Labyrinth of higher education

Published: 18th August 2012 12:39 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th August 2012 12:39 AM   |  A+A-

On Friendship Day, Curiosity landed successfully to investigate the possibility for earthly people like us to make new friends in Mars. India’s prime minister has also announced the Mars mission Mangalyaan. Some Indian educationists are excited on the emerging prospects of human life and the consequential benefit of opening an engineering or medical or teacher training college in India’s branch at Mars! Their euphoria cannot be dismissed as a joke considering the rampant growth of colleges in India.

Managements of medical colleges will appoint event managers to orchestrate a MCI inspection in Mars. They can manage infrastructure and doctors but transporting temporary out-patients to Mars will be a gruelling challenge. Insurance companies will offer trans-planetary insurance policy for such patients. On the engineering side, even if AICTE issues a statement that no new engineering colleges will be approved it will immediately sanction approval for dozen new ones making engineering college supply inversely proportional to its demand. New IIMs and B-schools are putting to shame McDonald’s franchises. For those running teacher training colleges, the scene at Mars suits their needs. With no schools, teacher graduates will find it easy to absent themselves and continue their private tuition in Earth.

As long as its the government opening and not private institutions, it’s okay for the law college students and for those running Arts & Science Colleges, cosmopolitan cities of Mars will interest them. An explosive market awaits distance education providers if they can manage the cosmic distance. This sums up the prospective imagery of the higher education approval system in India’s satellite MHRD in Mars.

The Indian higher education system is the largest in the world with 31,324 institutions putting USA and China with 6,742 and 4,297 a distant 2nd and 3rd respectively. Despite this, the higher education enrolment is far from satisfactory. As against China’s 26.7 and USA’s 18.3, India’s 14.6 million puts before it a daunting challenge of achieving the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) target of 30 per cent by 2020. India’s current GER of 13.8 per cent is well below the global average of 23 per cent and far below USA (83 per cent), Russia & Australia (77 per cent), UK(57 per cent) and Brazil (34 per cent). At the current CAGR rate of 3.3 per cent between 2000-’10 in India, the GER target looks unachievable as it requires a CAGR of 8 per cent to achieve the 30 per cent target. While the intention to achieve higher GER is laudable and many initiatives of the MHRD are welcome, quality cannot be the resultant casualty. There cannot be a time more appropriate than this to realise that a growing India needs a right mix of quantity and quality and just as we press the access pedal hard we also need to press the quality pedal harder. Unreasonable regulations and antiquated committees whose findings are either gathering dust or being used extensively despite crossing its expiry period cannot be the solution. We need an honest internal introspection and a reasoned action plan with multi-stakeholder involvement removing the misconception that private education is not for public good. India needs confidence building in its higher education system, both public and private.

As per the 2011 data, India’s population of 234 million in the age group 15 to 24 is not only the largest but also the fastest growing. The enriching ‘demographic dividend’ with the passage of RTE Act and the growing enrolment in class 9-12 levels has created a massive expansion. Over the last decade, the number of universities in the country has grown at a rate of 7.5 per cent as against the 4.7 per cent during 1951-2001. The number of colleges has grown at 11 per cent in the last decade as against 6.1 per cent in the period 1951-2001. More than 5,000 colleges have been added in the last one year alone. Many reports have been critical about the quality of doctors, engineers, MBA graduates, etc, that graduate from these colleges. Though some are faulty in their methodology, they sound alarm bells that policy-makers and higher education providers cannot afford to turn a deaf ear. The entire world is watching India’s handling of its youthful intellect.

Statutory bodies like MCI, AICTE, NCTE, etc, were created with a fundamental objective to establish norms and standards for various higher education programmes and constantly innovate in their approach towards improving the quality of various degree programmes. The rigour and spirit with which these bodies worked during their formative years is slowly fading out or at least that is the impression a majority have. The role of statutory bodies must harmonise quality and quantity. The assessment and approval methods must be outcome based than the existing input based minimalist approach. Many grey areas need a distinctive shade with a coherent synergy amongst all stakeholders and with the willingness of various ministries to think rationally than with puritan academic orthodoxy.

With a doctor-patient ratio being 0.5 to every 1,000 population, the prime minister is concerned about the shortage of 1 million doctors and 2 million nurses. The National Knowledge Commission wants to create 1,500 universities but the Tandon Committee wants to convert existing universities to colleges in an arbitrary manner. The Yash Pal Committee wants universities to be comprehensive and offer many programmes but the Tandon Committee wants universities to be focused without any plurality in purpose. It even ranked deemed universities in 2009 not realising that many in Category B continue to have better research productivity than those in Category A. The AICTE is charitably approving new engineering colleges that meet minimum standards. Prospective colleges hire fresh PhDs or a veteran PhD on lease as principal. The market for fresh PhD is on a new high due to the comfort of administrative powers and almost no teaching or research. The very purpose of their PhD gets defeated resulting in a colossal waste of resources. A majority think PhD is the end of research, not realising that its a licence to do research. It would not be a bad idea to have an expiry date for PhD degrees. Teacher education is producing teachers, a majority of whom consider the degree as a passport for job and not as a tool for social transformation through passionate teaching. Arts and science colleges are glorified in metropolis but places of last resort in rural and semi-urban areas. Legal education needs more private initiative and a long-term vision. Vocational education needs integration with mainstream education by formalising existing non-formal mechanisms.

There are many ways to increase GER in addition to opening new institutions. An outcome based approach than the existing input based one is certainly a must in the interest of qualitative growth. It is high time stakeholders realise that students cannot be prepared to graduate with an exit certificate but with an entry certificate to make a new career and life.

S Vaidhyasubramaniam is Dean, Planning & Development, SASTRA University


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