India’s magic number of 30 per cent GER (gross enrolment ratio) in higher education, which the government wishes to achieve by 2030, is far from becoming a reality. In fact some number crunching tells us that India is lagging far behind other developing countries, especially China. According to All India Survey on Higher Education 2011-12, India’s GER is 18.8 per cent overall with male GER at 20.9 per cent and female GER at 16.5 per cent. These numbers by themselves do not tell us much. We must reckon that in 2003 our GER was not much lesser than what it is now – 13.2 per cent. The number has grown by a mere five per cent in 10 years. We cannot ignore the progress of our neighbour China in this aspect as in 2012, China recorded a massive 26 per cent GER overall with the government spending 4 per cent of its GDP on education. India on the other hand with a higher fraction of its population in the university-going age group spends 4.08 per cent on higher education.
It is true that in the recent past India has made education its priority and is attempting to establish numerous institutes of excellence like IITs and IIMs. While this a commendable move, it is worth mentioning that all the IITs together offer 9,600 seats and the IIMs can accept only 3,000 students annually. That again is a very small fraction of the total college-going population of India. Fifty per cent of India’s population is under the age of 25. While the whole world is waiting to see India emerge as a super power, one of the most crucial sectors that will contribute towards this end — education — is yet to find the right path for progress.
One major factor that is hindering students from taking up higher education is the lack of value addition, says Prof Sanjay Dhande, director, IIT-Kanpur. He, however, add that we are heading towards achieving better quality of education as enrolments have gone up in three years. Talking about increasing the base of IITs, Prof Dhande says, “We must enlarge the base of IITs as there are many who are worthy of making it, but we have few seats. So far the impact of quality education is miniscule. That is what we need to work on. Even states must promote IITs and we must work towards better coordination between states and the Centre in the sector of education.”
Addressing an even more basic need, Anand Kumar, founder, Super 30, says, “One important thing is that we can boost enrolment with incentives, but we cannot sustain it. Incentives have a saturation point. Education needs a permanent dose of incentive in the form of quality. There is a strong craving for education among all sections. It is more intense among the poor, as they view it as a tool to change their lives and generations. They move away from education only when they feel it will not help them.”
Concurring with Prof Dhande, Prof M Anandakrishnan, chairman, IIT-Kanpur, says, “The way ahead is to strengthen our existing institutes. Expansion should not be mindless.” While everyone is lauding the Chinese example, it is a fact that the quality of university education in China is not commendable. He says, “They do not have proper infrastructure or the necessary teachers. What you eventually get is a degree but the core is lost. China has failed in providing quality in the race to achieve quantity.” He adds that in India, the critical mass of our colleges/universities is low. Improving this critical mass by improving quantity with existing infrastructure will be the aim of the XII Plan. According to Anand, we need to diversify our streams of education as not all Indians need to be doctors, engineers or managers. He says, “Apart from IITs and IIMs, India has several other institutions catering to these two fields. The time has come to diversify and look towards other fields as well.”
With expansion, either in streams or in quantity, what India needs is quality teachers who can educate our youth and that is what we still lack. Says Anand, “For India, what is required is to try and strive for higher education, which is affordable, accessible and still has quality. There are some very good institutions and we have to try and take the best practices to all the institutions. However, the important thing is to have quality teachers. Today, the unfortunate part is that we are spending a lot on infrastructure and not paying attention to teacher development. The result is, nobody wants to be a teacher. It is worse in schools and if we don’t have quality schooling, we cannot expect quality in higher education. A few good institutions will not make a great nation. Education should not be linked to affordability only, else it has a tendency to alienate deserving ones from poor families. We have to have a uniform education system as well as an examination system, like the one we have for CBSE.” He goes on to add that we need to have good, competent teachers first. Education can be imparted without a plush campus. But it cannot be imparted without teachers.
Addressing the issue of achieving a total of 6 per cent of India’s GDP on education, Prof Anandakrishnan says, “The problem here is that despite the Centre increasing its spending on education multiple times, the state government spending has been stagnant for many years now. The 6 per cent government spending includes a component from the Centre and from the states. But the states’ spending is only diminishing, if anything. Education does not seem to be a priority at that level.” Anand says funds allotted as of now must be utilised properly, even if it is not high. “Money alone cannot ensure quality in higher education. It needs to be properly utilised to achieve the best results.”
Emphasising that education without value and quality is meaningless, Anand explains why many who take up odd jobs skip college. “It is true that many people do not attend colleges as numerous lay-level jobs do not require a degree or accreditation. Higher education should not be made mandatory for all, but at the same it must be accessible to all those who want to pursue it. For those who have the sparks of brilliance must be encouraged to pursue higher education, irrespective of their financial status,” he says.
Recognising that vocational education is the way forward, Prof Anandakrishnan says, “The latest move of AICTE to provide an option of pursuing vocational education in stages that finally culminates in a degree is commendable, and could increase our GER.”