Education quality, relevance key concerns

Abhijit Banerjee winning the Nobel Prize in Economics this year is indeed a matter of great satisfaction to India but it also conveys a strong message to the Indian academics. The message is, “your work must bear the stamp of quality and relevance”. 

Banerjee’s writings are not only of high quality but a typical example of knowledge flowing from lab to land conferring benefits to our farmers in a big way. While the Indian-origin academicians have won Nobel prizes, it is a fact that India as such doesn’t rank anywhere in 200 of the recent global rankings of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) the world over. 

Even the Indian Institute of Science, which was one in the 200 two years ago, has slipped in its ranking this year though it is in no way a reflection on the institution. This is a matter which should make us ponder over the limitations of higher education in India and how best to remedy the situation. What follows is an attempt at such an exercise.

A few general observations about the status of higher education in India is being attempted. Data released by the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) in its 2018-19 report says India has 993 Universities, including Public, Private, Deemed, Deemed to be and Cluster Universities, and 40,000 colleges. 

Student enrollment in HEIs is 3.73 crore, and out of this, nearly 51.36% are male and 48.64% female. It is gratifying to note that Uttar Pradesh has a female enrollment ratio of 50.70 and the same in Karnataka stands at 50.04 (AISHE, 2018-19). While the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) stood at 25.8%, according to official figures, the government is keen to take it beyond 35% by 2025 pointing to a quantitative expansion of higher education.

 Though the above numbers indicate a gradual inclusiveness in higher education, the state of higher education in terms of quality leaves much to be desired. As C N R Rao often says, Indian academics publish far less qualitative papers compared to their counterparts in the US, Europe, South Korea, Japan and China. It is in this context that we need to identify the key challenges before our HEIs.

 Firstly, the challenge before our public HEIs is how to balance equity and access in higher education with quality and excellence. This calls for increased levels of governmental funding of higher education.

The much-promised 6% of GDP spending on higher education by then prime minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 has not yet been achieved. GDP spending, which had not crossed 3.5% for long, now stands at 4.6%. 

Sadly, increased spending has also resulted in increased governmental control over HEIs. The need of the hour is to delink government funding from control and interference in the working of institutions. Governmental interference is highly visible in the appointment of vice-chancellors (V-Cs) and directors of institutions. 

Data reveals that V-C posts are vacant in nine central universities. As a national daily reported, the serving HRD secretary is a member of the search committee set up to appoint V-C of a central university. This is something unprecedented. The position is much worse in state universities, affecting the quality of leadership in public HEIs. Secondly, the challenge is about balancing knowledge creation and dissemination with ensuring employability by enhancing the skills of students who pass out of our HEIs. While the need for imparting skills is not disputed, the fact remains that our universities should lay premium on knowledge creation. 

American and European scholars win Nobel prizes because universities give utmost importance to knowledge creation. Knowledge creation should not be sacrificed at the altar of promoting employability. 

Thirdly, shortage of permanent faculty is a constraint under which our public HEIs are functioning. Reports have it that more than 45% of faculty positions are vacant in public universities including central universities. 

Institutions are run with temporary faculty appointed on a contract basis. Their commitment to teaching may be doubtful as they hop from one institution to another to take classes. This malady needs to be urgently removed by allowing the filling up of sanctioned posts.

Fourthly, HEIs should realise the need for offering inter and multidisciplinary programmes. Students of science courses should be allowed to choose one or two subjects in Arts/Humanities if they like and vice versa. 

Student feedback key

Rigid compartmentalisation, which is the bane of our higher educational system, should go. Additionally, it is important is to bring in industry/employer representatives to the Board of Studies which designs curriculum. Student feedback on what should constitute the curriculum also needs to be obtained as they are the main beneficiaries.

Fifthly, the challenge is to make the faculty, including senior professors, go through periodic recharge programmes to keep themselves abreast of latest developments in their disciplines, which should, in turn, be reflected in their teaching and research. Also, publications of high-quality text/reference books and articles in professionally recognised peer-reviewed journals need emphasis.

Sixthly, the rise of vernacular/regional language in higher learning, even in writing PhD dissertations, is highly visible in our HEIs. While learning in the vernacular language needs encouragement, the responsibility lies with the faculty to come up with quality text/reference books to maintain high standards. 

Central and state governments should give generous grants to HEIs to help them fund translation of high-quality literature available in English, to local languages.

Finally, HEIs should undergo a periodic assessment of their quality. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council is doing a pioneering job of assessing and accrediting institutions in a transparent and rigorous manner. 

Public perception of HEIs are often based on such assessments. The HEIs should bear in mind that only those who assure quality and relevant education will survive in the future and others will have to close shop.

(The writer is former professor of Political Science and former dean, faculty of Arts, Bangalore University)

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