Catastrophe called higher education

Catastrophe called higher education

In perspective

With not a single Indian institution of higher education figuring in the list of top 200 universities prepared by The Times Higher Education Supplement, the crisis in higher education is obvious. It goes unsaid that all is not well with Indian universities, and governments have been less than serious in taking higher learning to greater altitudes.

First the funding. Budgetary allocation for higher education has been going down and there is a noticeable indifference to this sector. That higher education in India still needs state funding is beyond doubt, but the reverse is happening and there is an invariable support to the private sector to come up with investments.

According to the latest statistics, in India, only one out of nine students is able to pursue higher learning. Those registering for higher education is just 11%, whereas in the United States it is 83%. To take the percentage to 15%, there has to be an investment of 2,26,410 crore, while in the eleventh plan a provision of only 77,933 crore was made.

Looking at education spend as a share of the GDP, which is what international trackers do, the trend is clear: it has dipped from 0.63% of the GDP in 2013-14 to 0.47% projected by the government for 2017-18. None other than Higher Education Secretary Ashok Thakur has admitted that India should be spending at least 2% of the total budget for research, but the payout is merely 0.83%.

It’s not money alone. The enrolment situation is much worse, just 24% for the 18-23 age group. This includes distance education students. In most advanced countries, the ratio is close to 50%. So, about 71 million youth are still out of the higher education system. Enrolment ratios are lower for Dalits and Adivasis, and dropout rates higher. The problem does not end here. There is a need for good and qualified teachers. At present, there are about 1.5 million teachers in higher education. India badly needs to prepare teachers through well-resourced training colleges but necessary funds are missing. At another level, family spending on higher education is rising while quality is rapidly deteriorating.

There is a problem with nomenclature too. The education ministry’s name has been changed to human resources development. In countries like the UK and Australia, it is still “education” ministry with suffixes like “skill development” and “employment.” To put higher education in good health, the University Grants Commission was instituted, but today someone as high as a vice-chancellor (VC) of a university is not able to defend his/her position. While appointing VCs for universities, caste considerations still rule high.

Three years ago, in Bihar, VCs of as many as six universities were from one caste. State governments have this proclivity for appointing VCs from the caste/community of their preference. The trustworthiness of Indian universities have declined over the years and the rot is becoming only deeper. To reform higher education, several committees have been appointed yet the picture is bleak. There have been several “new” education policies with no remarkable contribution to the quality of higher education.

Truly employable

According to research and business bodies like Nasscom and Mckinsey, only one out of 10 in humanities and one out of four engineering degree holders is truly employable.

The NAAC figures show that 90% colleges and 70% universities in the country are feeble and their state of affairs is pathetic. In the first 50 years after independence, there were just 44 private institutions for higher learning called “deemed” universities. In the last 15 years, the number of deemed universities has jumped up to 69. But deemed institutions have been lagging in quality teaching and they have just been producing sub-standard graduates. 

In 2012, the English postgraduate studies of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru Universities were ranked the best among 100 globally. Since global ranking depends on research, this has been a very dismal area. If for the students preparing notes for exams are a priority, nourishing approach to higher learning and fundamental knowledge creation is conspicuously absent, to the extent that good research often falls out of the prescribed syllabi; instruction and study have been quite traditional over the years even after globalisation hit the hall.

Why research in India has been uninspiring is not difficult to find out. Lack of instinct is one reason and the second reason is the non-availability of the right environment for investigation. Indian students spend somewhere between Rs 43,000 and Rs 45,000 crore annually for higher education abroad. The PROBE report says the real problem is the excellence of education back home.

Today, the global economy, progress, competence and wealth creation is dependent exclusively on qualitative higher education where India is brutally lagging. If India is to gain from its demographic advantage where 25% of the population is under 25, higher education has to be put in order. If we are able to make the right kind of investment in educating this huge group, India can certainly become a world power as the late President A P J Abdul Kalam dreamt about tirelessly.