Higher education in Kerala needs a new chapter

The recent election manifesto of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of Kerala opens with the assertion, “we are entering a new phase in rebuilding Kerala” and promises to usher in a “sustainable development model”. Higher education is undoubtedly the critical dynamic to trigger creative transformation in a society. The Budget speech on January 15, 2021 (the last Budget of the previous government) and the revised Budget speech on June 4, (first Budget of the new government) in the Legislative Assembly reiterate the government’s resolve “to rapidly transform” Kerala into a knowledge economy and society. The new Budget announced that the government will appoint a high power commission “to examine” and “reorganize” the education system of the State. Restructuring higher education is a much-needed step in Kerala’s transformation into a knowledge society.

I raise three issues for discussion: decades of unplanned linear expansion; declining quality and compromise with mediocrity, and widening inequality in economic and social opportunities.


Expansion of colleges

One, the linear expansion of arts and science colleges and even professional colleges independent of the needs of the economy especially during the last 30 years coincides with the accelerated flow of foreign remittance since the economic reforms of 1991. With no prudent policy to channelise these resources for productive purposes, education proved to be a lucrative investment candidate for many including powerful social groups. Following the direct payment agreement with aided private colleges in September 1972, the State took the responsibility of paying the salaries of teachers and non-teaching staff besides providing maintenance grants. With no effective social control on teacher appointments, donations, capitation fees and several corrupt practices increased, vitiating the academic environment and goals. Arts and science colleges affiliated to universities increased from 172 in 1991 to 958 in 2020, a 5.5 times growth. Of these, 476, or nearly 50%, are self-financing colleges.

Instructively, out of the 1.37 lakh students enrolled in these colleges for B.A. courses, english, economics and history alone account for 61% of the total enrolment in 2020. Again, 69% of the M.A. courses are in these three subjects. Similarly for B.Sc. courses, mathematics and physics alone account for 41.3% of the 1.05 lakh students enrolled. Over 40% of those who are enrolled for M.Sc., take these two subjects. These linear reproductions could be the expression of the helplessness of a student community with no alternative options before them.

Can we confidently say that higher education in Kerala fulfils the dreams of the youth to become great scientists, entrepreneurs, economists, scholars and others? This does not ignore the fact that student politics has groomed a generation of proven political leaders.


Relevance and quality

Two, the linear reproduction of traditional courses in the universities raises the foundational question of relevance and quality. Surprisingly, no political party posited this issue as important. No one probably wants Kerala among the top 100 universities of the world or entertain such high hopes. Indeed, higher education has an important instrumental and intrinsic role to play. Equipped with no life-skills or employability capabilities, the rapid progression of higher education can only swell the ranks of the unemployed. The expansion of liberal arts and sciences has not significantly promoted better public reasoning, open-ended discussions, better gender-justice and nourished high democratic values.

All branches of higher education including technical education now work on a self-financing mode. In Kerala, there are only 19 autonomous colleges. There is opposition from teachers and students to this idea. A good autonomous educational institution demands high quality curriculum, syllabus, pedagogy and research. As the first professor (1976-80) at the Dr. John Matthai Centre of the Calicut University, I can confidently testify that dedicated team work with a well-designed curriculum and syllabus, exercise book, project work, seminars, objective internal assessment and student evaluation can produce outstanding students, How the project was abandoned can provide many lessons. Mediocrity can never be the essence of change. Today, that 26% of teachers in the arts and science colleges of Kerala fall in the category of ‘guest lecturers’ is only an affirmation of mediocrity. Mending and reforming the current situation are a great challenge.

Also read | Kerala HC order opens a Pandora’s box in the higher education sector

The present government has announced a target to double the gross enrolment ratio (18-23) from 37% at present to 75% in the next five years. This is a goal to be pursued with great planning. Many a rich and middle class of Kerala (including non-resident Indians) send their wards outside. Given the powerful vested interests in the educational set up and the disorientation that exists, a critique of the epistemological foundations of the existing model is a desideratum.

Issue of commercialisation

Three, the growing commercialisation of education in Kerala has deeply eroded the State’s egalitarian narratives of the past and weakened the scope for enhancing equality of opportunity. The growing inequality in the distribution of assets, income and consumption of households in Kerala (a well-documented phenomenon) has considerably exacerbated the situation of the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), fisher folk, plantation labour and other vulnerable groups. The self-financing colleges in engineering, medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy colleges have virtually priced out a sizeable proportion of these categories. The growing digital divide under the pandemic dispensation affects these groups more than others. The SC/STs who did not significantly participate in the Gulf-boom face the double whammy of marginalisation.


Women’s unemployment rate

Kerala can take pride in the fact that out of the 3.32 lakh students in the arts and science colleges in 2019-20, 67.7% are girls and 57.2% of the teachers are women. Even so, the labour force participation rate is low and the unemployment rate of women is very high in Kerala. For example, according to the periodic labour force survey (2018-19) of the Government of India, the unemployment rate among females in rural Kerala (15-29 years) is 57.8% as against 13.8% in India as a whole. Judging from the larger perspective of democracy and social justice, Kerala’s women do not play a critical agency role in the transformation of its economy, society and polity.

To conclude, the Revised Budget reaffirms the resolve of the present government to build a new Kerala, based on a knowledge society. Several steps such as K-FON (Kerala Fibre Optic Network), the K-DISC (Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council), Knowledge Economy Mission and many others in the pipeline demand dedicated teamwork. Collective rethinking of all stakeholders, academics and policy decision makers is a critical need.

M.A. Oommen is Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies and Distinguished Professor, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 7:58:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/higher-education-in-kerala-needs-a-new-chapter/article34807149.ece

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