A Wag Whenever one sits down to write on the mess that one finds in the arena of higher education, one is struck by a sense of d©J¤ vu as well as a sense of inability to say nything new. Pawan Agarwal’s comprehensive paper that he wrote for ‘CRIER, the excellent report by National Knowledge Commission (headed by the irrepressible Sam Pitroda) are Just two of the many articles that easily come to mind. The first one mentioned, has exhaustive data at a fairly disaggregated level so that this aspect need not detain us here.
The issues and challenges in this context -that are fairly well understood – are diverse not typical. Thus, the challenge is not epistemological but one of political will and at a more mundane level of implementation. In India, it oes not take a genius to point out the problems in any sphere, least of all in the higher educational sector. The point however is (ought to be) to identify workable solutions. In this article I will concentrate on the capacity, flexibility and quality issues that beset the higher educational sector in India and suggest some steps that need to be taken to remedy the situation.
Rest assured, there will be no magic wand and no single solution. Help and initiative from whatever quarter must be sought and grabbed by both hands. A bouquet approach will alone be realistic, driven by ragmatism rather than ideology. Whilst finance is undoubtedly important, I argue that governance is the key. The essentials of the story are easily told: Despite tremendous expansion in the sector, there is inadequate capacity and hence access; after all we have 350 universities with huge enrollment (one of the largest in the world).
The system is characterized by rigidity with absolutely no flexibility; we have degrees being offered in a rigid framework with very little choice for the students (who should matter the most) and the regulations are archaic with peculiar unresponsiveness to the current context. Thanks to the perverse hiring policies and protracted procedures (not to mention politics: with and without state interference) the quality of faculty is in a state of rapid decline. The reasons and solutions are well known and yet some of them bear repetition.
Having made a first cut let us revisit the issues in some detail, but first some preliminaries. India is at cross roads. It has all the pretensions of emerging as a knowledge economy and yet the time is running out for it to catch the bus. Surely, we don’t require Thomas Friedman to point out the gravity of the situation. After all, what we o today – by way of investment – will have a decisive influence fifteen years from now. For that is how long (even in these fast paced times) it takes for changes in educational system to fructify.
It is no secret that a genuine knowledge has a prerequisite of solid foundation provided by educational institutions characterized by relevance and excellence in training and research. This then must provide us with the parametric environment for what follows. The long queues in front of the colleges as well as the screaming headlines in the newspapers, starkly present the scarcity of capacity in the higher educational sector. The premium that the seats in better colleges for almost all the courses attract is common knowledge.
Whilst there are supervisory mechanisms in place (de Jure) we know that supervision many a time means additional side payments. As an aside, the only solution lies in self enforcing system design which in this case would clearly imply removal of striuctural and overall scarcities through increased capacities. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) report talks of setting up 50 National Universities (over a period) with augmented resources leading to capacity enhancement.
There is the private universities’ bill which should help too. There is a scope for great enhancement of capacity in the PPP mode, for which the regulation has to be more welcoming if not friendly. Whilst there is a need to think out of box, there is no denying the fact that the traditional state funding mode will however continue to be of importance for at least some time to come. We must once and for all put an end to view that improvements are possible witn Just non-monetary means.
This implies a self binding commitment on the part of governments at all levels to provide the necessary financial resources. The urrent spending on higher education that is pegged at around 0. 7% of GDP must be doubled. This will require a serious lobbying effort. In this context, it may be noted that there is much that can be done by the institutions on their own in terms of raising resources. Alumni represent a huge potential source, so also setting up of off shore campuses and attracting foreign students are other obvious sources.
However, this will require some amendments in the existing provisions of the ‘Act’, also, experience suggests that such efforts are ‘rewarded’ by cut back in aid, instead of matching incentive grants being proffered. Such efforts in the past have been – post facto – subjected by the government, to severe restrictions on the use of monies so collected. Clearly there is a governance issue involved here. This apart, the required enabling (through regulatory changes) of private sector is a must for the purposes of raising supplementary resources.
The private endowments which at one time were significant, have to be restored through incentive based legislation. At the same time the interference – as distinct from engagement – of the State in all aspects of education has to be significantly reduced, especially in the ‘operations’ and rocedural aspects. This has been a major cause that led to the Universities being converted into patron saints of mediocrity! The state must truly practice private enablement with ‘oversight from a distance’. Of course, the processes involved in the setting up in the national universities (or even investing in old ones! are so long drawn and convoluted that with the given absorption capacity of the institutions it will be some time before the plan becomes a reality. Also, and more importantly, the paucity with regard to the attendant requirement of quality faculty (which we shall ook at later) is so great that even with physical infrastructure the delivery will not be assured. This requires some bold and innovative thinking and application which requires a key governance initiative. The external agencies like the corporations and industries will have to play (be enabled to do so) a major role.
In the interim, I would suggest that IT enabled distance learning mode as well as the platform for e-learning have to be exploited to the fullest extent. This will require huge organization and collaborative effort of the best minds. It is especially required to mention this here ecause these avenues (particularly the first mentioned) are pretty much have received step treatment and have been left to the whims and fancies of the second raters. This has created sections of milch cows that fraudulently extract money from the hapless students and give nothing in return.