Higher education needs push from inside, not outside

Recently the Union minister of state for higher education Shashi Tharoor stated that Indian universities were performing poorly and were falling well short of the benchmarks set for them. He made these comments at an international conference on higher education organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), where he released a book on the noted American educationist Philip G Altbach.

Tharoor made a few pertinent points. He mentioned that though there are many universities coming up in India, none of them have figured in the top 100 universities of the world. He also mentioned that the quality of the graduates being produced in the Indian system barely meets the requirement of Indian companies.

He was candid enough to admit that the national education policy has been abysmally out of touch with the current requirements. He touched upon the prospect of foreign universities entering India, making it sound like a panacea to all the problems that we are befuddled with. This certainly cannot be a long term solution. It would amount to a mere abdication of seminal responsibilities. We need to ruminate on what can be done to improve our educational institutions, so that they would someday compete with the best in the world.

While the minister has been frank on these issues in a guileless manner, the moot question is what can be done about this shoddy state of affairs? Do we even know the extent of the canker that plagues our education system? One of the serious problems in India is the lack of actionable data on higher education. There are millions of students and numerous educational institutions and it is very difficult to gauge what is going on in these institutions.

Six-and-a-half decades after India gained independence, its higher education system has evolved from its early colonial moorings that was rooted in elitism to a much more inclusive and egalitarian setup. The requirements of an ebullient democracy were enormous. This entailed a massification process which has seen an 85 fold increase in the number of students.

 At the dawn of independence India had only 18 universities and 591 colleges with a total student enrollment of 200,000 students. By 2012, India now has 634 universities and 45,000 colleges with over 25 million students. While these numbers look majestic, one must strike a contrarian note. The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) is a statistical measure used by the UN to give us a ratio of the number of students who are actually enrolled to the number of students who ought to be enrolled. India’s GER is only 17 per cent, which is a very low figure considering the minimum requirements for sustainable national development.

Measure of progress

The key objectives in the national agenda since independence were – equity, access and relevance. While there has been a measure of progress in areas of equity and access, the issue of relevance continues to haunt us. The Radhakrishnan Commission (1950) had noted in its report that there was a mis-match between what is taught in our higher education institutions and the requirements of industry and society-at-large.

 If one goes by the latest survey reports only about 15 per cent of liberal education graduates and 25 per cent of professional graduates are suitable for employment. There is a huge disconnect between courses being offered and the job market. Non-relevance and low quality of education contribute to the high rate of unemployment and under-employment. A 2012 study by ‘Universitas  21’ of the top countries for higher education ranked India last amongst 48 nations surveyed.

We Indians pride ourselves on our huge pool of human resources. To an extent it is an advantage. However this ‘demographic dividend’ can quickly become a social nightmare, if the situation is not immediately remedied. The lack of funds is a major concern.

As early as 1966 the Kothari Commission suggested that 6 per cent of the GDP be allotted to education. It languishes at a mere 3.7 per cent today, while the highest figure ever achieved was 4.2 per cent in 2000-01. Public funding alone will not solve the problem. Private sector involvement is also needed. This can be achieved through increased Public-Private Partnership (PPP).

The 12th Plan (2012-17) has proposed several initiatives around six focus areas namely --expansion, equity,excellence, governance, funding, and implementation and monitoring. It has planned expenditure of 1,107 billion rupees on higher education, which is 1.3 times higher than the 11th plan.

Funding alone cannot be a policy remedy, especially when it is bereft of actionable data which forms the basis for allocation of these funds. This lack of actionable data can be remedied if the government uses the Collection of Statistics Act (2008) wisely.

This legislation enables the government to collect data from private institutions and even industries. This act should be utilised to gather the required data from all the stakeholders of higher education in India.

This will give us a clear perception of the problems afflicting this area. GK Chesterton once said that ‘Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next.’ The time for apportioning blame has long passed us. We cannot afford to flounder now, at least for the sake of posterity.

(The writer is a faculty member of the School of Law, Christ University)

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