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Reforms Needed In Indian Higher Education System

Updated: June 4, 2011 1:26 pm

“In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.”—Friedrich Nietzsche.

            Nietzsche couldn’t be more right, especially, when we talk about the state of higher education in a “large state” like India—it surely is “mediocre”. There are several factors that may be actively or passively contributing to its present-day condition. First, inconsiderate and incoherent policy planning. Second is the role of industrialists and bureaucrats—they insist that to be attached with anything “less” than “global standards” is laughable. The reason behind this belief is nothing but the desire to mint money; for had it been otherwise, the state of higher education in India would have been rather “world class”. Why does the government now feel the need to launch a full-scale attack on everything that had existed in the past in terms of higher education?

            The University Grants Commission (UGC) is the “chief” regulatory authority for coordinating and determining the standards in universities. Nevertheless, it is not the sole regulatory authority as it is supplemented by other councils such as the Medical Council of India (MCI), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), etc. From time-to-time, the courts and the central and the state governments keep on interfering in the functioning of these regulatory authorities causing unnecessary confusion. This calls for the establishment of an independent regulatory authority, which would function independently and would exercise as an exclusive decision-making power.

            The universities in India have very limited funds available with them so as to sustain themselves. Also, the scarcity of funds in the research programmes and the low salaries of teachers act as a disincentive for the younger generation to either engage in research activities or to pursue teaching as a life-long career option. The universities should be allowed to diversify their sources of income, since it is necessary in order to build a “world-class” education system. This will facilitate the universities in building up a strong infrastructure and also attract foreign students from all over the world.

            Presently, several private universities are coming up in every nook and corner. Many academicians believe that the reason behind this sudden mushrooming is nothing more than using this platform as an authorised place to turn black money into white, and on that pretext, help them earn more money. Pick up any newspaper or magazine, log on to any website or simply turn on your TV, the first thing you’ll notice is the number of advertisements for private universities. Clearly, these universities, which are spreading at an unimaginable rate in our country, are meant for those who can afford them. And merit is, definitely, not their criterion.

            Other trends that seem to be slowly catching up with these private universities are the right to appoint faculty from anywhere “irrespective of citizenship”, decide on what fees to be charged from the students, invite “distinguished” faculty from different parts of the world to receive honorary doctorates, etc., and in general evolve into institutions of “higher global excellence”. These autonomous institutions will be subject to a “comprehensive review of their functioning once in 10 years by an External Peer Review Board (EPRB) to be constituted by the HRD Ministry from a large panel comprising eminent educationists, scientists, public figures and stalwarts from industry, living in India or abroad”. The report seems obsessed with “academics from abroad”—the eagerness to pave the way for the appointment of foreign faculty, instead of investing in faculty development for those living and teaching here.

            In this background, a section of educationists belive that India needs to allow more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into higher education. The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation, Maintenance of Quality and Prevention of Commercialisation) Bill, 2007, is still pending before the Parliament. The Bill, once passed, will make it easier for the foreign universities to open their branches in India. At present, none of the foreign universities have their campuses in India; however, many colleges are now offering student exchange programmes and offering their courses through franchising or collaborating with Indian universities. While talking to the media, the Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD), Kapil Sibal said that FDI must come to India and that its entry into the education sector must neither be “limited” nor “over-regulated”.

            However, some educationists argue that the entry of foreign universities in the country would lead to commercialisation of education. The argument, according to other educationists, is laughable because even at present, higher education in India is more of a commercial business due to burgeoning number of private universities and colleges. They maintain that, on the contrary, the introduction of foreign universities’ offshore campuses in India would lead to greater competition between them and the existing public and private universities, which would eventually improve the standard of higher education in the country.

            FICCI Ernst and Young Report 2009 says: “Despite having more higher education institutions than any other country in the world, (there is) hardly any feature in the leading institutions in the world. At about 12 per cent, our Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) is almost half of that of China, and lower than many developing countries.”

            Sam Pitroda, Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, has argued that he had nothing against those who wanted to enter the education sector to make profits, as long as they gave “world-class education and produce brilliant manpower”. Some academicians emphasise that the solution to avoid commercialisation does not lie in forbidding foreign universities from entering into the country; rather, it lies in devising a meticulous policy for the same—good governance, steady monitoring of these institutions and not their over-regulation.

            Besides these, there are a few more reforms that have to be brought about in the regulatory regime of higher education; these include the curriculum reforms, freeing the educational institutions from political interference, etc. The curriculum prescribed by the UGC and the universities is usually outdated and does not equip the students with the essential problem-solving skills. According to Goldman Sachs, it is the lack of “quality education” that has held India back from rapid economic growth. For overcoming this problem, the UGC should revise the university syllabus to bring it at par with the other first-rate universities in the world.

            It is, therefore, important to have a coherent and comprehensive policy with a vision to achieve excellence and strengthen and develop the knowledge economy of the country.

By Tulika Rattan

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