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Capacity and quality of higher education need to be transformed

by Loknath Das

As the new government settles down in office, there are several areas that need immediate attention. However, one policy that can have a really long-term effect and needs to be dealt with great urgency – and care, is the education policy.

As of 2016, about 37 percent of our population is below the age of 19 years. Further, 45 percent below the age of 24 years, and this policy set the course for India’s economic and social trajectory for decades to come. The urgency is even more because of the moribund state of this sector, particularly the higher education sector. There are two things that need to be tackled, capacity and quality of higher education.

The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) today is 25 percent. The Draft National Education Policy 2019 report submitted by the committee chaired by K Kasturirangan sets the objective of higher education policy to increase this to 50 percent by 2035. It is extremely important that this objective is met for India to have any chance to transition to a High-Income Country. Note, in comparison China’s GER is already above 50 percent and that in US is about 89 percent.

However, achieving this will be no mean task. For one, given the large young population, the base is expanding. This would mean more than doubling the capacity. The amount of investment that will be needed for this, even for just the physical infrastructure, is huge. Where will that come from? Then there is the big question of finding competent faculty members for these colleges and universities.

How do we go about even attempting to achieve this goal? The new draft policy has some useful advice in this regard, yet it does not provide a clear path to this end. An important aspect that the report notes is the fragmentation of higher education sector. It points out that while there are 800 universities and about 40,000 colleges, over 40 percent of the colleges run only one programme. More than 20 percent of colleges, that is, more than 8,000 colleges, have enrollment less than 100.

The report suggests that in the future we should move towards large multidisciplinary higher education institutes. This, the report suggests can be achieved, by giving autonomy to colleges and universities and doing away with the system of affiliations. This is a great suggestion and the government must act on this swiftly. Yet, from the experience of those colleges who were given autonomy and, moreover, converted into universities, we know this will not be an easy path.

It will require massive up-gradation of infrastructure, which is expensive but doable. It will also require the setting up of an administrative and governance structure which is very different from the current college system, which is challenging but still doable. Recruitment of large number of competent faculty members in a short period will be needed, this is almost impossible given the current state of affairs.

Another aspect of the current state of affairs that the report laments on is the lack of research in most universities and colleges. This is critical, not only for quality but also for capacity in higher education sector. In the most straight-forward way, if we do not have research in universities, we do not produce enough PhDs and the acute shortage of faculty members will persist. But, also very importantly if we do not have faculty members who can inspire the young minds with their research, we will lose these minds who could have pushed the boundaries and solved complex societal problems.

The report provides one way we can encourage research – by setting up a National Research Foundation which will grant research funding across all discipline in a competitive and transparent way. This is again something that the government must implement immediately. This is a minimum requirement to kick-start a research culture in Indian academia.

However, just setting up a research funding agency will not be enough. In fact, that body itself may fail to deliver unless we consciously dismantle a Nehruvian policy that has persisted for this long – to take research away from universities to specialised institutes.  Post-independence, it is no secret that Nehru imagined that science will play an important role in nation building, rightfully so. This meant encouraging research, particularly scientific and engineering research. The question was where will this research take place, in universities or purposefully set up institutes and laboratories?

Teaching and research cannot remain separated. When the National Research Foundation is set up, it must be clear of this bias. If at all it should favour funding to the universities. This will attract bright researchers from across the world to our universities and make the universities vibrant once again. This will have a cascading effect in inspiring and attracting more and more young people to research and innovation. However, there is more that the government can do which will help in solving this problem–that how do we quickly ramp up supply in higher education sector.

It can expand the scope of these numerous standalone institutes and laboratories and introduce teaching programmes in these. We have 38 National Laboratories under CSIR, 24 research institutes under Indian Council of Social Science Research (and some other affiliated), several more scattered under different ministries and government departments. If all these introduce teaching programmes, we can increase capacity very quickly, but more importantly these programmes can possibly be of great quality. Many of these places already have a PhD programme in place and some of the people in these institutes do have teaching experience.

True, they may not be multidisciplinary programmes from the onset, but maybe that can also be changed over time through collaborations and creative designs. What we need is intent and some steely resolve. If we want to give ourselves any chance to become a developed economy, the education sector has to be set right immediately.


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