Brig(Dr) RS Grewal examines and explains ideas that could help bring about much needed changes in India's higher education scenario
Indian higher education has several challenges that need to be addressed— Inadequate number of institutions, unemployable graduates, poor quality of research, a dysfunctional affiliating system, an archaic regulatory mechanism, eroding autonomy and low levels of public funding to name a few. The Planning Commission has said that paying attention to expansion, equity and excellence can resolve a lot of issues. However, each of these can throw up challenges that we also must prepare for. Here are a few suggestions:
India had approximately 330 universities at the beginning of 2006. By the end of 2012 the number had risen to 659. In six years India had established 329 new universities; that is one university per week! A study conducted by FICCI/Ernst and Young reports that there were 12,806 colleges in 2000-01 and their number had risen to 33,023 by the year 2011-12; an addition of about 1,840 per year or five per day.
National Knowledge Commission headed by Sam Pitroda, had estimated in 2006 that India needs at least 1,500 universities. Going by the present growth rate it would take another 16 years to achieve that target. By 2030, India’s population is likely to reach 1.5 billion with a median age of 32. India’s present capacity of 30.5 million seats in higher education would have to be augmented to 70 million to meet the demand for that segment of population.
A survey by CII indicates that Education is the fourth largest area of consumer spending in India and is set to occupy the third space in next five years, thus throwing up numerous challenges.
Make both public and private institutions accountable:
The growth has largely been led by the private sector. A report by KPMG highlighted that in the past decade the CAGR of the private sector in engineering education has been 13%, while it is 8% in management and 20% in pharmaceutical education. Though investment from private sector is welcome, some investors who have no grasp of the nuances of the education sector have also entered the fray for monetary benefits. Such unscrupulous investors do not let the academic heads operate freely and impose their own operational policies to make their ‘education businesses’ profitable. These policies are not always in agreement with the cause of education.
The bureaucratic trend is to paint the complete private sector with the same brush rather than ensuring better governance. As a result, even those private universities and institutions that contribute sincerely towards the cause of education have suffered. Strengthening the governing bodies of the institutions and making them accountable is the need of the hour.
The prevailing ethos in the regulatory bodies is, that everything is fine with the public sector and it is only the private education providers that need to be reined in. For example, Para 2(b) of the University Grants Commission (Promotion and Maintenance of Standards of Academic Collaboration between Indian and Foreign Educational Institutions) Regulations,
2012 stipulates that a private education institution can go in for collaboration with a foreign institution only after completing five years of its existence but public institutions have been exempted from this condition. The chaotic state of public institutions is common knowledge but the UGC tends to ignore that fact to satisfy the socialistic hyperbole.
Revisit faculty hiring rules:
Acute shortage of faculty and academic leaders is another challenge thrown up by the sudden expansion of the higher education sector. Faculty shortage is to the tune of 40% and even the elite institutions like the IITs are struggling to cope with it. A research study published in 2002 in the Journal of Association of Indian Universities had pointed out that it would take at least 25 years to make up for the shortfall of faculty that holds PhD degrees in engineering institutions. Since 2002 the situation has further aggravated. The Regulatory Bodies instead of instituting pragmatic measures to meet this challenge insist on enrolment of faculty as per the laid down norms. Thus institutions are forced to hire faculty whom they otherwise would not have hired.
The 66th survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation has highlighted that between 1999 and 2009 spending on education by Indian families has increased nearly four times. A Mumbai-based business consulting firm Synovate in its survey report ‘Perceptions of Higher Education’ has found out that the parents and students are convinced that the private sector is better for education. Leaving aside premier institutions like the IITs even the employers have shown a preference for private institutions. But the cost of education in private institutions is higher.
Help students get study loans:
N R Narayana Murthy in his report to the Planning Commission recommended setting up of Indian Corporate Higher Education Scholarship with a corpus of Rs 1,000 crores. In addition, the government could institute other measures like setting up a body to provide loans to students and minimise loan default. Indian society needs to chip in with scholarships like the community-scholarships in USA.
The standard of teaching and research in our institutions of higher learning is very poor. A major reason is the dependence on an examination and teacher centric approach. Adoption of a learning-centric approach is required but it cannot be achieved overnight. Our faculty is a product of the ‘old school’ thought and would have to be trained to change the paradigm from teaching ‘what to think’ to ‘how to think’ that encourages critical analysis. Pragmatically conceived faculty development programmes and enrolment of mentor-professors to coach and mentor junior faculty members would be a stepping stone in this direction.
Make accreditation mandatory but with proper mechanisms in place:
Accreditation should be mandatory for all educational institutions and the government would do well to put in place a workable mechanism that could meet the challenge. A recent policy-direction by the MHRD making accreditation compulsory for access to funds under RUSA has resulted in huge rush of applications to the NAAC, which it is ill equipped to meet.
Academicians from public universities and some bureaucrats totally dominate our regulatory bodies. They have apparently failed the system so far. Indian higher education sector needs to be rejuvenated. We need to infuse fresh talent at the top rung of policy making bodies to conceive and implement pragmatic plans for better governance and transformation of the system.
Brig (Dr) RS Grewal, is the former VC of Chitkara University. After retiring from the Army in 2002, he joined the Manipal Group, where he was the director of Sikkim
Manipal Institute of Technology. Later he was the pro-vice chancellor of Sikkim Manipal University and also the first director of ICICI Manipal Academy.