Search For New Directions In Higher Education
The Indian tradition of creating, generating, disseminating and utilising knowledge, fully respects the adage: “There is nothing more pious on earth than Jnana”. Indian quest for knowledge and spirituality has always earned universal respect for ages together. The realisation that the global community is now marching towards a knowledge society is not much new for India. This march towards knowledge and wisdom had given sufficient hints of its socio-political imports in the 20th century. Winston Churchill once remarked: “Future empires shall be the empires of knowledge”. It was no original idea but a pragmatic assessment of the shape of things in future. Its essence needs repetition even today, for the sake of those who control the destinies of the nations.
In the globalised world it is universally clear that the mind power is the real source of strength in the 21st century. No matter who gets the credit for inviting global attention towards the emerging India; which Obama finds has “already emerged”, I am convinced that the process began when the young Indian scientists in US universities and research establishments made a mark through their outstanding contributions. Thereafter, the young Indian boys and girls working in NASA and those who practically “took over” the Silicon Valley, that made people sit up and take note of the “Young of India”. It must be noted seriously that Indian “brain power” could achieve all this when only 25 per cent or so of students in schools get reasonably acceptable education in India; others suffer in learner attainments because of perpetual systemic deficiencies including inefficiency. It is the participation rate in higher education that determines the cognitive capital of every nation.
Greater participation in higher education could open up new vistas and opportunities to the young of India, within the country and also internationally. The challenge before the higher education system is to prepare this manpower both for internal requirements and also to make a dignified global presence. For the first time, India is perceived as the nation in the golden period of its demographic advantage by the ageing Western countries. Several other countries are also looking towards India for skilled and professionally equipped manpower. India’s system of higher and professional education needs to respond. It must also remember all along that in an expanding system, dilution of quality is inevitable without inbuilt precautionary steps being put in place at the planning stage itself.
Indian Higher Education in Global Context
No nation can ignore the comparability of its systems in the global context. India too has to realise that a large number of its young persons are going abroad for higher and professional education, and also for jobs. The most desirable possibility would be to develop India as the globally sought-after centre of educational excellence. It means, immediate revamping of the existing institutions in resources, management, innovations and research. John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning summarised the global situation in higher education participation rates in the following words: “The first is rising demand. Higher education’s role in constructing the knowledge society is now acknowledged by all.
“University degrees and diplomas have become passports to a good future and the demand for higher education has been growing rapidly. As a consequence, we now talk of ‘massification’ as the dominant trend. Globally, age participation rates in higher education have grown from 19 per cent in 2000 to 26 per cent in 2007. There were almost 153 million students enrolled in tertiary education worldwide in 2008, which represents a 53 per cent increase over 2000 and a fivefold increase in less than 40 years. In low income countries, these percentages were much lower and rose from 5 per cent in 2000 to a modest 7 per cent in 2007. This means, we can expect continuing rapid growth in those countries.” It is also contextually relevant to recall his further observations: “China has now the largest higher education system in the world. 2008 statistics indicate that 30 million students were enrolled in HEIs in China, while the age participation rate was 23.3 per cent. Although the policy is now to slow the growth of student numbers, a recent education reform strategy paper projects that by 2020 enrolments in higher education will reach 36 million. Thus, China has become the largest higher education system of the world ahead of the US, with a total enrolment of 18.2 million students in 2008.” Every country is putting in maximum possible resources to enhance the access, participation and quality of its products in higher and professional education.
In India, the age-participation rate is only around 10-11 or so, it has to be raised at least to 22 by 2015. There are at present, 43 Central universities, 130 deemed universities, 270 state universities and 81 private universities in India, totalling to 524. The number of colleges is over 22,000. All this is not sufficient and most of these are functioning at the desired level of professional standards. The National Knowledge Commission had made certain suggestions on establishing 1,500 more universities. Its inputs could not synchronise with that of the MHRD and consequently, got lost in the procedural wrangling. The need is there, and so is the demand; and both of these shall increase in years to come, as the up thrust from the school completers shall increase considerably in the present decade.
Governments are unable to come forward with adequate initiatives to fill in the gap, and private players have discovered a very promising sector that offers assured returns. The takers are there and most of them have no alternatives but to depend on inland private institutions of higher and professional learning. Private participation is a legitimate and necessary input that should be welcome and could, indeed, be providing a more dynamic and responsive array of instuitions to the young persons. It could, if allowed, be expected to function free from the dreaded red-tape syndrome, from which the Indian system of governance suffers at every stage even today. Obviously, these shall be self-financing institutions, and fee structures shall be determined accordingly. In addition it must be acknowledged that these shall not be established with altruistic intentions alone and investors shall certainly like to earn profits. Somehow the government has yet to take a pragmatic view on this aspect, not only in the case of higher education but also for public schools which are coming up in ever-increasing numbers.
During the last two decades, a serious shift in the learner preferences has impacted programmes and courses in higher education. It is no more pure sciences that are at the top of the ladder. Now it is IT, ICT, medicine, engineering, management, economics and commerce and other related areas. The rise, it could also be termed mushrooming, of private institutions in these areas has been astonishing in more than one sense. Even in these popular areas, it is interesting to note how preferences change over the short spans also. The number of candidates who appeared for the All India Pre-medical Test in 2006 was 2.14 lakh but gradually got reduced to 1.36 lakh in the year 2009. The corresponding figures of candidates for the All India Engineering Entrance Examination were 4.92 lakh and 9.62 lakh.
One could go into analysing the factors responsible separately but the fact remains that India needs more doctors, as the doctor-to-people ratio in India is one doctor for 1,700 people, while the corresponding numbers in the US, the UK and Germany are 350; 469 and 296. It has implications for the state, the private players and also for the planners. The state has practically withdrawn from expansion in higher education, citing lack of resources. There is ever-growing pressure of young persons willing to enter higher education, and this alone shall pave the way for the arrival of more and more private players. In such a large-scale expansion, it is the responsibility of the state to thoroughly check and ascertain that certain basic norms and standards are adhered to by all. It also has to ensure that those who enter the domain have requisite credentials to deliver at the expected levels of quality and professionalism. Unfortunately this phase in the growth and development of higher education in India has proved to be the Waterloo of the national-level regulatory bodies. Most of them have lost their credibility in the eyes of both the professionals and the people.
Whatever may be put forward in defence, the fact remains that most of the private institutions willingly ignore the quality aspects. For those who consider their forays in education as a business proposition—and this number is pretty large—the major concerns are different. They need huge glamorous infrastructure, widespread publicity and intrusion in the government created structures. What worries sincere and committed educationists most are their over-arching efforts to ensure that learners remain in “good humour” even at the cost of learning, what they are supposed to attain during their stay in these institutions. In simple terms it implies no insistence on attendance, liberal assessment and high grades even to the undeserving. It is the word-of-mouth publicity that would matter in attracting more candidates in future, and it comes from their products. In this process the sense of discipline, industriousness and building up of the capacity for hard and sustained work is lost. The Prime Minister himself had admitted in his address to Bombay University Convocation that three out of four fresh engineers and around 90 per cent of the college products are not adequately suitable to take up assignments.
No institution of higher education can ever play its role properly and at the expected levels, if it is not actively involved in research and innovations. This aspect is extremely weak in universities funded by the government also. Private universities, obviously, are not much interested in such “resource guzzlers”. One often comes across instances that are shocking evidence, to say the least, on the quality of researches that are being conducted. The Dravidian University is reported to have awarded more than 8,000 doctorate degrees during two consecutive academic years. What more one needs to say on how research and innovations have been vanished from many of the universities in the recent times?
Talk to anyone familiar with the scenario in higher education and you shall certainly notice the anguish that arises out of the substandard institutions in practically every sector. The areas that have attracted maximum public attention over the years for visible decline of professionalism in their respective sectors are: teacher education, management and engineering and medicine. For teacher education the regulatory body National Council for Teacher Education, NCTE, created by an Act of Parliament passed in December 1993, showed promising signs in initial stages and firmly regulated the low-quality correspondence courses that were being run by several universities to “generate resources”. And these were mostly state universities. The Council could not sustain its initiatives and teacher education institutions sprang up in every nook and corner of the country. The number of recognised teacher education institutions in the country was 2,491 in 2001. It rose to 14,792 by the end of March 2010. This was a phenomenal rise and large enough to dilute quality to shocking levels. Languishing in every basic professional input, these are giving out, without any hesitation, degrees with high grades and percentage of marks to the hapless “takers”.
The fate of management institutions dishing out degrees and diplomas of MBA’s is no different. The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) is often held responsible for being too liberal and supportive in sanctioning new institutions in technical and management education. What is most shocking is the fate of medical colleges including colleges of dentistry, which are approved by the Medical Council of India (MCI). The role of University Grants Commission (UGC) has come in for considerable discussion in the context of the sanctions accorded to deemed universities. It is also common knowledge that the Commission was not acting on its own, but succumbed to pressures from the MHRD. Whatever be the truth, the system suffers. It suffers when suddenly, within weeks of the new government taking over in May 2009, 44 deemed universities were derecognised and another 44 were given notice for derecognition. Nothing has happened by way of any improvement, but the suffering on the part of students and parents has been immense. In a mature system, it could have been avoided. All these four regulatory bodies mentioned above are supposed to look after higher and professional education in terms of its dynamism, responsiveness and suitability in all other aspects—which enhance and upgrade the quality. If these had succeeded, India would not have been facing the crisis of quality in its higher education. Let it be mentioned here that the decline had set in, right from the state universities itself and the same has been accentuated by the arrival of private players in large numbers.
Private universities set up by state Acts and also those approved by UGC and MHRD as deemed universities, should be expected to look towards public-funded universities for role models. The conditions there are equally distressing. Educationists themselves should know best the answer to the universal query: Who is responsible for the mess in higher education? In the author’s assessment, the prime responsibility lies with the experts and academics themselves. The work culture in state-funded universities is rarely exemplary and encouraging. Vacancies of academics are not filled up for years together. State governments do not permit filling up of new posts, for which UGC or other bodies are willing to support during plan period. The vacancy situations are also grim even in central universities. It impacts the managements of the private and deemed universities as well. Every private college or university is visited by a team of experts, normally from reputed institutions of the concerned disciplines and it is their report that recommends approval to the regulatory body, which is normally supposed to honour the expert committee report. These committees often do a peripheral job and their reports lack credibility on many occasions because of extraneous “considerations”. Whenever anomalies are pointed out, the regulatory bodies flaunt these expert reports. There is no system of accountability of these “experts”.
Three other factors are also obvious to everyone. First, the regulatory bodies suffer under the constant interference and intrusion of the MHRD. Even in case of statutory bodies, practically every authority and autonomy is grabbed in totality by the MHRD. For every small thing the permission of the government is made necessary. Normally in several of these bodies, MHRD should not come in the way of their functioning. Everyone knows that it is the MHRD that calls the shots. The case of deemed university sanctions attracted nationwide attention and everyone knew the real truth.
Second, the manner in which the heads of the regulatory bodies are appointed. Positions are kept vacant for years together. Normally this process should be completed before the regular incumbent demits office. Further, these delays allow space for manipulations, rumour mongering and often, the choice is based on factors other than academic and professional competence. The criticality of the role of the head of the organisation in the fast-changing scenario of higher education has not been realised fully. It is the leadership at the top of the establishment that could bring in the desired levels of dynamism, and guide in formulating policies that would fit in the knowledge-based economy on one hand and establish the symphony of university-society mutuality on the other. In this context the internationalisation of higher education has also to be pursued an unavoidable necessity in the present international context but, at the same time, with due caution and unadulterated primacy of national concerns in mind.
Third, the reluctance on the part of state governments, and also the heads of universities and national institutions to fill up the academic vacancies. This trend is “followed” by private managements also. Those who cannot set their own home in order can hardly be expected to insist adherence to regulations by private players. Till the state funded universities and other professional function bring their work culture and commitment levels at the requisite levels, the deterioration in quality shall continue across the board, that would include private universities as well. In the times of intense global competitiveness, this just cannot be permitted.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
It must be honestly acknowledged that higher education systems, exceptions apart, require an overhauling in various respects. The role of the state must expand in resource input considerably. State must also set up nodal monitoring agency that looks after research in universities of all kinds and creations. Each of these institutions recognised by law must be equipped to the expected levels of resource inputs, both in man and material. These should become the standard setters for the private funded initiatives, which must be allowed to come in the system only when the prescribed levels of norms and standards are fully met. This is the most significant part of the exercise. A policy that attracts genuine private initiatives but permits no compromise on the quality standards must be transparently publicised.
Regulatory bodies must be made accountable and at the same time, be freed from the domineering presence of the MHRD bureaucracy and political interference. These should get back their autonomy in letter and spirit. Experts who make biased and incorrect recommendations must be sacked not only from such memberships in future, but also from their jobs. It would send the message, and younger lot would come in with greater confidence. Lethargy and slackness are to be eliminated and higher education must be liberated from the virus of “routinisation”. It is a tough challenge. It can be countered only when academically honest and professionally competent men and women, free from ideological compulsions and preconceived prejudices are encouraged and given charge of planning, managing and administering education in all of its aspects.
By Prof JS Rajput
(The writer is former Director of NCERT)