Gaps in Our Education
THE PEW FOUNDATION of New York/ Washington had recently, after an inter-country comparison of school education standards, concluded that India is at the very bottom of the pile—dead last! While such comparisons for higher education are not readily available through credible studies, it can be surmised that our university education standards are not likely to be in the top five—more among the last 10 of the world!
After the major thrust in the education sector in national policy in the first two decades of Independence, subsequent policymakers have not considered education a key area of national interest. The IITs and IIMs heralded the focus on higher education; in the following decades, regulatory institutions to cater to emerging requirements were established to ‘oversee’ the sector. It is now clear that this critical area has been totally neglected in national policy in the past five decades or so. While the IITs/ IIMs have lost their sheen, JNU and its ilk have become the launching pads for politicians (as if this was the main purpose of its establishment); and, sadly, institutions like the University Grants Commission have moved away from mentorship to offering ‘approvals’ for purchase; NCERT, NUEPA et al have become either inept or irrelevant.
In this dismal scenario, the main contribution to the sector’s growth has come from investments by the private sector, which saw opportunity in the growing aspirational middle class, thirsting for formal higher degrees, even if more for personal prestige than utilitarian ends. These educational entrepreneurs, largely consisting of politicians or those connected to them, took full advantage of the lack of regulation and effective policy framework to carve avenues for lucrative investment, reaping rich financial reward, largely unaccounted-for and untaxed. Indeed, there is laissez faire in the higher education policy of the Centre and of the states, where the colleges are bound to reserve a state quota for students (frequently about 50 per cent or thereabouts), irrespective of facility/ faculty/ quality offered, leaving the rest as ‘management quota’ for the private sponsor to play the market and collect unaccounted-for ‘capitation fee’. As a result, the higher education sector has been one of the prime contributors to the black economy of the country, probably only second to political corruption.
An effective system for upgrading the quality of higher education and assessing institutions needs to include the phases of recognition, accreditation and evaluation. Recognition is a minimal legal threshold to ensure that courses and degrees being offered fall within the purview of the system. The fact that a large number of ‘degree shops’ and ‘fly-by-night operators’ are in existence, well in the know of concerned authorities, is proof that ‘recognition’ is a purchasable commodity. UGC perhaps is the only agency that does not know of the existence of such institutions.
‘Accreditation’ is a key attribute of any institution, for students as well as prospective employers. It is an assurance of quality and adherence to academic standards. It reflects the reputation of an institution and the credibility of its degrees. As of now, accreditation is not compul-
THE HIGHER EDUCATION SECTOR HAS BEEN THE MAIN CONTRIBUTOR TO THE GROWTH OF INDIA’S BLACK ECONOMY
sory and covers only 10 per cent of our institutions, of which only 9 per cent are at the ‘A’ level, a statistic that reflects the abysmal state of our higher education. The present accreditation systems are far from reliable, and need drastic revision. The recent news that the NITI Aayog is seriously examining the need to revamp the accreditation system is welcome. Hopefully, the government will not utilise the services of the IIT-IIM faculty as it will be at the cost of academics and research in their parent institutions. It is important to create a new class of ‘educational appraisers’, much like CAs in the audit field.
The present dispensation does not distinguish between racehorses and village ponies; the treatment is ‘democratic’ and equal. Private institutions that fall in the ‘A’ category need to be given total freedom to set their fee structure, recruit faculty and collaborate with quality institutions abroad. Likewise, units in the lowest quality band should either improve or be disbanded.
One must not forget that higher education is a continuum, an extension of school education. With the terrible state of our primary and secondary education, it is unrealistic to expect the higher education field to be pure, with high mean and low standarddeviation. In Indian conditions, it is absurd to work for a high Gross Enrolment Ratio or GER (from the current 23 per cent to 30 per cent). The need is to supplement post-school education with strong vocational streams, high quality ‘skills’ training, while upgrading the quality of university education, and improving research quality in academia. Inclusion of socially and economically backward classes needs to be sharply improved. This should include instituting a massive merit-based scholarship programme, inter alia including a living stipend.
Also needed is a new national higher education law for the sector. The entire statistical base for the education sector needs to be reviewed, as also the role of affiliating universities. The medical education sector needs dramatic and serious reform, for sharp expansion and reduction in the massive corruption levels; the engineering sector too needs major upgradation in terms of the technical quality of the teachers and the students who pass out. Agricultural universities are now antediluvian—no wonder, agriculture is as neglected in national policy as education. One would not want to comment on the quality of law education.
The country looks to the new government, in particular its leader, to transform it. After five decades, there is now new hope in India, especially among the common man, the poor, the farmer and the downtrodden. While the government is paying strong attention to economic issues, the education sector has not received the critical focus it deserves. It is possible to transform the education sector dramatically within 10 years, if only a start would be made.
THE PRESENT REGIME DOESN’T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN RACEHORSES AND PONIES, TREATING BOTH EQUALLY
A-CLASS Students at IIT, Kharagpur