Why we need to revamp higher education right now

What is the relevance of the curriculum  to those who have crossed the  enrolment barrier and joined college?

Published: 23rd January 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd January 2020 09:00 AM   |  A+A-

amit bandre

The two issues of significant interest that currently loom over the higher education scenario in India are the phenomenal numbers of high school graduates produced by the country annually and the relevance of what we provide to them in terms of higher education. For instance, in the academic year for schools that has just gone by, the combined number of students who appeared in the Class 12 exams conducted by the CBSE, the Uttar Pradesh Intermediate Board and the Bihar State Board was in excess of 50 lakh. It shall not take much imagination to extrapolate from here to arrive at a rough estimate for an all-India figure. It is bound to be a staggering number. 

What happens to these students beyond their high school years? Given the limited capacity of our universities and colleges it is a bit difficult to provide the right answer to this question. For instance, Mumbai University, perhaps one of India’s largest universities in terms of enrolment, takes in annually, on an average, less than 3 lakh students. Contrast this with the fact that the Maharashtra Board has about 13 lakh students who took the Class 12 exams.

India’s largest open university, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), enrolled a total of around 10 lakh students last year. Hence, to infer that the intake capacity of our regular universities is way short of the numbers that exit high school each year shall not be much off the mark. In other words is India’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) adequate? Or should something be done to improve it? Without making any formal case for increase in enrolment let it be said that the GER needs to go up to help tackle the issue of large numbers of Class 12 graduates each year. 

Let us leave aside for the moment the issue of the large numbers of high school graduates who are not able to gain entry into universities and institutions of higher education. This brings us to the other moot point. What is the relevance of the curriculum we provide to the significant number that has crossed the enrolment barrier? Are we offering enough in terms of quality and value to such students? Here are some pointers.

At the University of Delhi, there are altogether nearly 5,000 students enrolled in the undergraduate honours programme in Hindi. This is a degree programme that deals purely with literary criticism. It has been running almost unchanged in terms of style for decades. The only changes it has seen are connected with the list of authors included in the courses of study. Each student is taught under the assumption that she is going to become a literary critic.

The enrolment numbers have been steadily rising. There are no formal records or data that can tell us what happens to the students who graduate from this programme. The way it is run, the sole purpose seems to be to seemingly keep a few hundred college teachers of Hindi literature in employment. What remains unasked is the question of the need and relevance of teaching Hindi literary criticism to such large numbers of students.

It must also be noted that most of the students who are enrolled in this programme hail from a socioeconomic group that is well below the median. So, does the nation or civil society gain in any tangible manner from such a programme? The answer is clearly in the negative. I would be willing to speak up for a programme such as this if the thousands enrolled were really believers in literary criticism. That is far from the truth as I can vouch for it personally. These students are largely there in the programme for want of a better alternative. 

And if anyone is under the impression that the situation I have described applies only to Hindi literature, they need to think again. In my discipline of maths, the same story is to be encountered in the undergraduate honours programme at Delhi University. The programme is so devised as if each enrolled student wishes to be a Ramanujan, whereas most of them are there for want of a better or more relevant alternative. I can describe the situation that prevails in mathematics to a greater extent. This current semester I am teaching an advanced course in an area of pure mathematics as a part of the postgraduate degree programme at Delhi University.

All 80 seats for my advanced course have been filled up. A few days ago I polled my students—albeit informally—to learn as to how many would have anything to do with maths after they acquire their degrees. About seven hands went up. The rest are present in my course for want of a better alternative. They would have been far better served had we offered them a learning programme that combined maths with aspects of computer science for the purposes of encryption and cybersecurity or for data analysis with applications. India needs expertise in these and many such areas. When I asked these 80-odd students in my class if they would be interested in mathematical engineering that could build encryption systems or artificial intelligence-based programmes for data analysis or for making fighter planes, almost all 80 hands shot up. 

Let me also add that all 80 are concerned and quite unclear about what sort of employment they will be able to gain after they are done with their studies. On the other hand, university systems are lethargic and shall not adapt easily to take care of the real needs of our students. The UGC, instead of wasting its time and energies in policing universities, could have acted more productively by encouraging dialogue between members of industry, government, civil society and academics to see how education could be transformed. Whether the National Policy on Education is implemented or not, it does not take rocket science to gauge what needs to be done. We could be left far behind in economic terms if India does not act fast and decisively. The clock is ticking away!


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