Higher Education: Challenges & Concerns

Higher Education: Challenges & Concerns

In fact, primary education is critical for human development. But, in the emerging knowledge economy, mere primary education does not suffice. Higher education is equally important. But, in the pyramid of Indian education, both the bottom and the apex are weak. Therefore, the imperative of higher education need not be emphasised again. 

Economies are no longer built by physical and natural resources alone. In the knowledge-based global society of 21st century, economies are increasingly built upon human resources. Thus, never in the history of human civilisation, knowledge has acquired so much productive potential for development, both for the individual and the society at large.

In fact, primary education is critical for human development. But, in the emerging knowledge economy, mere primary education does not suffice. Higher education is equally important. But, in the pyramid of Indian education, both the bottom and the apex are weak. Therefore, the imperative of higher education need not be emphasised again.

There are certain crucial questions that need urgent attention in the higher education policy formulation in India. They include Access versus Equity, Proliferation versus Standards, Skills versus Knowledge, Autonomy for Capital versus Autonomy for Knowledge, Social goods versus Commodity, Private Knowledge versus Public Knowledge.

India enjoys a demographic dividend with over half of the population below the age of 25 years. If we can impart high quality education to them we can reap the dividend. Otherwise, as warned by the plan documents, it would lead to demographic nightmare. Weak foundation Indian higher education is built on a fragile foundation with quantity and quality of education offered at the primary stage still remaining abominable.

Unacceptably higher levels of illiteracy, wide gender gaps in literacy, still prevailing higher levels of school dropouts, low levels of teaching and learning outcomes etc., illustrate the weak foundations on which higher education outcomes have to be ensured. This critical relationship between school and higher education are often ignored in the policy formulation resulting in juxtaposing the one to the other.

This policy premise that crept into higher education policy in India has not strengthened school education but threw open higher education to market forces. This has led to unprecedented inequalities in both school and higher education sectors. Inequalities are the root cause of poverty. One form of inequality would lead to another. The educational inequality would lead to income inequality. Thus, education which should be an instrument of overcoming the social and economic inequalities has further accentuated these inequalities.

Access versus Equity Even the Draft New Education Policy too acknowledges the low levels of Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) as one of the key challenges in higher education in India. The enrolment ratio in higher education was 23.6 per cent in 2014-15 and the target is to increase GER to 25.2 per cent in 2017-18 and further to 30 per cent in 2020-21.The draft policy states, “Reform higher education system in order to ensure equitable access to tertiary education, including technical and professional education, narrow group inequalities in access to higher education.”

The diagnosis is fine. The objectives are laudable. But, the prescription is irrational as the draft policy states, “Instead of setting up new institutions, which require huge investments, priority of the government will be to expand the capacity of existing institutions”.Given the wide difference in the prevailing GER and enrolment ratio expected of an economy of size and vigour like India, the expansion of higher education is not possible with capacity addition alone without opening new institutions of higher learning.

This also infers that new education institutions in higher education would only be opened in private sector. None can deny the importance of private sector especially in tertiary education given the magnitude of challenge. But, government abdicating its responsibility for this crucial sector is fraught with grave implications. Public versus Private Private sector accounts for 62 per cent of the total enrolment in higher education in India. The massive privatisation of higher education would deprive a large section of Indians from the ambit of higher education.

This would result in some sort of internal apartheid as the products of higher education lead the nation in all spheres of life. The access to higher education for socially and economically underprivileged sections would be severely constrained by such a policy dispensation. The mushrooming private institutions in country where regulation is often weak will open the flood gates for teaching shops as exemplified by the experience of deemed universities.

There are certain private institutions known for their outstanding standards. But, they remain islands of excellence in an ocean of ignominy. The private sector can at best supplement but not supplant the public sector effort in education sector given its largely non-profit character if it has to serve the needy.

Meanwhile, social and regional inequalities in access and quality of higher education are humongous. For instance in 2011-12, GER in higher education ranged between 8.4 per cent in Jharkhand and 53 per cent in Chandigarh. The GER in higher education is 24.5 per cent for boys, 22.7 per cent for girls, 18.5 per cent for SCs and 13.3 per cent for STs in 2014-15.

Data for enrolment by category showed that those not belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), the Scheduled Tribes (STs) or the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) dominated higher education in the country, occupying 60 per cent of seats in all universities, 72 per cent in Central universities and 58 per cent in State public universities.

Members of the SC communities accounted for just 10 per cent of all university seats nationwide, STs 4 per cent and OBCs 26 per cent. Within Central universities, their representation was 11 per cent, 4 per cent and 13 per cent respectively (University Matters, Ramesh Chakrapani Frontline, March 18, 2016).

Mere capacity addition in the existing institutions or promoting private institutions will not correct this milieu as serving underprivileged regions and social groups is not profitable to attract private investment. Besides implications for access and equity, indiscriminate and unbridled privatisation of higher education will have an adverse impact on the generation and dissemination of knowledge in the era of intellectual property regime.

As the World Bank in its report on 'knowledge based global societies' observed, there is more research done on slow ripe beautifully looking tomatoes rather than nutritious wheat. Similarly, greater research takes place on cosmetics than finding a cure for diarrhea.

This vividly explains the stark difference between public knowledge and private knowledge. The higher education has to perform two clear objectives in society. First, making original additions to knowledge and transmitting knowledge from one generation to the other.

Withdrawal of the State from higher education can result in corporate enclosure of knowledge. Thus, inequalities in access and quality of higher education have a potential to create inequalities in the knowledge system having far reaching implications.

Internationalisation of Higher Education No Indian university figures in the top universities of the world. This results in migration of Indian students abroad to pursue higher studies resulting in drain of precious foreign exchange. This challenge has to be fought through massive upgradation of standards in Indian universities.

Instead, the governments find an easy route to invite foreign universities to set up campuses in India. The draft New Education Policy states, “If required, steps will be taken to put in place an enabling legislation. Rules/ regulations will be framed so that it is possible for a foreign university to offer its own degree to the Indian students studying in India”. This policy shift intends to stem migration of students from India to study abroad.

Estimates suggest that about 75,000 foreign students come to India, including for short duration study programmes, less than 20,000 international students are enrolled in degree programmes in the country, most of them in under-graduate programmes, largely coming from South Asia.

In contrast nearly 3 lakh Indian students study abroad, mostly in post-graduate and doctorate programmes, spending about Rs 60,000 crore per year. The annual spending by Indians for studying abroad is twice the amount allocated in the Union budget for higher education, and nearly 20 times what the Indian higher education institutions spent on research collectively (Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy).

But failing to take certain precautions would prove to be catastrophic. The NEP report itself warns of this when it says, “The Committee feels that indiscriminate opening of Indian education field to foreign universities will be counter-productive – there is a danger that foreign degree shops (of which there is no shortage), will exploit the Indian demand for higher education, and ‘craving’ for a foreign degree”.

This report rightly suggests some precautions. The migration of some of our best students to foreign universities can be reduced if we create educational institutions and research facilities of comparable quality, with employment opportunities commensurate with their qualifications.

Encouragement should be given to high quality foreign universities and educational institutions to collaborate with Indian partners, and establish an Indian presence. The foreign university should be in a position to offer their own degree to the Indian students, studying in India, which will be valid in the country of origin.

The collaborating foreign partner would be among the top 200 Universities of the world. The opportunity should be used to ‘globalize’ Indian higher education without compromising the basic needs of access, equity and quality for the Indian student.

The phrases like ‘comparable quality,‘ ‘collaboration,’ ‘top,’ and ‘without compromising’ are very critical. But, experience of deemed universities that turned to be teaching shops suggest that these caveats in policy do not stand during the implementation as market forces rule the roast.

Foreign universities should be allowed to offer courses which their Indian counterparts do not. The suitable mechanism should be put in place so that access does not suffer due to prohibitive cost of foreign degrees.

Mushrooming penetration should be avoided. Proliferation versus Standards The proliferation of educational institutions does not mean proliferation of standards. The quantitative expansion of higher education is not commensurate with the qualitative change.

The draft NEP fails to adequately address the quality concerns. The Approach paper to the 12th plan itself acknowledges in no uncertain terms “State Universities and Colleges suffer from under funding by State Governments with as many as 50 per cent of faculty positions unfilled, forcing frequent resort to contract teachers and an adverse impact on the quality of teaching”. The NEP reiterates accreditation and assessment as the quality monitoring mechanism. But, the accreditation process is plagued by corruption and inaccuracies in assessment. The draft NEP is silent on this.

Large vacancies of teaching positions, poor infrastructure, unproductive and unprofessional work culture, bureaucratisation of university administration, inadequacies in institutional infrastructure like labs, libraries, technology adoption etc., are the factors that dampen quality in institutions of higher learning.

Universities have to perform three functions - teaching, research and extension. But, the research intensity in Indian universities is a matter of concern. V V Krishna in an article, “Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013, High on Goals, Low on Commitment”, Economic and Political Weekly, 20 April.

2013, states , “Our academic sector continues to suffer due to low policy priorities when it comes to R&D… Even though universities accounted for over 52% of total cumulative national research publications for the decade 1997-2007, they were allocated just 5% of GERD.

Universities in the OECD countries accounted for 20% and Japanese universities accounted for around 15% of GERD in the last decade. Even Chinese universities increased their share of GERD from around 5% in the 1990s to over 12% currently.

The GERD refers to gross expenditure on research and development. The article further says, “Hardly 15% of our universities come under the label of teaching and research universities. Around 85% of our universities are just teaching institutions at different tiers of teaching standards and levels. The bulk of our higher education sector is yet to attain what is known as the Humboldtian goal of teaching and research excellence”.

Social goods versus Commodification The universities are churning out graduates who turn out to be unemployables. The industry-university linkage is abysmal. The draft NEP rightly focuses on skill development. But, the skill formation is not the sole objective of education.

While emphasis on skills is a welcome feature, any obsession with it ignoring the basic purpose of universities would degenerate them into mere polytechnics and industrial training institutes. The commodification of knowledge severely restricts its access to the commoner.

Madhu Prasad of All India Forum for the Right to Education warns: “Unlike knowledge, commodities are produced primarily for exchange for profit rather than for any intrinsic value. In highly developed systems of commodity production all market exchanges are affected by scarcities, monopolies, manipulated tastes and more or less accidental variations in supply and demand”.

Universities should be the commanding heights of intelligentsia where fundamental questions on knowledge and society are raised. Universities should promote the adventure of ideas. Universities performing the role of social critics should produce men and women of high academic caliber and integrity who perform the role of public intellectuals. (Note: Excerpts from the author’s lecture to be delivered today at a seminar on New Education Policy organised by Vidya Vikasa Vedika in Vijayawada)

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