Higher education: reform it now

By 2030, India will be one of the youngest nations in the world, with an estimated 140 million individuals in their 20s. In fact, one in every four graduates in the world will be a product of the Indian higher education system. Education is an essential tool for achieving development and sustainability. In this context, the quality of higher education becomes increasingly important, as India strives to compete and integrate with a globalised economy where highly-qualified, innovative and creative professionals are required.

There is a strong correlation between large economies of the world and the quality standing of their institutions, as is evident in the US, much of Europe, Singapore and now China. We have lost much time due to slow reform in higher education to meet the academic standards of the developed economies of the world. We are on the cusp of economic growth, especially due to the predicted decline in US-China trade. India could very well lose an opportunity if it does not act now. Also due to India’s vast customer base, businesses across the globe are eyeing the Indian market, and are keen to start local operations.

A large number of initiatives have been launched by the government in its endeavour to not only make the country a manufacturing hub, but also to make her economic growth more inclusive. These forces have increased the demand for professional managers manifold, making management education more important than ever.
Thus, it is high time we bolstered our academia to sustain the economic might that we may acquire.

But the ability of most Indian universities and institutes of higher learning is unfavourably blunted due to extremely limited flexibility in their decision-making; the reasons, more often than not, are various governance issues. This creates a wide gap in what the desirable outcome is and what is actually delivered by these universities and institutes of higher learning.

Our higher education system — be it government universities, private institutes or self-financed bodies—operates in a pincer-like grip of regulations. Broadly, it’s only the IIMs and IITs — both effectively outside the traditional Indian university system—that have the autonomy and flexibility of decision-making, and both sets of institutions have done the country proud. It is a matter of grave concern, however, that a number of higher educational institutions in India have dropped abysmally low in quality over the last few decades.

To meet the huge, unmet demand for job-oriented education and training, the government must free up public universities and institutions. In addition, it must encourage—through policy interventions—the private sector to actively contribute to higher education. However, instead of encouraging the role of the private sector in higher education, the public policy so far appears to be unfriendly and discouraging, with conflicting signals coming from various higher education regulating bodies of the government.

In management education in particular, one must note that there exist many renowned high-quality private institutions in India, providing world-class education. These private institutions are committed to educational excellence and are conscious of their responsibilities. Management education in India has traversed a long distance over the years and has established itself as a powerful force capable of bringing about a manufacturing revolution in the country.

If you have a smartphone, you could spend your remaining lifetime reading about anything that you do not know through search engines. Freely available content on Wikipedia, TED talks, or online courses can only add to the clutter of information available. In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her students is more information. Students need the ability to make sense of the information available. For this, the pedagogy as well as the evaluation system need to change.

Bringing creativity and innovation in the classroom thus becomes paramount to meaningful learning by students. This can happen only through a pull mechanism, for it cannot be pushed onto the faculty – learning being intellectual and intangible in nature. Thus, a conducive academic ecosystem is needed that fosters creativity and innovation that can also be measured through the quality and quantity of research publications. A robust financial model to ensure this would be a critical component of this.

It is essential for policymakers, educational planners, administrators and regulators to revive the very thinking of parity in rules and regulations governing both public and private sector higher educational institutions. A common corporate law that governs public and private business enterprises is a good example to cite.

Such a major reform in higher education might just prove to be even more productive than an open invitation to foreign universities to set up campuses in India — independently or jointly with local institutions. It is time to have a coherent policy framework that acknowledges the complementarity of public and private sectors to contribute to the higher education system and ensures its sustainable development.

(The writer is Director, FORE School of Management, New Delhi)

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Higher education: reform it now

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