Is there a right to higher education?

Is there a right to higher education?

Humans are magnificent species, but many a time, lack precision. While sloppily using terms alike, they blur concepts. One instance of such confusion is of right and privilege — here, of higher education. Though this debate has been predominantly related to fee structures, now the argument sees more substance.

Some economists have described higher education as a private good leading to an economic return, for which individuals rightly bear the cost. On the other hand, the defenders of subsidised education argue that higher education is a public good and should be a universal entitlement like primary and secondary education.

Higher education today is an industry worth $91.7 billion as of 2018 and projected to expand to $101.1 billion in 2019. India has the largest network of higher education institutions in the world, stretched over 42 central, 275 state, 130 deemed and 90 private universities. However, these grand numbers are plagued by low rates of enrolment, unequal access to quality education, a meagre level of infrastructure and lack of relevance of existing curricula with the contemporary industry requirements.

Data furnished by ‘Global Access to Postsecondary Education’ (GAPS) on access, equity, and quality of education in India clearly states a discrepancy in urban and rural Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER). Access to and dissemination of education, in general, and higher education, in particular, is crippled by disparities based on gender, class, dogma, ethnicity and economic dispensation.

According to a 2018 report by the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), the proportion of female students is the lowest in Institutions of National Importance, followed by state private open universities and deemed government universities. These disparities and inequalities in access to quality higher education are surely not a result of fee alone but a deeper malaise that prevents institutions from evolving with changing times and industry imperatives.

About 99% of India’s MBAs and 80% of its engineering graduates are unemployable as per industry standards. The imperative to follow a career path based on personal interest and aptitude is impeded by the economic environment within the nation. Mechanical and Electronics engineers often find themselves working in Information Technology companies.

The reasons for this trend are traced to revolutionary interventions such as automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and so on. Universities need to ensure that such mismatches are identified and accommodated for early in the learning graph while the student is still a formal learner. In fact, universities must go further and predict the future roles that workplaces may throw up and prepare learning outcomes accordingly.

Conducive policies should be drawn promoting improvement in the physical infrastructure of existing institutions. Hence, general development grants must be increased in existing schemes by a sizeable margin. In particular, C grade institutes need to be treated with care.

Change in faculty

To ensure the quality of higher education, academic reforms should be initiated such as semester system and credit system, choice of courses and the way examinations are conducted. While the functionality may undergo several changes, what needs immediate change is the faculty. Lack of teaching staff and an imbalanced ratio of teachers per student can be eliminated by supporting faculty, and state and central authorities must share their contribution towards the same.

While every aspect of securing higher education has been ticked, the question of relevance remains. Conventional education is slowly losing relevance in a world of skill-based progress and what is taught by the book is not the practice in business ecosystems. Have we done enough to change that?

Applied or experiential learning is a learning method that focuses on learning by doing. Thinking through a possible solution and reflection upon successful application in a real-life situation has proven to be the best way to learn a concept. Experience with previous placement programmes tells us that nurturing employability in a student is an initiative best started early. Through constant monitoring, it is the institution’s job to identify and recognise patterns of interest and aptitude that come to the fore when the student is forced to deal with situations requiring a creative solution. Technological interventions such as AI, machine learning, automation, etc make this an imperative.

If the quality of the education imparted can be improved to create problem solvers with industry-ready skills, government funded, aided and private universities alike will create more opportunities for its students to be employable. This, in turn, has the power to enable more students to afford and access better higher education for themselves, even if it remains to be a privilege as per the current provisions in our Constitution.

(The writer is Pro Vice Chancellor, JK Lakshmipat University)