Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Whither Higher Education in India?

After many decades, one gets the sense that higher education prominently is the nation-building project. At least the UPA Government demonstrates a great degree of attachment to higher education. It knows what ails higher education and has taken quick corrective measures.
The biggest strength of the higher education in the country lies in the fact that there is a large literate population in India. We have inherited a fairly developed, even though it is deficient, education structure. We have more and more people who are keen to take advantage of education. With the current trend and progress, India is expected to emerge as a superpower by the year 2020. The only challenge is to pay more attention to education.
The Government wants to turn the clock back on higher education by pushing new regulations whose outcome would be quasi-collectivisation of private 0f private universities. As per the regulations prepared by the University Grant Commission (UGC), that the esteemed body will have the power to fix a uniform free structure for all deemed universities, apart from overseeing a centralized admission process, which will determine student intake at these universities.
The status of deemed universities granted to some private institutions gives them a measure of autonomy in running their affairs, on the principle that an institution can attain excellence only if administrators are given a free hand in running it. But the proposed centralisation of critical decisions by making them the province of bureaucratic puppetmasters at the UGC would turn the definition of deemed universities on its head.
The UGC and its sister organisation, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), have been accused of becoming rent collection points by creating artificial scarcity in higher education, where demand surpass supply by a wide margin.
Literacy in India
In 1951, India’s literacy was only 18.3 per cent. Today the rate stands at 64.8 per cent. Quite a big leap for independent India. However, India continues to lag behind several other developing countries in the region.
China’s adult literacy rate was 78.3 per cent in 1990 and 85.8 per cent in 2001, when India reported 49.3 per cent and 58.0 per cent respectively. Sri Lanka posted youth literacy rate of 95.1 per cent (1990) and 96.9 per cent (2001) while India’s rates were 64.3 per cent and 73.3 per cent respectively.
Census data indicate that the number of literates in India grew by 52 per cent in 1981-91 and 59 per cent in 1991-2001. The absolute number of illiterates increased during 1981-91 but substantially declined during 1991-2001.
The National Policy on Education (1986) provides a broad policy framework for eradication of illiteracy and sets a goal of expenditure on education at six per cent of the GDP. As against the goal of six per cent, the total expenditure on education by both central and State Governments was only three per cent of GDP in 2002-03.
11th Five-Year Plan Allocation
The 11th Five-Year Plan (2007-12) document proposes an almost 10-fold in outlay for higher and technical education. The planners have set ambitious targets—to attract 15 per cent students passing out of Class XII (from the current 10 per cent) into higher education by 2012 and 22 per cent by 2017. The way to do this, they say, is to expand and upgrade on an unprecedented scale.
In the new Plan, there is more of everything—30 new Central Universities are to be set up, seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), 10 National Institutes of Technology, five research institutes to be called Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research, 20 Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), two Schools of Architecture and 330 colleges in educationally backward districts. All this is in line with the Prime Minister’s announcements in his Aug. 15, 2007 Independence Day speech.
Infrastructure in existing universities and institutions is also in for major upgradation. Among the big beneficiaries of these special grants will be 17, yet-to-be-identified Central universities which will get
Rs.3,298 crore. Besides, 39 engineering institutes will receive a whopping Rs. 6,749 crore, again for revamping up infrastructure. A good dose of funds has also been set aside for upgrading agriculture, management and medical institutions.
But this money comes with a plan. The document envisions wide-ranging reforms in the way higher education is imparted and much of the fund allocation has been tied up to the beneficiary institute carrying out structural changes. Some of these proposals are likely to trigger debate and attract controversy.
National Knowledge Commission Report
The National Knowledge Commission’s (NKC) report on higher education is one in the series that began with report of the Dr. Radhakrishnan Commission (1948). The valuable reports have met with one common fate—they are often quoted but remain largely unimple­mented. It is hoped that such of the recommendations of the NKC as are accepted will be implemented. Most of the recommendations here have already been made in the earlier reports.
Among the recommendations that have been reiterated, one that advocates 1.5 to 2 per cent of the GDP for higher education, assuming a provision of six per cent for education, and the observation that implicit politicisation has made governance of universities exceedingly difficult and much more susceptible to non-academic intervention from outside are worth emphasising.
In order to increase the gross enrolment ratio to 15 per cent, the NKC suggests that India needs as many as 1,500 universities by 2015. It is a modest requirement for a country of India’s size and, if implemented it would mean rectifying the major deficiencies.
The number of universities that has been suggested is not too large. Japan with a population of 12.7 crore has 726 universities; Germany with 8.2 crore has 350; the UK with 6.1 crore has 125; and the US with a population of 30.4 crore is reported to have 2,466. China, according to the NKC, has authorised the creation of 1,250 new universities in the next three years.
The Pitfalls
In India, higher education suffers mainly owing to the tendency to overlook merit and talent, while deciding eligibility for such education. Merit and talent are natural attributes. They may be prevalent widely, but their distribution among the people is not uniform, both in nature and magnitude.
Education has become book-centric or the critical and lack in the practical use of education.
The curriculum today is out of touch with ground realities and little practical import. The curriculum does not provide knowledge that can be utilised to enhance local resources through which employment can be generated in addition to improve the existing conditions.
Another major set back is the Government’s policy on reservation. The reservation policy was conserved to counter India’s peculiar socio-economic conceived, in which larger section of the population led a life a humiliation and deprivation. But in recent time, the reservation policy has become a vote bank.
The folly of socialised higher education shows up not only in the number of unemployable graduates it turns out, or the flight of many of the country’s best minds overseas, but also in Government proposals to set up a number of world class universities, as if these things can be accomplished by fiat. It is equally important to raise the quality of higher education, to create institutions of excellence comparable with the best in the world, and to attract better teaching talent. It is only if these goals are met that skills and capabilities commensurate with India’s standing in the world will develop. These are necessary not just to take the nation forward but also to transform it into a knowledge society and economy.

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