Saturday, October 24, 2015

Higher education in India – policies and ideas

There is concern at the governmental level about the importance of higher education in the country. The point is made clearly at the beginning of a note explaining a new survey about higher education initiated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development ((MHRD): “Higher education is of vital importance for the country, as it is a powerful tool to build knowledge-based society of the 21st century.”
The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education in 2013-14 stood at 22.6 per cent. The enrolment in higher education for 2013-14 is 31.8 million. The Plan target is to reach 30 per cent by 2020. India is lagging behind China (26.7 per cent), Germany (61.7 per cent), United Kingdom (61.9 per cent), Russia (76.1 per cent) and the United States (94.3 per cent).
The question to be asked is whether the higher education institutions are in a position to achieve the target. The figures tell a story of their own. The HRD Ministry’s document, “Educational Statistics At A Glance 2014) shows that 7,94,0680 students had obtained a post-school degree, ranging from a diploma to an undergraduate degree to a graduate degree to a M.Phil and a Ph.D. There is a natural tapering as one goes up the education ladder. There are 59,28,857 undergraduates, 11,77,019 post-graduates, 2,00,883 M.Phil degree holders and 2,30, 867 Ph.D degree holders.
(Gender differences at each of these different levels tell an interesting social story of their own. Of the 31.8 million enrolled in higher education in 2013-14, 17.4 million are boys and 14.4 million are girls. Of the 1, 09, 525 students who had enrolled for a Ph.D programme, 64,977 are men and 44,548 women. But at the M.Phil level, women outnumber men. Of the 30,492 who have enrolled for a M.Phil programme,17,168 are women and 13,342 men. At the post-graduate level, out of the total enrolment of 37,08,441, there are 18,60,332 are men and 18,48, 109 are women.)
When we turn to the percentage of those who got the Ph.D and post-graduate degrees, the picture turns out to be quite disappointing. The pass out rate for Ph.D in the sciences is 18.48 per cent, and for social sciences 19.84 per cent. In the agriculture and allied fields, it is 13.64 per cent, in commerce it is 4.01 per cent and engineering and technology 9.06 per cent. The most disappointing figure is in the field of information technology and computer. It is a dismal 1.26 per cent.
These figures indicate that Indians can never be the world leader in science and technology though India has reputedly the largest science and technology pool. Not enough Indians are working at the higher end of science research. There is need for radical changes in the quality of Indian higher education.
Unfortunately, there is no continuity in policy. Every government starts its own initiatives and seems to relegate what has been done by the previous government. An example is with regard to the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). The United Progressive Alliance government which came into office in 2004 had set up a UGC/AICTE review committee under Prof Yashpal in 2008. Arjun Singh was then the Minister for HRD.
Yashpal, a scientist and former UGC chairman, had wanted the ambit of the review committee to be wider. He convinced Singh and rephrased the terms of the committee to “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education”. In the draft interim report submitted in March 2009, the committee recommended “that overall regulating structure for all higher education should be just one. This would imply that the UGC and AICTE should be subsumed within that single Higher Education Commission.” The final report was submitted to the next Minister for HRD, Kapil Sibal. The Yashpal Committee’s report was not implemented.
The BJP-led NDA government has set out to form two new committees to review the working of the UGC and AICTE. The ministry’s annual report for 2013-14 says “UGC’s entire functioning continues to be oriented more towards grant giving rather than regulation and enforcement of minimum standards. The Central Government, therefore, recognizing the need for restructuring the University Grants Commission has constituted a UGC Review Committee on 30th July, 2014.” AICTE Review Committee was also set up “to conduct a review of the present status of AICTE and suggest restructuring and reorganizing of AICTE for attaining even better performance to meet the desired objectives.” The objectives are to “address imperatives and challenges in the Technical Education Sector for fullest realisation of the higher/technical learning and research potential in the Country.”
The reports of these review committees are awaited.
While there is on the one hand the anxiety and desire that more of India’s youth should go to university, and that they should also do research. This has been a late realisation, something that has dawned on policymakers after decades of populist thinking that in a poor and illiterate country, focus should be on primary education. The argument was the simplistic one: a poor country cannot afford the luxury of universities and advanced and apparently irrelevant research. That kind of primitive and blinkered thinking has now been abandoned.
This is amply reflected in Yashpal’s arguments about what a university should be. It is surprising as to why these ideas did not occur to the educationists and policymakers earlier. Yashpal has articulated the idea of the university, a world class one, quite eloquently in the draft interim report. Yashpal acknowledges the mistakes of the past. He writes:
“We were struck by the fact that over the years we have followed policies of fragmenting our educational enterprise into cubicles. We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines. We have tended to imprison disciplinary studies in opaque walls. This has restricted flights of imagination and limited our creativity. “
He goes on to explain the idea of a university: “We would like to point out that there are no great universities in the world that do not simultaneously conduct world class programs in science, astronomy, management, languages, comparative literature, philosophy, psychology, information, technology, law, political science, economic, agriculture and many other emerging disciplines. Indeed the emerging disciplines do their emerging because of infection or triggering by other fields in the same university. That is the reason that such universities are so great and our academics keep going to them.” The bright solution that the Yashpal committee offers in the draft interim report is that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and even the Indian Institutes of Managements (IIMs) should be made into full-fledged universities. It is also suggested that no central universities should be set up without multiple disciplines.
There was however one strong dissenter. It was the economist, Kaushik Basu. He wrote his dissent note. The committee appended the note, and some of the other members wrote their responses. Most of them went along with Yashpal. But it is interesting that no attempt was made by the committee to keep out the dissent note. It is not that Basu disagreed with the report as a whole, but he had strong views of his own about the role of the UGC and AICTE. Apparently, he was also not comfortable with the idea of a single Higher Education Commission recommended by the committee.
Basu’s argument was simple and direct. He was of the view that the UGC created hurdles for new colleges and universities to emerge, and that it was similar to the industrial licensing system that prevailed before the 1991 economic reforms. He puts his view bluntly: “Just as India gave up on industrial licensing in the early nineties (and thereby unleashed growth) the reformed UGC and AICTE should give up on the licensing of higher education system.”
He argued that the UGC should be rating universities and publish the results every year and publicise it as well. He thinks that it is a futile exercise on the part of the UGC and AICTE to try and catch out the bad colleges and universities instead of nourishing the good one. He makes a persuasive case against the bid of the UGC and the AICTE to check sub-standard private colleges and institutions.His argument is that they will run themselves to ground once people find out that they are not delivering what they promise. He says, “While the United States has arguably the world’s greatest universities, it also has many sub-par ones. The existence of the latter does not harm the reputation of the US as a nation of academic excellence. If there was a perfect way for the state to efficiently weed out the bad, I would be for it. But as we learnt from our experience with industrial licensing, often the effort to weed out the bad by using bureaucratic control can do more harm than good.”
Basu has also pooh-poohed the idea of uniform salary scale across universities. His reasoning is more compelling than even the one against the UGC and AICTE. His point is that “The old system of a flat scale where every professor was supported in the same way across all the over-300 universities was once an attractive idea. It is no longer feasible. On the one hand, most nations are switching over to the system of special salaries and research budgets for ‘star’ researchers and professors.” He suggests that this can be done in two ways. One way of doing is to select 20 centres of excellence and put them on a higher funding scale. This selection had to be made on an objective basis and it has to be revised every three years because other universities can hope to make the grade. The second is to select a few professors and put them on a “higher salary and research support”.
He was also in favour of private colleges and institutions specialising in some courses like medicine and engineering, and charge as high a fee as they want. This will then free up the state to fund those universities where the poor and clever students attend.
The other suggestion made by Basu in his short dissenting note was with regard to attracting foreign students. He calculated, writing in 2009, that a year in a US college would cost US$ 50,000 or Rs 25 lakh at the exchange rate then prevalent. He said that it is possible to provide a similar educational opportunity at Rs 8 lakh or one-third it would cost in the US. He says, “If Indian can build some good universities with high quality residences for students and advertise globally , India can give this market tough competition. If India charges tuition fee of Rs 5 lakh per annum from foreign students, then with all other overheads a student can get quality education for Rs 8 lakhs per annum, which is 1/3rd the cost in the US.”
These were indeed radical alternatives and argued with clarity. It was not surprising that the committee did not agree with Basu. But the present government seem to be taking a cue from Basu’s ideas, at least with regard to the role of the UGC as a rating agency of institutions of higher education. It may even adopt the idea of attracting foreign students and make the project a commercial success.
There is no contradiction between Yashpal’s idealism as to what a university should be with regard to generating knowledge for society, and that o Basu which makes a pragmatic argument of making things work at an optimal level.
What is needed is an open debate. It need not be necessary to adopt only one of the ideas and reject the others. The different suggestions can be tried out by different institutions, both state-funded ones as well as private educational enterprises. It seems that the country’s first private university in Manipal had tried out some of these ideas already, but in a limited manner. What Manipal failed to was in acquiring the reputation of some of the private universities in the US. It seems to be the case that Manipal failed to achieve the high academic standards that places like Harvard and Yale have managed to maintain.
Higher education in India cannot any more dodge the quality test. The lament voiced by the Yashpal report in 2009 remains valid in 2015 as well: “Mushrooming engineering and management colleges, with some notable exceptions, have largely become, mere business entities dispensing very poor quality education.”


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