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Friday, December 3, 2010

Higher Education in India: The Evolving Scenario

Globalization helps realize the benefits of free trade, and thus comparative advantage and the division of labor. It is also supposed to enhance efficiency and productivity[1]. It subtly leads to growing interdependence across the world on a number of dimensions that are pretty divergent – growing integration of the world’s economies; speedy connection with almost no barriers; a growing connection between all the segments of society; and increase in the speed at which ideas and the people move around the world. Amidst these ground realities, India too embarked on transforming its regulated economy into an open market economy. With the launching of reforms, we are getting more and more integrated with the world economy.  As Jagdish Bhagwati, (2002) observed, the resultant ‘growth’ from the on-going reforms is supposed to create jobs that ‘pull up’ the poor into gainful employment by providing more economic opportunities. It provided the revenue with which the government can build more schools and provide more health facilities for the poor. It offered incentives for the poor to access these facilities and also for the advancement of progressive social agenda[2].

The prosperity and progress of an economy even in such an “enabling environment” are largely dependent on the social norms and institutions of a country. The citizens’ attitude towards work, their level of mutual trust, standards of ethics and social norms form the foundation for economic activity and prosperity of the society. It is only when individuals maximize their own selfish utility that the resulting competitive equilibrium can become Pareto-optimality. In this context, economists often advise that governments should help build human capital since a substantial portion of growth in any economy has been attributed to human capital accumulation and this is more so in a ‘knowledge economy’. Thus, ‘Human Resources’ becomes the critical player. Knowledge Economy demands ‘efficient’ work-force. And ‘efficiency’ alone can lead to ‘Growth’ in a highly competitive market. The nation must therefore provide excellent educational system to all. We need to assemble large pool of science and technology personnel. A system supporting research on merit must be initiated and encouraged. Organizations must have “outward orientation”. A knowledge driven society is a must in knowledge economy.

Debates are going on about the extent to which societies should become global and the degree to which they should modify their practices and policies to make ‘globalization’ work better for them. Amidst these upcoming demands for ‘homogeneity’ and ‘uniformity’ what is most baffling is that countries have also to maintain a kind of ‘uniqueness’ about them to succeed in the global economy. As Sztompka (1990) observed the emphasis is currently shifting to the alternative types of comparative inquiry: “Seeking uniqueness among the uniformities, rather than uniformity among variety”[3].  And that ‘uniqueness’ has to be more in the form of greater ‘competency’ than that in the rest of the globe at least in the chosen field so that the country can enjoy ‘comparative advantage’ over others that can ultimately differentiate its output from that of others and generate market share. And that is where globalization is impacting our current educational practices. If our educational system has to produce competent and employable workforce that is easily differentiated from the rest in the global market, we need to change our archaic laws.

Higher Education in India: Current Status

The early growth phase of higher education was associated with colonialism. Its access was thus partial and its teaching and research programs were mostly defined by colonial state policies. It is only after independence, that the state promoted education as an instrument of social development. We indeed had a very impressive growth since then: the number of university level institutions has increased form 18 in 1947 to 307 by the end of 2004. The student enrolment has also grown impressively from 2,28,804 in 1947 to 94,63,821 in 2002-03. Despite such an impressive growth in infrastructure under higher education which is rated to be the second largest after the USA in the world, it hardly covers 7 percent of the population which is lower than even that of developing countries such as Indonesia (11 percent), Brazil (12 percent), and Thailand (19 percent). There is yet another distorting phenomenon under higher education: the discipline-wise enrolment of students is not that encouraging with enrolments into science stream standing at 19.7 as against 42.7 percent into arts faculty and 20.7 percent into commerce including management (Source: UGC Annual Report 2000-01).

Higher education in qualitative terms is depicting a still agonizing scenario that has been aptly captured by the Ramamurti committee report (1990): There are serious complaints at all levels about the lack of responsiveness in the system. Academic activities are at a low ebb and the academic calendar itself gets seriously disrupted almost every year. The system of higher education continues to encourage memorization of facts and regurgitation rather than creativity. While the results in higher education are clearly determined by the foundation laid in school education, we cannot wait for the ills of school education to be remedied before bringing in meaningful improvements in higher education. We cannot ignore the fact that we do not have many colleges today which can pride themselves of imparting under graduate education of the higher quality, comparable to some of the well known institutions in the world. The findings under this report though old still holds good and for that matter the current situation may be worse than what has been described in the report.

With the advent of reforms and the resulting concern for growing fiscal deficit, the government is slowly withdrawing from funding higher education as could be gauged from the fact that the outlay for student declined from Rs.7676/- at 93-94 price levels to Rs.5873/- in 2001-02 (budget estimates). With all these constraints, we are still continuing with the system of affiliation which was started in 1857. Indeed we made the affiliation system more complex by allowing infinite number of colleges to be affiliated to a single university. With the result, the already depleted financial resources are used more for administrative purposes than for improving academic resources. The net result of all this is overall fall in academic standards. The current plight of our university system which is entrusted with the responsibility of disseminating higher education has been well described by Andre Beteille: our universities are simply functioning as a degree giving institution concentrating on conducting examinations rather than becoming a system that transmits, generates and interprets knowledge.

Need for Private Participation in Higher Education

The World Bank report of 1994 highlights the worth of higher education wherein it is considered that institutes of higher learning benefit state and society in several ways: they equip individuals with advanced knowledge and skills to discharge responsibility in government, business and professions; produce new knowledge through research and at least serve as conduit for the transfer, adaptation and dissemination of knowledge generated elsewhere in the world. The task force constituted by World Bank and UNESCO during 2000 has also observed that higher education helps increase wages and productivity that directly enrich individuals and society. As against these world opinions, the ministry of finance opined in its paper on government subsidies (1997) that higher education is a ‘non-merit’ good based on the reasoning that higher education benefited individuals more than the society. The Birla Ambani report submitted to the Prime Minister too suggested that government subsidies to higher education should be minimal and the funds thus saved should be invested in expanding facilities at the primary and secondary stages of education.

According to the census of 2001, the overall literacy rate in the country has gone up by 10 percent during the last 10 years. It is therefore possible that around 8 to 10 percent of this freshly educated lot would seek admission at college level in the next 8 to 10 years. As against the current capacity of 8 million college seats created in the last 150 years, we would be required to create an additional capacity of 8 to 10 million college seats in the coming 8 to 10 years. Obviously this is a gigantic task that can not be addressed by government alone.

In the light of these facts, there is an urgent need for opening higher education for private participation. The autonomous setup of universities in the US, that are surviving on private income such as fees, donations and investments, is an example how private investment can be channellized into higher education. Majority of these American universities are said to be purely driven by hunt for the best talent in the strictest sense of autonomy. As against this our university system is known for micromanagement by the government to the extent of defining admissions based on caste, gender, etc. The impact of these differences in the two systems is quite visible: The American private universities like Harvard, Stanford, New York, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Duke, MIT, etc., are well known worldwide for their excellence in education, while except for a handful institutes like IITs and IIMs we have very few such institutes to boast of.

There is another strong argument in favor of private participation in higher education: user payments improve quality of education. When students pay directly, they tend to become actively involved to ensure that they receive benefits in return. Secondly, the monitoring by parents that is supposed to accompany user payments can improve both the quality and cost effectiveness of education. There is thus a strong argument favoring establishment of private universities for imparting higher education which is a must in the globalized economy to reap economic benefits by leveraging on comparative advantage. It is however heartening to note that some states such as Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal, Tripura, Sikkim, etc., have already passed private universities bills and other states like Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, etc., are reported to be in the process of coming up with legislations for establishment of private universities.

Private Universities and Quality Assurance

There is a doubt in the minds of certain segments in academia that in private universities, which are likely to be setup by corporates or private trusts, etc., which are known to seek maximum returns on their investments, the quality of education may become a casualty, defeating the very purpose for which private participation being encouraged. This line of argument sounds hallow since no institute can survive for a long on poor quality product and education is no exception to this universal truth. Here it is worth recalling institutions such as Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics that were setup by private trusts during late 30s and 40s are known for their values and concern for quality education.

There is no valid reason to doubt the credentials of institutes promoted/to be promoted by private entrepreneurs. Even otherwise the state can and should always ensure that the private universities once established, comply with the basic quality standards prescribed by it from time to time. All that is required to ensure quality across the board is to have a national level overseeing body that is teethed with powers to grant permission to establish a university and to derecognize an already established university if it fails to maintain the prescribed standards. Incidentally, the current plight of university system in our country is primarily attributed to the fact of removing the provisions originally contemplated in the UGC Act namely the necessity to obtain prior approval from UGC for establishing a university and depriving the authority of UGC to derecognize any degree awarded by a university.

It is essential that the functioning of such a central authority is transparent and its decisions are not arbitrary. To ensure such transparent governance the authority should prescribe its parameters for granting permission to establish a university. Similarly, it should also make it known to the participating agencies as to on what lines the performance of a university is assessed to declare it as eligible for it continuation or not. There is also a case to reexamine the role of professional counsels such as MCI, AICTE, etc., that have been established in the recent past to oversee the functioning of medical and engineering institutes etc. These bodies that have evolved their own rules for imparting higher education including prescribing the necessary infrastructure etc., were at times found to function at crossroads with UGC. This has only created disputes resulting in innumerable court cases. Even otherwise, too many regulators are known to create more problems than solve them. Taking a cue from the experiences it is time that we had one central body to oversee the functioning of universities – both in public and private management and evaluate them on prescribed quality parameters to ensure excellence in education.

Academic Freedom to Universities

Globalization is changing the structure of higher education radically by moving the services across the boundaries, instead of the movement of people across the borders as witnessed earlier. Such migration of education from its location to new locations in search of clients is necessitating institutions of higher education in India to reorganize themselves to withstand the competition from the developed countries. Secondly, there is a need to appreciate the shift in demand for applied education particularly towards IT, Bio-informatics, Nanotechnology, etc., in our country, where we have already proved our competency, and grant academic freedom to the universities to design new courses, structure their own curriculum and offer market driven programs. If our youth has to acquire and enjoy a unique competitive advantage in the global market, we should not cripple the universities - be they private or public, with bureaucratic procedures. They must be allowed to capitalize on the market opportunities by granting such academic freedom that is essential if these institutes have to produce ‘employable’ graduates from time to time. In the world of internet and knowledge economy what counts for success is agility in adapting to evolving changes. As the private universities, which are to purely survive on fee income have to necessarily re-equip themselves with newer programs from time to time, real academic autonomy becomes an essential prerequisite. It is time we realized that market is a good regulator at least of such private bodies which have to prove their merit constantly for ensuring continuous fee income and hence they should not be burdened with any regulation that stifles their academic freedom and competency to deliver market-demanded skills.

Collaboration between Private and Public Universities

In the larger interest of nurturing competency in the country as a whole there is a need to foster collaboration between public and private universities. By virtue of their existence since long, universities under government setup, public universities are known to have built-up research capabilities, a huge body of knowledge and excellent academic resources in various disciplines which need to be shared with the private universities. Similarly, the private universities that are coming up with no baggage and establishing state of the art laboratories etc must share their facilities with public universities. Such collaboration between these two categories of establishments enables the nation to enjoy the best of the both for building unique competitive advantage for the prospective students emerging from the portals.

The public universities, at least some of the well known centers have excellent laboratory and library facilities. It is also true that the private universities may not be able to establish such excellent research facilities for carrying out fundamental research ab initio. At the same time these private universities may not hesitate to incur heavy cost on hiring highly qualified professionals as faculty. In such a situation, it is in the pursuit of national interest, public universities can as well think of sharing their laboratory and library facilities with the existing/prospective private universities, possibly at a nominal fee. Similarly, the services of eminent professors available with the public universities can also be made available for guiding research scholars of the private universities.

As a part of their business strategy, private universities will obviously develop excellent laboratory and library facilities in the niche areas that they have chosen to capitalize for the common good of themselves and their students. Such of those teaching facilities created by the private universities in the latest fields of study such as IT, Bioinformatics, etc., can be shared with public universities. It is only such collaborative competition between these two segments of higher education that can really lead the country forward by delivering such an education which differentiates its students from the rest in the global market.

Institutional Support for Funding Pursuit of Higher Education

It is obvious that private universities, unlike public universities would be recovering their cost by charging fee from students proportionate to their expenses. Such fee structure may not always be with in the reach of common man. A need thus arises to fund such candidates. It is to be noted here that if Harvard or Stanford or MIT are being fed by a continuous stream of students and they are able to maintain such reputation for excellence in education, it is only because there is an institutionalized support available to the students to borrow money, pursue studies and pay it back from their future earnings with no hassles attached. Although, the Indian banking system grants loans for higher education, it is not as formalized, institutionalized and simplified as in the US. There is thus a need to urgently streamline and make loaning system student-friendly. Such formalization of loaning system, obviously, provides private universities their due share of student enrolment and encourages them to make their institutes stronger and academically competitive. More than anything else, it sustains the growth rate making available a large pool of highly skilled workforce to the nation.

-         GRK Murty

[1]   Edward S. Herman, The Threat of Globalization, April 1999,
[2]   Jagdish Bhagwati, “Growth Poverty and Reforms”, A Decade of Economic Reforms in India (2002) Academic Foundation, New Delhi.
[3]   Sztompka, P. (1990) ‘Conceptual frameworks in comparative inquiry: divergent or convergent?’, in M.Albrow and E. King (eds), Globalization, Knowledge and Society. London: Sage.


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