A blueprint for higher education

The problems that confront higher education in India today are low rates of enrolment, unequal access, poor quality of infrastructure and lack of relevance. With new moves being planned on the policy front, it is necessary to find concrete solutions and build on earlier efforts.

August 11, 2015 02:25 am | Updated May 07, 2016 09:18 pm IST

"In contrast to the situation in India, education has been a great leveller in Europe." File photo:  P.V. Sivakumar

"In contrast to the situation in India, education has been a great leveller in Europe." File photo: P.V. Sivakumar

The National Policy on Education (NPE) that was adopted by Parliament in May 1986 and Programme of Action (POA), 1986, as updated in 1992, are perhaps the last government policy statements on higher education and which have guided actions since the mid-1980s. Now that there are new moves on the policy front, it is necessary to identify the key issues, build on the earlier efforts (especially initiated after studies by the University Grants Commission) and then take a step ahead. The last major initiative on the development of higher education was during the 11th Plan (2007-12).

The problems that confront >education today are low rates of enrolment, unequal access, poor quality of infrastructure and lack of relevance. The goals remain the same — expansion with inclusion and ensuring quality and relevant education. In this article, I discuss some of these issues and offer suggestions.

Sukhadeo Thorat

Expansion and disparities

The first challenge to be overcome is to increase the present rate of enrolment of 20 per cent. During the 11th Plan, a two-fold strategy that was in place helped ensure this to an extent — there was an increase in the number of new institutions, and in the intake capacity of existing institutions. But despite this, our institutional capacity is still low. We have only 722 universities, as against the National Knowledge Commission recommendation of 1,500. The aim should be to arrive at a proper estimate of universities and undergraduate institutions in order to plan a strategy for the next 20 years or so.

There are also related issues to grapple with. Given the low rate of enrolment, we need more quality teaching institutions at the undergraduate level. The influence of academicians on policies and the obsession with a flawed notion of excellence in terms of it being only about research have undermined the focus of having good teaching institutions. Nobody denies the utility of research in teaching, but it should not be forgotten that imparting knowledge is equally important.

Another challenge that confronts India is in the disparities in access to education, especially in terms of economic class, gender, caste and ethnic and religious belonging. In 2008, as against an all-India enrolment rate of 17 per cent, the break-up for these categories was 7 per cent for Scheduled Tribes (ST), 11 per cent for Scheduled Castes (SC), 28 per cent for Other Backward Classes (OBC) and 47 per cent for higher castes. In addition, it was 9 per cent for Muslims, 18 per cent for Hindus and 30 per cent for Christians. In a comparison of disparities between the poor and the affluent and in terms of income levels, it was 6 per cent for the bottom 20 per cent of society as against 37 per cent for the top 20 per cent. The expansion of the private, self-financing education sector, with its aim of commercial intent, has been another reason for the propagation of disparities.

Between 1996 and 2008, >private institutions expanded every year at the rate of 10 per cent. The corresponding decline in government and private-aided institutions, by 1.65 per cent yearly, resulted in the share of students in the private, self-financing sector increasing from about 7 per cent in 1996 to about 25 per cent in 2008. For 2013, data from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) put the share of private undergraduate colleges and students at 59 per cent and 37 per cent respectively.

In the case of universities, out of the 712 universities, about 360 are of private, state and of deemed status. The high cost of private education has affected access by the poor to education. In 2012, of the total share of students in private institutions, the top 20 per cent (in terms of consumption expenditure) cornered more than half the number of seats. The bottom 20 per cent got only 4 per cent. The share of ST and SC students accounted only 4 and 10 per cent respectively as against 45 per cent by OBCs and 41 by Others.

In contrast to the situation in India, education has been a great leveller in Europe. Unfortunately, here in India, unequal opportunities have developed unequal human capabilities and converted education into an instrument to further economic inequalities. This is a new and the next challenge. There are two ways to deal with it. First, public and private aided institutions must be strengthened and expanded and the expansion of self-financing private institutions restricted to a reasonable level. However, given the political economy of private institutions, the chances of this happening are slim. The alternative would be to extend ‘poor-friendly’ financial assistance by setting up a government finance organisation, based on the models in Australia and Canada. The present method, of extending >educational loans from banks with interest subsidy by the MHRD, does not help the poor.

Issues of quality and faculty The quality of higher education is an equally serious problem. In this area, the 11th Plan recognised three areas for interventions — physical infrastructure, academic reform and ensuring adequate faculty. Infrastructure can be improved with an increase in financial allocation. Academic reform — which includes semester and credit systems, courses by choice, and examination reform — is a process which should be advanced only after the pre-requisites are met. In the case of faculty, which is an issue that has assumed serious proportions, several steps were effected in the 11th Plan. However, it still persists. A solution demands joint efforts being put in by the Centre and States. One way, and as a one-time effort, is to enforce the University Grant Commission’s (UGC) teacher-student ratio for each State, and ensure that the financial requirement of additional faculty is shared by the Centre and States.

Ensuring quality textbooks is another point. Now that teaching in most undergraduate and State universities is in the regional languages, good textbooks and quality translations from the original English books are a must if a student is to make progress. The three-language formula needs to be adhered to. Teaching in the regional languages would make understanding relatively easy while minimal language competence in English should facilitate student access to English books. An example that can be cited is in Japan where translations have enabled greater educational access for the student.

Global collaboration Apart from these, there is the issue of ensuring the access of Indian education to >global frontiers . In this, a popular view is to allow global universities to set up campuses in India. However, this is countered by some who argue that the presence of a few quality institutions is hardly the solution as far as the majority of rural and poor students are concerned. The alternative is to allow foreign educational institutions to enter into collaborations with Indian institutions on a large scale. In turn, this will help in enhancing capabilities as far as curricular and pedagogical practices, and student-faculty exchanges go.

For quality institutions, autonomy as far as academic and administrative aspects are involved is a must. This would also involve the appointment of heads of institutional and executive bodies. It must be remembered that a UGC committee had once suggested the independence of institutions from the government as the bottom line for autonomy.

For an education of relevance Enabling an education that is relevant to the economy and society is another challenge. The development of human resources for the economy has been translated into action through vocational and professional education. The last government took the initiative by setting up a National Skill Development Corporation (it brought the government and corporate sector together to frame a demand based curriculum), which the present government has taken to greater heights by creating a Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. But similar efforts are lacking in social education. The 1986 policy required that: “In our culturally plural society, education should foster universal and eternal values, oriented towards the unity and integration of our people. Such value education should eliminate obscurantism, religious fanaticism, violence, superstition and fatalism.” This requires youth and children to be sensitised about the problem of inequities, poverty, undemocratic practices and reiterating commitment to upholding equality, justice, freedom and fraternity. The American educationist, Professor, James A. Banks, said: “the role of education in the 21st Century is to prepare students to know, to care and to act in ways that will develop and foster knowledge and skill needed to participate in effective action.”

UGC reform Another issue relates to reform in the UGC. While attempts have been made in the past, I feel the UGC should have a dual structure — a governing body and a general body. As more than 65 per cent of our universities and about 90 per cent of colleges are in the States, their involvement in policy making at the Centre is a must.

The framing of successful policies requires reliable data, and on multiple aspects. We are faced with a situation where we not only do not have reliable data, but also have had no review of higher education for the last 50 years, the last one having been the D.S. Kothari Commission in 1965. Far-reaching changes have taken place in higher education in the last 50 years. We desperately need a review. We need to emulate the model in the United Kingdom which has an institute for education statistics, as policy making with reliable data has a high propensity towards success.

(Sukhadeo Thorat is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and former Chairman, UGC.)

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