Quantity sans quality

There is a striking similarity between the just-released blockbuster movie ‘3 Idiots’ and the Yashpal panel report on ‘higher education’ in the country: they speak the same language. Both the film and the report are refreshingly innovative and yet convincing in their message regarding the need for rejuvenating the entire higher education system in the country.

Consider this critical paradox in higher education policy in India: much has been written and discussed on how the policy-makers have tilted public spending towards higher education at the cost of primary and secondary education; but very little is actually spent on higher education. The 10th Five Year Plan (2002-2007) had envisaged an expenditure of 65.6 per cent of the total education budget on elementary education, 9.9 per cent on secondary education; 10.7 per cent on technical education, 2.9 per cent on adult education and the planned spending for higher education was just 9.5 per cent. Even if we combine technical and higher education, the spending accounts for just about 21 per cent.

Even after a big increase in the expenditure for higher education in 2007-08, the fact remained that the country continues to lag behind in terms of per student public spending on higher education, compared to its Asian counterparts. At the moment, public spending on higher education per student in India stands at Rs 18,000. According to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) data, India had the lowest public expenditure on higher education per student among developing and developed countries. Yet, for the record, India’s higher education system is the third largest in the world, after China and the United States.

As of 2009, India has 20 Central universities, 215 state universities, 100 deemed universities, five institutions established and functioning under the State Act, and 13 institutes which are of national importance. Other institutions include around 21,000 colleges, including 1,800 exclusive women’s colleges. But only three Indian universities have been listed in a recent list of the world’s top 200 universities.
While we go gaga over the 8 per cent GDP growth, there is actually a crisis-like situation in the higher education sector. But it is hidden and is systemic in nature. The situation calls for serious interventions from the government. The ‘Indian growth story’ could be a bubble as the country will be unable to meet the human capital demand for a sustained transition from a developing country to a developed country.
Indian universities lack multi-disciplinary approach to education and research. In fact, universities have been reduced to mere affiliating entities. The Yashpal panel has questioned the logic of granting university status to specialised entities, be it technology, management or industrial labs like CSIR. Out of the three Indian universities named among the 200 global best, two are IITs and IIMs which are super specialised entities in education and only one — Jawaharlal Nehru University — is a full-fledged university in the true sense, which means the third largest higher education system in the world has only one university of any quality!

Multi-disciplinary approach
The Yashpal panel emphasises the need to promote multi-disciplinary approach. It questions the logic of eliminating the need for subjects like economics, philosophy, etc in professional courses like engineering and medicine. It makes no sense to produce truck loads of engineers and doctors without any basic background in economy, society or liberal arts subjects. The US has a pre-med degree, where students opt for a variety of courses before beginning their medical education.
The committee quotes a fantastic example of students pursuing mathematics opting for philosophy and vice versa. This can’t be underestimated as the whole branch of logic and induction and other epistemological subjects have been synthesis of mathematics and philosophy. University of Penn, Stanford, and New York University are some of the many top universities that boast of research and teaching in these areas. India needs to integrate such wide disciplines qualitatively in universities as opposed to merely proliferating centres of higher education and research that offer narrow areas of specialisation.

A part of the problem, perhaps the most important part at that, is that Indian colleges are no more than super schools where rote learning is continued and reinforced. That is what the Yashpal report has pointed out. A very important aspect covered in the report is the role of undergraduate education. While universities stress on post-graduate education, the undergraduate is the business of ‘affiliating’ colleges. This creates a great impediment in overall quality drive in renewing and reuniting higher education.
Barring some centres of excellence, Indian professors are inclined to teach only post-graduate students and not prefer to teach at the undergraduate level. The report recommends mandatory teaching for undergraduate students by professors, who have been more or less confined to post-graduate departments.

Finally, the most critical, perhaps also controversial, recommendation of Yashpal committee is its prescription of subsuming entities like UGC, AICTE in one National Commission for Higher Education and Research — which will be a grand overall authority reporting directly to parliament. The report is not only critical about the functioning of higher education regulatory agencies but asks a fundamental question of the need of uniformity as against diversity. Diversity doesn’t mean decrease in standards, it means enabling of setting up of standards where universities can adhere to. Diversity will help institutions of higher learning to come up with their own syllabus, the students to opt courses of their choice, etc.

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