Involve the States more in higher education

CN Krishnan *

Every year, India dreams of its higher educational institutions rising up to world standards in terms of ranking, number of peer-reviewed publications, and awards for research.

It dreams of this despite reports that almost three-fourths of the graduates emerging from these colleges and universities are adding little value to research and innovation as a result of the poor-quality education that they have received.

The Central government's solution to this problem is simple: increase the number of institutions under its control, whether it is the Indian Institutes of Technology or the medical institutes, and hope that the quality improves. By repeatedly doing this, the Centre is limiting its role in improving the quality of education and research given that it controls only some hundred institutions in the country, which produce less than 1 per cent of the total number of graduates in the country every year.

A widening gap

On the other hand, State universities produce over 95 per cent of the nation's graduates, including from the private college system through the affiliation route. Yet they have little presence in bodies that frame policies and decisions regarding regulation or funding. All the major decisions and initiatives only deal with the Central institutions, with the Centre also seeing some hope from the emerging private universities which are driven purely by money power and political patronage.

With the gap in quality of education and research widening between the Central and State institutions, the dream of India becoming the R&D hub of the world, of expanding the manufacturing sector, of creating over ten million jobs annually, or becoming the knowledge superpower is becoming harder to realise.

Ironically, the States do not seem to realise the depth of the problem either; the most they do is to ask the Centre to locate the next, say, IIT in their State. In this context, it is important for the States to redefine their role in higher education.

The Central government's virtual abandoning of its responsibility to improve higher education and research in the country - and not just in institutions that are under its wing - is a trend that is unlikely to change. The only option for the States is to take greater charge to improve the quality of these institutions.

This would mean that States will have to tie up closely plans on improving higher education with economic planning and infrastructure. Engineering and managerial education, in particular, should have a direct connection and relevance to the State's industrial, manufacturing and other productive activities.

There are many ways to do this. For instance, let's imagine an engineering college with a museum or exhibition displaying the natural resources, energy and ecology, industrial and agricultural products and services, and human skills and technologies of the surrounding area within, say, a 25 km radius. A significant part of the education and research syllabus in this college could be built around this location, its industry and agriculture.

The institution and its programme could likewise closely address the economic and industrial context and needs of that area. Of course, this does not mean that all concentration must be on the local; it is possible to do this without losing sight of the demands of the global market and the need to keep education broad-based and liberal.

Participation of the private sector

Where will the States find the funds for such an initiative? One, they will have to increase their own share, which is justified as this sector will now be one of the drivers of the State's industrial and economic growth.

Two, the Centre should contribute more to the State's efforts in this sector. Three, the private sector and the diaspora should also play a role in contributing to education and research. State-level institutions should be enabled to access private funding and support (including from overseas sources) in an easy manner.

A public-private partnership model could work, but it is important that there be no imposition of a one-size-fits-all policy. Uniform rules will kill local initiatives and energies, and should therefore be eschewed.

The States would, of course, have to significantly improve their existing image, especially in the area of quality teaching and research, if serious players from the private sector (including overseas) or the diaspora have to step in.

The mode of private participation in the higher education and research sector would also have to be quite different from what exists now, which is mostly a education-as-business-only model.

The onus of bringing about such a change rests on the government; industry, both big and small; academia; intelligentsia; and the media of the State, with strong backing from the Centre.

If the States do not participate more in decision-making in the higher education and research sector and all policies are decided around Central institutions, not much can be done to stop the precipitous downward slide of the nation's higher education and research sector.

* CN Krishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
CN Krishnan is a retired professor of Anna University, Chennai
This article was posted on February 15, 2017.

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