Higher Education in India: In need of a revamp

  • If the plan is for a few days– start working on that, if the plan is for ten or twenty years– plant a tree, but if the plan is for the whole era– EDUCATE people. Kautilya

India is home to one of the oldest education systems in the world. Nalanda University in present day’s state of Bihar and Taxila university in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent  have been the earliest centres of learning in the world. Scholars from land far and wide stayed at these universities in search of knowledge.  Today one of the  largest education system  from primary to higher education operates in India creating a huge education ecosystem with its challenges  and opportunities.

The ruins of the ancient Nalanda University

When the working age population is fast declining  in the industrialised West, a large  Indian population of youths equipped with quality education and marketable skills has the potential of creating a huge demographic dividend for the county.

A word on quality.The former Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh has this to say about the state of the existing education system in India: ” our university system is, in most parts [of the country]  in a state of despair […] in almost half the districts in the country, higher education enrolment are abysmally low. Almost two- third of our universities and 90 percent of our colleges are rated as below average in quality parameters. […] in many states university appointments including that of vice chancellors have been politicised and have been subject to caste and communal considerations. There are complaints of favouritism and corruption”.

So where are the gaps?

At the policy level the gap in the outcomes  can be attributed to over centralisation by federal bureaucracy and regulatory bodies, low global competence of the existing institutions of learning, inadequate financing of the primary and secondary education, an absence of a culture of research among the faculty and students alike, an excessive focus on quantity and degree hunting rather than in quantity resulting in a negative trade off and poor infrastructure facilities available at the existing institutions.

Medical Council Of India

It has for long been know well known that national regulatory agencies and other approving bodies in the field of education are ridden with corruption and irregularities. A large under the table consideration is demanded by the regulatory bodies  for recognition or similar approval.

At the level of institutions the poor state of higher education can be attributed to poor infrastructure, paucity of quality faculty resources, a culture of apathy for quality research, ineffective pedagogy, lack of academia industry interface as well as alarmingly  high student to faculty ratio. Barring a few good institutes, colleges in India  are now ‘education shops’ i.e. essentially business ventures providing degree for money. The concept of ‘research’ is nearly non existent in most institutions of higher learning in India. Where research is done it is usually of low level and poor quality.  Academics is no more a concern- commercialisation of the education sector is now the fact.

On the part of the student a degree/ diploma mania over skills enhancement  combined with lack  of gainful employment opportunities present greatest threat to the utilisation of the demographic dividend phase that the country is passing through right now. Many students ‘advance’ to college due to lack of job opportunities. There has been mushroom growth of poor quality engineering and other professional colleges with corresponding growth in employment opportunities.

Clearly, the entire higher education ecosystem in India is in need of reforms.

The silver lining:

“It is not the biggest, the brightest or that best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Charles Darwin

Need for a collaboration among various stakeholders. In the education sector in India four broad categories of stakeholders operate. First, the institutes of national importance such as IITs, IIMs, NITs, IIITs, AIIMS, Central Universities. Second, various public funded entities and regulatory bodies  such as federal Ministry of Human Resource Development, research granting bodies like UGC, research labs CSIR , MCI etc. Third, institutes of higher learning  in the private sector. And fourth, the group of Indian and foreign industries and service providers  who are the actual job creators. A collaboration between the above four categories of stakeholder would lead to synergies. At institutional level, there are innovations being adopted by each category of stakeholder. How ever despite the realisation that high level of integration of efforts is needed among all educational and corporate entities, the actual interface is rather shallow. The tendency to work in silos continues to be a marked feature of higher education sector.

Any long term reform strategy of revamping India’s higher education sector require pooling of energies of all institutional players. As a land of learning and scholarship with a long tradition of fostering diversity of ideas and expanding the knowledge base of civilisation, Indian long  traditions provide us with a unparalleled vision for excellence. The need to revamp and reform the entire higher education sector is now!

(Research desk, Uncolumn)

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