Floundering higher education

Floundering higher education

Before we set out to explore what ails our higher education system, let us first take a look at the strengths. First, there is no dearth of talent and aptitude as over the decades since independence, we have witnessed a quantum leap in the calibre of our youth.

Second, we are not hamstrung by paucity of funds. Ever wondered what happened to the education cess we have been paying for years? A mountain of money lies unutilised with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD).

But we lack the will to educate. At present, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) stands at a little over 24%. Data of this kind needs to be taken with a pinch of scepticism, as they hide more than what they reveal. A vast majority of students studying in our 760 universities and 38,498 colleges languish in quality deprivation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers often to our unmatched demographic dividend and the vast pool of youth at the nation’s disposal. But he says little, save skill development, on how he plans to empower them. I doubt if he is mindful of the crucial importance of education. If he were, he would have kept the MHRD with himself and driven the agenda for quality education with vigour and urgency. Surely, this holds far greater long-term gain than demonetisation of high value currency notes.

 So what ails our higher education? Truth be told, but we are afraid to educate! This manifests itself in two ways. First, educational needs of the socio-economic elite are met. This begins with a highly discriminatory school system which widens social inequalities.

Second, the educational aspirations of the underprivileged are neglected. Not surprisingly, only 19.1% of young people from the Scheduled Castes and 13.7% of the Scheduled Tribes are enrolled, as compared to the national ratio of 24.3%. Our higher education system is riddled with class-caste bias. Yet, for the poor and the underprivileged, much more than for the rich, education is the only escape route from deprivation.

An enterprise is only as great as the vision that engenders it. Our higher education system is floundering for want of an adequate vision that is geared to our constitutional goals and democratic ideals. We embrace and discard goals like fashion. Nation building, social transformation, personal empowerment, character formation, employability…tomorrow god knows what.

We refuse to realise that education is the process of building today the society we want to live in tomorrow. What are our attainments worth if, after our conquering many an Everest, we don’t have a sane society to live in? Worse still is the assumption that such goals, if pursued, will handicap our youth in the rat race. Arm them with knowledge! Unleash them in the market. Watch them conquer! It is forgotten in the process that there must be some difference between educating human beings and training circus animals.

A major bottleneck in higher education is regulation, which is murderously misunderstood. Those in the business of regulating education appear to have neither any concern for education nor a clue to what end regulation is to be exercised. Control freaks, maestros in the art of procuring political patronage, ensconce themselves in seats of regulation. They know regulation only as constriction.

In the nine years that I have served as an administrator in higher education, I have not come across any more than a handful of worthies who understand “regulation” in a proactive sense. The engine of a car is structured on regulation: the carburettor, the brakes, the steering wheel etc., exercise regulatory functions. But regulation of that kind facilitates the forward movement of the car. The future of Indian higher education will stay bleak, if the present perverse paradigm of regulation is not abandoned forthwith.

Our higher education project groans under the ascendancy of mediocrity. None of our universities and centres of national excellence figures among the top 100 in the world.

We simply do not have a tradition of excellence, characterised by accountability, sound work culture and corruption-free management. We need to institutionalise a disinterested delight in the best that is thought and known in the world. In contrast, most students understand progress in education as no more than escaping from a lower class to a higher.

Rewarding mediocrity
The present system of education harbours and rewards mediocrity. Today we are saddled with an army of mediocre, poorly-motivated faculty. Conscientious teachers who are mindful of the welfare of students are rather exceptions than the norm. Teachers are nurtured by the system. A mediocre system of education breeds mediocre teachers who, in turn, further enlarge the pool of mediocrity.

Measures meant to promote quality education prove counterproductive for want of required systemic reforms. It is naïve to assume that teachers teach better if they are paid better. Ground realities do not support this assumption. If anything, there has been a negative correlation between enhanced pay and motivation to teach. In the absence of a live tradition of pursuing excellence in education, higher pay serves to finance indulgent lifestyles and intellectual laziness. Education has suffered since the Sixth Pay Commission.

The worst danger is the political meddling with, and ideological hijacking of, education. Education is a social project; but it is hitched to state funding. The state is a political entity. The interest of the state lies in equipping young people to be servants of the status quo. Educational goals like building the capacity to think objectively or act impartially, to honour the ideals embedded in the Preamble of our Constitution – justice, liberty, equality, fraternity - will not be a priority for the state.

Ideological infiltration is even worse. Ideologies are regressive. They stifle free thinking. No society can progress on the reverse gear. Ideologies, being the spectres of the past, turn people into cultural crabs that progress backwards.

One thing at least we know for sure: it is in the nature of every ideological invasion to mask itself under altruistic pretensions. History warns us that zealous storm-troopers of ideologies, not less than their hate objects, will be hoisted on their own petards. Marxism killed more Russians and Nazism more Germans than those beyond the backyards of these eruptions of collective frenzy.

If education is to unleash our frozen social assets and harness the same to nation-building, it is imperative that it is effectively aligned to the goals envisioned in the Eleventh Plan: quality, equity and access.

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

What ails the Indian higher education system is an oft-repeated question, especially in the recent decades. The system fares poorly because of a combination of factors such as infrastructure, competence of teachers, outdated curricula, pedagogy and government interference through political appointments. The recent Cabinet decision to accord autonomy to the IIMs is a bright spot. Experienced academics analyse these issues and more in this edition of Spotlight.

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