The Higher Education System Under Review

S. Kunjabihari Singh *

In the context of the recent nation-wide stir for creating world-class universities, lots of debates, meets and seminars have been held. The Centre announced creation of 12 Central Universities. This will make 30 such universities in the country. Even before this, the HRD Ministry announced that it would create 30 'world class' universities, 8 new IITs and 7 IIMs in the coming five years. The HRD ministry, under the ever-dynamic Kapil Sibal, ensured allocation of over Rs.33, 200 cr.

On the recommendation of the National Knowledge Commission, the centre contemplates massive investment in the areas of higher education. Earlier, the GOI constituted a committee under the chairmanship of Prof. Yash Pal to review the existing system and recommend measures to improve the system of higher education.

The issue in question is the ambition of having world class universities is a country where apart from the poor GER in higher education at 14% in 2009, targeted to rise to 30% by 2020, even poorer level of knowledge in general and the severe constraints of resources remain major impediments.

In the recent Higher Education Summit organized by FICCI in New Delhi, Richard C Levin, President of Yale University, observed, "Building a world-class university is far more than a construction project. It is building a community of knowledge, far more than its building campus. The university is composed of many things, distinguished and engaged faculty, broad library, and museum collections, state of the art laboratories and computer resources.. to name a few essential components.

It requires more than money. "Truly,a great university is to be made up of equally great students and teachers who teach how to think and not what to think. Kapil Sibal, while agreeing with the observation meekly asserts, "Can we build a world class university by 2020? No. Havard university was started in 1636. It takes years. But can we set the foundation for a world class university? Yes." This logic resulted to the stir for world class institutions of learning.

A university, according to the report of the Yash Pal Committee, "is a place where new ideas germinate, strike roots and grow tall and sturdy. It is a unique space which covers the entire universe of knowledge. It is a place where creative minds converge, interact with each other and construct visions of new realities. Established notions of truth are challenged in the pursuit of knowledge".

Truely, it is universally accepted that great institutions prepare the next generation of great leaders by instilling in them comprehensive education. World class universities stimulate the student's social responsibilities and imbibe a deep sense of appreciation of service to the community and the society at large. It is much more than acquisition of knowledge.

One can recall the recent flutter in the Doon School, commonly known as the 'Eton of India', when the President of India, in her address as the Chief Guest mooted the idea of turning the 'only-boys' school into a co-ed. The philosophy was, that the school had produced many imminent persons including Prime Ministers, ambassadors, writers, Air Chiefs, Admirals both in India and Pakistan, Olympic winners etc. So why not turn Doon School co-ed to enable girls be a part of this wonderful environment?

The present issue is how many of the schools and institutions of higher learning in the country have comparable qualities to churn out future leaders in the society? It is estimated that none of the 348 universities in India today, is ranked among the top 100 or 200 in the world. It is often criticized that when the country started the mission of innovating higher education sector during the initial five year plans, it, kind of sidestepped the universities and accorded priority to starting new institutions such as the IITs and the IIMs.

We can have a brief look at the prescriptions of the two high profile Reports:-
i) The National Knowledge Commission (NKC), 2007, under Sam Pitroda;
ii) the Prof. Yash Pal Committee Report, (YPC).

The NKC comprehends largely five broad areas:-access to knowledge, knowledge concepts, creation of knowledge, knowledge application and delivery of services. The executive recommendations are in the sectors of:-libraries, translation, language knowledge network, right to education, vocational education, higher education, national science and social science foundation and e-governance. The Government of India, (GOI), constituted the Yash Pal Committee to review and recommend on the existing system of higher education.

The main recommendations are:-i) granting more autonomy to colleges and universities; ii) differential treatment of institutions in promoting excellence; iii) encourage private sector participation in higher education; iv) attempting to upgrade select institutions to fit into world's major hub to make them as centers of excellence with higher funding, which calls for variable scale of pay according to the merit and imminence of the teachers.

Presently, the higher educational system, the quality in particular, is nowhere comparable to international standards. Many of the few great minds produced here have migrated; get enriched by the facilities, the quality and the ambience there only to opt for stay in the universities there. Some of them become internationally recognized scholars.

Generaly, it is estimated that only somewhere around 40%of the products of Indian universities possess basic skills required by a knowledge economy. This scenario speaks volume of the quality of both the teacher and the taught as well as the standard of the institutions. In Japan, they claim that any high school graduate comprehends basic knowledge of subject areas. In our case, we have 60% of the output lacking the fundamentals. What a loss!

In the result, it would require a tremendous overhauling of the system to convert the alarmingly large proportion into an economic asset. This will also call for the imperative need for making the best use of available resources. The 300 odd universities cannot obviously qualify for this Endeavour; many perhaps scarcely deserve the name University, while a select few can be nurtured with moderate funds, autonomy and support to reach a productive level.

Such a consideration fits into the recommendations of the Yash Pal Committee for selective approach. The HRD ministry in its hurry to provide top-class education even has plans to table Foreign Education Providers Bill in the Parliament, as part of Sibal's 100-day agenda. The debate is on if such a foreign universities would fall in line to the social and economic compulsions as prevalent in the country.

The present reading is that many of the foreign universities wouldn't come to India if their campuses would be required to follow admission quotas for reserved categories. The Yash Pal Committee argues that liberalizing visa requirements to allow foreign scholar's access to Indian Universities may prove more beneficial than letting foreign universities.

Sibal, however, prefers to go ahead with his pet subject of inviting foreign universities by visiting some of these institutions including Harvard in the recent past. This debate apart, the earnestness of the centre to revolutionize higher education is indeed apparent.

During 2009, the HRD ministry was in a hurry to introduce three Bills including one for setting up of an overarching body the National Commission for higher Education and Research (NCHER).This Commission would replace UGC, AICTE, DCE, NCTE and act as an apex body for higher education and research. The second is about entry of foreign education providers into the country. Still another bill is regarding measures to check malpractices in higher education.

The GOI is keen to upgrade the quality-content of higher education by pumping more funds. The higher education enrolment rate currently pegged at 14% is proposed to be increased to 30% by 2020.This itself is a gigantic jump of over 100% increase in 10 years vis- a- vis the performance of a meagre14% in 63 years of independence.

The Centre would have to swallow a mammoth Rs.5 lakh crores. This is only the budgetary projection. Equally or perhaps the larger problem is to put in place manpower to implement the project, knowing fully well that in the Indian context, managing humans is far more complex than managing finance.

The National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), has prepared a Concept Paper projecting the expected number of youths to be enrolled in higher including technical education by 2020 and the investment required to improve facilities. They project that to achieve 30% GER by 2020, there has to be a continuous rise in enrolment in the 18-24 age group over the 11th and 12th plan periods and the first 4 years of the 13th plan, meaning a total of 14 plan years.

Today, around 2.06 crore students pursue higher education accounting for 14% enrolment in the 18-24 age group. The NUEPA projects that to achieve the target of 30% GER by 2020, a mammoth 2.92 crore in 2015 and 4.15 crore in 2020, in the 18-24 age group have to be enrolled. Of the 4.15 crore, 2.70 would be in general and the rest 1.45 crore in technical courses.

To achieve the above ,the minimum requirement has been estimated running into several lakh crore rupees.The Planning Commission, however has their own priority in the overall priotisation programme, which would sound a steely damper on Sibal's world class varsity plan. In a FICCI meet on Higher Education, in 2009, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, observed," World-class universities require resources that are way beyond the scope of the government".

Well, this assertion of the Chief of the Planning Commission is indeed a great dampener on all who matter in the higher education dream in particular for the 4.15 crores youth in the age group 18-24 by 2020. God save these youths!

* S. Kunjabihari Singh( a resident of Singjamei, Thongam leikai ) contributes to regularly. The writer can be reached at kunjabiharis(at)rediffmail(dot)com
This article was webcasted on November 23 2010.

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