Expert Comment

Revitalising higher education

In light of the crucial importance of higher education in the overall development of the country, the Science Advisory Council constituted by the prime minister has deemed it imperative to highlight some infirmities of this sector which need immediate attention. To this end the council has prepared this ten-point checklist for the rejuvenation and revitalisation of higher education in India.

1. With several million additional students likely to enter institutions of higher education in the next two-three decades, it is necessary to undertake a serious manpower planning effort so that young people are streamed into non-traditional areas of study, instead of all signing up for standard programmes in science, engineering and commerce. How do we ensure there is a wider variety of study programmes and flexible curricula? How do we ensure that undergraduate education is well-rounded, industry-oriented and at the same time prepares students for higher study? How to avoid manpower mismatches with too many professionals in some disciplines in which employment opportunities are reducing? An expert group needs to be appoint-ed by the Union HRD ministry to prepare a vision document which addresses these problems which will balloon 20 years hence.

2. Today, there isn’t a single educational institution in India equal to the best in the advanced countries. There-fore it’s important that in the next 10-15 years, several Indian higher education institutions graduate into the lists of top 100 colleges/universities worldwide. For this to happen, much effort is needed to transform India’s universities into hubs of high quality research. As a first step forward, ten higher education institutions could be provided with all the support required to enable them to compete in research capability with the best institutions in advanced countries. This would be a timely initiative in the year of science (2011-12) recently declared by the prime minister.

3. There’s considerable truth in the observation that we have an examination system, not an education system. Examinations have been given ever increasing importance in the past few decades. Indeed, school and entrance examinations have become a menace. For instance although the IIT entrance exam has acquired a global reputation for being difficult and purposeful, it also has a negative effect on young minds. Young people suffer so much to succeed in these entrance exams, that in the process they lose the excitement of education.

Even after acquiring degrees, students are required to take numerous entrance examinations for higher study. For example, one hears of a proposal to have another accreditation exam for medical graduates and postgraduates. When will young people be allowed to stop preparing for exams and do something worthwhile? It’s time to take a deep relook at the entire examination system including final, entrance, qualifying, selection, and other examinations. There should ideally be a single national exam to assess eligibility of candidates for admission into all higher education institutions. It’s pertinent to note that admission into America’s colleges and universities is through national exams such as SAT, GMAT and GRE.

4. Administration of the higher education system also requires serious overhaul. The indifferent manner in which educational institutions are being managed may destroy even the sub-optimal higher education system we have currently. Education and research institutions are administered by people with IAS or similar generalist backgrounds, many without any real interest in education. Even technical education is routinely administered by regulators trained in bureaucratic practices. Unless this situation is changed, it will be difficult to improve the quality of our higher educational institutions. Even more destructive is the direct intervention of governments in administering institutions, particularly in the states. For example, state governments routinely choose vice chancellors of universities. Because of these factors, universities are overloaded with exam-related work, most have too many affiliated colleges and too many students.

5. Against this background a large number of questions need to be posed and answered by the Central and state governments, the academic and student communities. Among them: Given that already there are too many engineering and business management colleges, how do we diversify education institutions for the future? How many university-type institutions should/can there be in the country? It seems counter-productive to allow uncontrolled increase in the number of government-aided colleges and universities without careful consideration of the manpower requirements of Indian industry and the economy. Moreover should we not differentiate curricula for general-purpose basic degree programmes from subject specialisation programmes? How, where and for what purpose are the proposed high quality Central universities?

There are other questions too which need answers. How do we ensure acceptable quality in all higher education institutions? What would be the best way(s) of rating and accrediting colleges and universities? Is it necessary to distinguish between affiliating and unitary universities? Wouldn’t it be useful to establish tertiary education regulation authorities at the Central and state levels?  How do we keep abreast of ‘futuristic practices’ in education? What should be the criteria and procedures for appointment of chairmen of governing bodies of institutions, directors of national institutes and vice chancellors of Central and state  universities?

6. Then there’s the vital question of faculty motivation, development, retention and remuneration. If India aspires to succeed in education, it should give greater importance to the teaching profession and accord due respect to teachers. This entails providing satisfactory remuneration and enabling facilities as well as continuing education opportunities to teachers. The teaching profession should be sought after by young people and high-quality continuing education and training programmes for teachers should be provided on a massive scale at all levels.

7. Likewise there’s the big question of inclusive and equal opportunity education. It is more than likely that some of the country’s most talented young people live in rural India. To tap this talent and provide opportunities to young children in the hinterland, we must increase the number of fully-funded residential schools up to the higher secondary level in rural India and also ensure that the brightest students from these schools get opportunities to study in the best institutions of higher education.

8. The examination and rewards system in Indian education seems to have destroyed the creativity of our young people. We need creative and innovative graduates to address national and global problems. It is therefore essential to promote creativity and innovation in Indian primary, secondary and higher education. It is noteworthy that many advanced countries including the US and UK are making serious efforts to promote creativity and innovation among their youth.

9. In higher education in particular, it’s important to create an environment in which there are barrier-free connectivities between education institutions countrywide as well as internationally. The objective should be to promote academic collaboration and cooperation, quality upgradation and performance synergy.

10. Finally, governments at the Centre and states and Indian academia need to seriously envisage a scenario in which India’s demographic advantage enables this nation to emerge as the major provider of trained manpower to the entire world in the next 20-30 years.

To prepare ourselves to face these problems and challenges in higher education, it’s important that an action-oriented document is prepared as early as possible.  This document should provide a roadmap for the higher education sector. It is our plea that the Union HRD ministry sets up a task force to prepare and finalise such a document within the next 12 months. It is also necessary for the ministry to declare higher education a national mission for the next decade and designate capable individuals to study and implement each important item listed above to enable the overdue revitalisation of higher education in India.

(Dr. C.N.R. Rao is a distinguished scientist and chairman of the Science Advisory Council to the prime minister)