It's a mutual give and take

SKEWED The problem in higher education can be summed up as one which focuses on wealth creation alone, ignoring the holistic development of the individual.

Do Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in India have what it takes to feed the growing demands of the industry? The answer is certainly yes, as it would not otherwise have been possible to achieve the kind of sustained and robust economic growth that India has been witnessing over the last two decades.

The growth has been largely driven by the higher productivity of educated and trained human capital. The knowledge resource pool of India, which is the product of higher education, includes scientific and professional manpower, technical workers and skilled craftsmen. India has the third largest professional manpower pool in the world after China and Russia. While ancient India was recognised as the seat of knowledge, even in the post-industrial, technology-driven era, India continues to have advantage in terms of the quality of its manpower. However, the larger question to be answered is, whether HEIs exist only to meet the demands of the industry, what those demands are, and whether these demands have changed over time.

Business houses like the Tatas made pioneering efforts to support higher education from the early 20th century. What Jamshedji Tata visualised for IISc or Homi Bhabha for TIFR was to sustain scientific temper and enquiry for centuries. Initial thrust given by such visionaries engaged in the industry, however, did not get replicated in India unlike in the US where it got replicated multifold.

Over the century, there is a paradigm shift in the nature of industry’s engagement with academic institutions and its expectations from the latter. In today’s excessively commercialised world, HEIs have become an adjunct of business. Academic institutions, particularly those providing tertiary education, hitherto involved in creating new knowledge, sustaining scientific temper, questioning irresponsible economic behaviour and playing a crucial role in societal transformation, have got reduced to institutions preparing workforce for the industry.

We talk of today’s economy as the knowledge economy which, in the words of K C Pant, former union minister for education, Government of India, ‘revolves around creating, sharing and using knowledge and information to create wealth and improve the quality of life’. The problem in higher education can be summed up as one which focuses on wealth creation alone, ignoring the holistic development of the individual and consequently, the quality of life component of a knowledge economy.

Students enroll into such university programmes which result in immediate ‘jobs’ in the industry. Research, which has moved substantially from universities to R&D labs in the industry, has to fit into quarter-on-quarter result requirements and meet budget and ROI constraints as well.

The Global Innovation Index Report, 2010 published by INSEAD, France, jointly with CII, India, underlines the importance of innovation in country competitiveness and growth.
The framework identifies enabling parameters of innovation and the ensuing output measured in terms of scientific outputs and creative outputs and well-being. India ranks 56th overall but ranks lower in terms of output (70th rank for scientific outputs and 78th for creative outputs) as compared to inputs. Despite the relatively high rank for one of the inputs, namely human capacity (38th), particularly for some of its component parameters like quality of educational institutions - 22nd rank, quality of scientific research institutions - 25th rank and availability of scientists and engineers - 4th rank.
However, when it comes to research output, India simply does not make it anywhere near the top.

While the industrial sector successfully came out of the license-permit-raj consequent to economic liberalisation in the 1990s, the education sector continues to remain firmly shackled in it. Government has always tried to restrict the supply side; the number of institutions recognised for quality like AIIMS, IIMs and IITs are very limited in relation to the demand for such institutions. Government has also been continuously diluting standards, for dubious popularity, whereas upgrading is the need of the hour not only to cater to domestic needs but also to compete globally and attract foreign students of merit.

Our government has seriously failed on two critical aspects:

- By not recognising the importance of merit in skill development and overplaying social justice and inclusion, it has seriously undermined the credibility of state universities which no longer attract meritorious students or faculty.

- In the absence of a coherent population policy, government's expenditure on education is becoming more and more miniscule. Adding to this is the near absence of an appropriate facilitating regulatory environment for the private sector, which could easily enable and augment the development of HEIs.

The solution lies in ‘education liberalisation’ leading to better private sector participation, innovative public-private partnership models and setting up of independent accreditation agencies to help students in identifying HEIs which offer high quality education. It calls for promoting relevance by regularly updating the curriculum in consultation with other stakeholders, rigour through process orientation leading to good governance in HEIs and research in both basic and social sciences.  

(The writer is director, IBS, Bangalore.) 

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