Govt should loosen iron grip on edu system

Lost in the cacophony of the present political discourse is a major development in education – a policy shift that could change the course of higher education in the country. If implemented successfully, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani would leave a lasting imprint on education in India. The minister started her tenure on a disappointing note – getting involved in the petty bickering in the University Grants Commission, Delhi University and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

She then got embroiled in the controversy regarding appointment of IIT Directors, thereby generating a degree of animosity between academics and the government. This invoked memories of the way her predecessor in the previous BJP government attempted to interfere in the governance of premier institutions like the IIM-A. However, with the new announcement, she has started addressing the right issues and coming to grips with an archaic system that needs not only an urgent and comprehensive overhaul, but also a complete change of mindset.

The HRD ministry, in a commendable policy shift, has announced its intention to set up 20 world class universities of which 10 will be in the private sector. These universities would have complete academic and financial autonomy in their operation with no interference from the UGC. For this, the ministry is formulating some “enabling rules” to ensure autonomy. For these 10 private sector universities, the government will identify and “encourage self-selected group of passionate and committed individuals” and also corporate houses.

This policy is very important in many respects: firstly it recognises the damage caused to our higher education system by assigning all policy decision making to government agencies such as the UGC, AICTE etc which generated a de facto “licence raj” in the field of education. This allowed universities with poor educational expertise and infrastructure to proliferate and prosper solely because they had the licence to award pieces of paper called degrees.

They also imposed very rigid curriculum designs instead of allowing students to choose subjects of their interest they were forced to opt for predetermined combinations like “PCM” or “PME” etc.

The cumbersome process of curriculum design, acceptance and introduction resulted in obsolete curriculums unrelated to the fast changing scenario of education. Secondly, it recognises the fact that the private sector is just as good if not better in developing world class educational institutions as the government, provided the right incentives are made available. The world’s most renowned universities, from Oxford and Cambridge to Harvard, Stanford, MIT and other famed US institutions, are all private.

It is the “licence raj” existing today that leads to the proliferation of ‘fly by night’ operators that give private sector education a bad name in India. For example, setting up a B Ed college requires approvals from four different Central and state government agencies, each of which is a challenge to deal with, and they lay down such stringent conditions that it is impossible to operate viably. Consequently, while there is a glut of B Ed colleges, a lot of them are closing down despite the fact that we have an acute shortage of well-trained and qualified teachers.

Thirdly, this is an acknowledgement of the importance of a merit-based education system rather than a control based one. While the government has a vital role to play in education, it is also equally important to ensure high quality especially in primary education. In this respect, the Indian scenario is the opposite of what exists in most developed countries.

Supportive role
In the US, for example, the government plays a major role in primary education but only a supportive role in higher education. In India, the government, through the Right to Education Act, has virtually offloaded its responsibility in primary education to private schools, while it has maintained a vice-like grip on higher education through institutions such as the UGC.

This policy shift is a breath of fresh air in our education environment hitherto ridden with dogma and misplaced good intentions. Even our courts have endorsed the right of the government to exercise control over private educational institutions by holding that education being a noble vocation should not be exposed to commercialism. However, the truth is that the world’s best educational institutions are not run by governments nor are they subjected to any outside administrative control.

The fact that our universities do not figure very high in world rankings speaks very poorly of our education system. This also leads to a vicious cycle where our low ranking universities cannot attract good faculty which in turn contributes to their poor ranking. This is despite the fact that Indians constitute a substantial number of highly rated faculty around the world.

It is also a tragedy that our country boasts of having established the world’s oldest university and lays great emphasis on education and learning, and yet our children are forced to spend almost $17 billion (Rs 1,20,000 crore) every year to study abroad, most likely in a private university. This is double the entire budgetary allocation for education for 2015-16!

It is time we reversed this trend and not only save $17 billion every year but also earn an equivalent amount by attracting foreign students.

That can only happen if the government loosens it iron grip on our educational system and focus not on granting licences, fixing syllabi, fees and faculty remuneration but on encouraging the setting up of world class institutions irrespective of their ownership. In that respect, the government’s latest initiatives are steps in the right direction and we hope that they are implemented successfully and expeditiously.   

((The writer is an educationist and managing trustee of a prominent school in Bengaluru))
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