higher education in order to create well-trained but socially sensitive citizens. Funds to the tune of Rs.100 crore, which will be generated through contributions from the public and a matching grant from the government, will be available for the scheme. The idea is that those who are meritorious should not be denied opportunities for financial reasons.
In the past, school education monopolised the concerns of educationists and policymakers. In recent times, however, higher education has attracted unprecedented attention. Possibly because of the pressures of the evolving global knowledge society, the Central government’s educational policy has brought higher education centrestage. The Eleventh Five Year Plan, which was described by the Prime Minister as an ‘Educational Plan,’ for instance, devotes considerable attention to the improvement of the quality of higher education. A nine-fold increase in the financial allocation for higher education is considered an expression of this intent.
Several new institutions, including Central universities, Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology, are either planned or have been set up. Regional universities have been granted inter-university centres, and allocations to universities have been substantially increased. The purpose is to ensure better access to higher education, which at present is a paltry 10 per cent, and to raise the quality of education to global standards.
Such a change requires massive infrastructure modernisation and qualitative improvement in intellectual resources. In the absence of either of these, what is being attempted may touch only the fringes of the system. As a result, a ‘privileged’ stratum would continue to be perpetuated, despite the policy of reservation. The majority of students will continue to crawl at the bottom of the scale. The vital question in higher education is how to overcome this contradiction. A vast majority is deprived of opportunities for higher education. Even those who manage to get admission, pursue studies in sub-standard conditions, both in academic and infrastructure terms. After successfully competing for the so-called institutions of excellence, many of them are unable to pursue studies for financial reasons. Cases of such students taking their own lives are not rare. Neither public-private participation nor the entry of foreign universities is likely to be of help to such students.
Higher education today has two inadequacies: the economic inability of the aspirants, and poor quality of education. Initiatives taken in Kerala during the last couple of years have been directed to address these issues. The key to improving the quality of higher education is effecting a fundamental change from the present inflexible system to one that would release the creative energy of students by ensuring their academic freedom. The groundwork for such a change has to be undertaken at the undergraduate level. Currently this is the most neglected area of education, though an overwhelming majority of students belongs to this category. During the last 60 years, school education and postgraduate programmes have undergone several rounds of ‘reform’, but the real base of higher education has remained practically unattended.
The Kerala State Higher Education Council has recently taken steps to rectify this situation by undertaking a complete restructuring of undergraduate programmes. The nature of this restructuring seems to have been misunderstood at the popular level as the introduction of a choice-based credit and semester system and a shift in the mode of evaluation from a numerical system to a grading system. The credit-semester system involves only a change in the organisational pattern: it is not an innovation that affects the soul of academic practice. The real change should be marked by a transition from rigidity to freedom in academic practice and from disciplinary insularity to inter-disciplinarity in terms of the method.
This change is realised in the scheme introduced in Kerala through a complete overhauling of the undergraduate programme. The courses will now consist of 10 compulsory ones which all students will take, regardless of their area of specialisation. These courses serve to sensitise students to socially important issues and to familiarise them with disciplines other than their field of specialisation. The purpose of such exposure to different disciplines is to equip students to undertake interdisciplinary study and research later on.
The other components of the programme are core courses, complementary courses, open courses and methodology courses. Each student will do a project. The complementary and open courses give students the freedom to opt for courses of their choice. For instance, a student of physics could do a course in history or theatre or a student of economics could do a course in mathematics or music. This is an ideal situation and most of our institutions do not have the capacity to implement it in its ideal form. What has happened in Kerala is the acceptance of the principle: the first step, even if it is a faltering one, has been taken to bring about a healthy departure. That the universities in Kerala have successfully implemented the scheme gives the confidence to take further steps to push higher education in the State to compete with the best in the field.
The success of the experiment depends on the ability of students to cope with the academic expectations. While the wealthy and ‘intelligent’ migrate out of the State or the country to earn coveted degrees, the poor and the ‘dull’ congregate in the Arts and Science colleges. From these, most of them come out without any intellectual capital. This is not because they lack intelligence, but because education is not their first priority. Many of them earn their livelihood by working in the night; others are too starved to take any interest in what goes on in the classrooms in the name of teaching. The number of such students is not negligible.
While the country is gearing to welcome foreign universities and private institutions with five-star ambience are being set up, a majority of students indulge in knowledge production in what could only be called ‘academic slums’. A pre-condition for preparing this section to receive quality education is to provide them financial security, without which the quality of their participation cannot be improved.
It is with this purpose that the Higher Education Council proposed the scholarship fund. It proposes to distribute a thousand scholarships each year for undergraduate students and 600 for post-graduate students. The amount of the scholarship is Rs. 12,000 in the first year of study, Rs. 18,000 in the second year, Rs. 24,000 in the third year, Rs. 40,000 in the fourth year and Rs. 60,000 in the fifth year. Preference would be given to students who opt for the social sciences, humanities, business studies and fundamental sciences.
This effort is being complemented by a variety of initiatives to improve the quality of education. In order to ensure the maximum utilisation of intellectual resources, college clusters have been created. A State policy of education has been formulated to have a clear picture of the goals. An academic mapping of the State has been undertaken in order to base administrative actions on a sound footing. Committees have been set up to review and reform post-graduate programmes, teacher training and teaching methods, and to review university Acts.
Higher education in Kerala is poised for a qualitative change. That several Nobel laureates are gong to interact with students and teachers of universities and colleges in the State during the year is perhaps an indication of this healthy change.
(Professor K.N. Panikkar is the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council.)