Belated awakeningA round of vice-chancellorsâ€™ conferences held this year in Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad to celebrate 150 years of the establishment of Indiaâ€™s first modern universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (aka Chennai) in 1857, culminated in a harsh indictment of higher education in India. In an extraordinary outburst on October 10, the usually circumspect septuagenarian Union human resource development minister Arjun Singh described tertiary education as the "sick child of Indian education".
This harsh verdict has caused considerable anguish and heart-burn within the community of vice-chancellors who had presented detailed papers and suggestions to the Delhi-based University Grants Commission (UGC), which funds and regulates universities across the country. Based on the papers and recommendations subm-itted by vice-chancellors over the past six months, UGC has readied a compre-hensive (yet unpublished) report to reform the higher education system.
The report attempts to influence programmes and targets of the Eleventh Plan (2007-12) and reportedly contains a blueprint for raising the standards of domestic universities to global levels, though the caste politics of Arjun Singh is its subtext. Noting the low tertiary gross enrollment ratio (GER) of 10 percent in the age cohort 18-23 compared to 25-60 percent in the OECD countries and the requirement of 20-25 percent for sustainable economic growth, the report recommends a GER target of 15 percent by 2012.
Other major recommendations of the UGC report pertain to inclusiveness and equality, quality and excellence, academic and administrative reforms, financing and role of private education providers. "The enhancement in enrollment to the extent of 15 percent will have to come from increase in enrollment from those districts and social groups whose enrollment is less as compared with others," says the document while calling upon the teachersâ€™ community to become more sensitive to affirmative action and reservation.
Moreover with the quality of education being dispensed by Indiaâ€™s 352 universities and 18,000 colleges under heavy criticism, the report calls for massive upgradation of infrastru-cture, revision of curriculum, reducing the student-teacher ratio to 10:1 and mandatory assessment by NAAC (National Assessment & Accreditation Council) of all educational institutions.
The detailed UGC report on reforms in higher education is being interpreted in academic circles as an attempt by the commission to reassert its role and relevance. The primacy of UGC as the regulator of all colleges and universities â€” Central, state, deemed, private, foreign â€” is being questioned by the recently established National Knowledge Commission which is in favour of an independent regulator for all institutions of higher education. A committee of secretaries has reportedly been constituted to suggest a model for regulating bodies like Medical Council of India, UGC, AICTE and NAAC etc amid speculation that the Union government may set up an SEZ (special economic zone) for higher and vocational education on trial basis in the near future to encourage foreign education providers who would not be subject to UGC, AICTE regulation. So in that light the Union governmentâ€™s response to the UGC report assumes considerable significance.
"From 1949, weâ€™ve been talking about reforms in higher education but there is hardly any progress. The syllabuses, curriculums and pedagogies the British discarded ages back in their own country are still alive in Indian higher education. Instead of encouraging and supporting private universities and initiatives, the HRD ministry is chasing them away. Thereâ€™s an urgent need for liberalising higher education under an effective mechanism of assessment and monitoring," says Dr. Amrik Singh, former vice-chancellor of Punjab University.
With it becoming clear with each passing day that the country canâ€™t sustain its current 9 percent rate of economic growth without systemic reforms in higher education to enable the system to churn out employable and problem-solving graduates and postgrads, the UGC report is welcome. But it may have come too late.
Autar Nehru (Delhi)
Quiet campusesA government order dated September 7 emanating from the office of Uttar Pradeshâ€™s chief minister Ms. Mayawati banning student union elections across 13 universities and 242 government-aided colleges, has provoked a spate of student protests in this Hindi heartland state (pop.180 million).
"The government is committed to improving the academic atmosphere in all the universities and degree colleges of the state. The colleges and universities are holy centres of education and their sanctity should be maintained at all costs. The ban on the elections of student unions has been imposed with a view to improving the academic atmosphere in universities and degree colleges of the state and also to regularise academic sessions. Colleges and universities would (sic) not be allowed to become a cosy shelter for outlaws indulging in petty politics," said the order.
While inevitably, there were sporadic student protests across Indiaâ€™s most populous and arguably most lawless state, by normative UP standards they were mild. Students of Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, in which union elections were scheduled for September 14, blocked roads and called for a bandh. Moreover on September 8, 150 students across the state were arrested for rioting.
Tension also gripped the Lucknow University campus where students staged a dharna to register their protest. Police in riot gear were deployed in and around the varsity campus and at the vice-chancellorâ€™s residence to prevent violence. "There are no genuine student leaders. Most of them are criminals indulging in cheap politics. Genuine students will welcome this decision. We will ensure that criminals posing as student leaders are barred from entering the campus," says vice-chancellor V.C. Singh.On the other hand the beleaguered faculty of Lucknow University and other institutions of higher education are more than pleased with the order of the chief minister, because UP has had a long history of student hooliganism which is not unconnected with student politics and union elections. In particular when Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) was elected chief minister of UP in August 2003, he lifted all previous curbs imposed on student unions. Immediately, there was return of lawlessness on college campuses. A student leader was murdered, money began to be extorted from local businessmen to fund elections, and graffiti was painted all over town in Lucknow Universityâ€™s 2003 student union elections with Samajwadi Party candidates openly displaying firearms. In the period 2003-2007, 12 students lost their lives in student union election related violence.
Against this backdrop itâ€™s hardly surprising that the most strident criticism of the ban on student union elections came from the Samajwadi Party. The party, still reeling from its shock defeat in this Mayâ€™s election, called upon its militant youth wing to gear up for an agitation against the "undemocratic decision" of the state government. "By banning student unions, the Mayawati government has once again proved that it has no faith in democracy. We will not only protest against the decision, but we will reverse the decision as soon as we return to power," says Shiv Pal Singh, brother of former chief minister and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Meanwhile chief minister Mayawatiâ€™s unwavering resolve to ban student union elections, despite opposition from all political parties â€” though significantly not from the public â€” has won quiet kudos from Lucknow Universityâ€™s beleaguered academic fraternity which is dead opposed to the politicisation of campus life. "The ban should not be lifted unless all the major student formations make a commitment to adhere to the Lyngdoh Committeeâ€™s recommendations for the conduct of student union elections," says a LU professor who requested anonymity.
The voluntary submission of assurances of good conduct seems to be the chief ministerâ€™s objective. Mayawati has publicly affirmed that the ban order is not final and is subject to review.
But for now the environment in institutions of higher education across Indiaâ€™s most populous state is a lot quieter.
Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)
Parochial diktatA diktat from Writers Building, Kolkata â€” the seat of West Bengalâ€™s communist-led Left Front government â€” has prompted many academics in the state to label it a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India which makes it mandatory for governments (Central and state) to guarantee equality to all citizens. Under a government order dated September 20, no student from other states of the Indian Union will be admitted into West Bengalâ€™s six state government-run engineering colleges. Confirms state higher education minister Sudarshan Roy Chowdhury: "Government engineering colleges will now give admission to only those students who are residents of West Bengal."
However an exception to this rule has been made in favour of the state of Tripura and students from the seven sister states of north-east India who can write the West Bengal Joint Enginee-ring Examination (WBJEE) from Agartala, capital of Tripura (pop.3 million). Perhaps itâ€™s a coincidence that Tripura is also governed by a Left Front administration dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Even pro-Left academics in Kolkata are perplexed that the communist-led Left Front government which has never practised insularity in its 31 years of unbroken rule in West Bengal, has passed this parochial diktat. Roy Chowdhuryâ€™s calculation is that West Bengalâ€™s annual admission capacity in engineering colleges (28 private colleges included) is 15,000. This year over 30,000 students from outside the state wrote WBJEE (cf. 12,000 last year). Of the 30,000 â€˜outsidersâ€™, about 1,000 are likely to be admitted. Blinkered politicians (like Roy Chowdhury) who keep their eyes focused on their home constituencies, find this allocation of a mere 7 percent to students from other parts of the country unacceptable.
For the more perspicacious among the stateâ€™s academics, this myopic diktat from Writers Building has come at a particularly bad time. Itâ€™s been issued just when the state was poised to re-capture its lost status as a preferred destination for engineering studies. "Two premier engineering institutes in the state â€” Jadavapur University and Bengal Engineering and Science University (BESU) â€” are in the process of being conferred IIT status. This will attract a cornucopia of development grants to these varsities from the University Grants Commission. Also once they are designated institutions of national importance, it will become easier for their graduates to sign up with the countryâ€™s best corporates," says Prof. N.R. Banerjea, chairman of the board and vice-chancellor of BESU.
Inevitably the perspective of politicians is narrower. According to them, the rising influx of candidates from other states leaves local aspirants fighting for fewer seats. Moreover West Bengalâ€™s highly-subsidised tuition fees work to the benefit of students from other states. On the strict condition of anonymity, an official of the higher education department concedes that "the government wants only students from Bengal to benefit from its subsidies".
Perhaps the only silver lining to this dark cloud of parochialism over West Bengalâ€™s traditionally liberal academia is that the state government has exempted private engineering colleges from its admissions diktat. Also, and wisely, the ban on cross-country admissions is not applicable to Jadavpur University and BESU. "These two universities are autonomous. They are free to determine their own admission policies," says Roy Chowdhury.
With the admission season for this year over, the new rules become applicable only at the start of the next academic year. Meanwhile the minority of liberal intellectuals within West Bengalâ€™s communist dominated academia predict a spate of writ petitions in the Calcutta high court challenging the short-sighted government order of September 20. And the betting is that the beleaguered Left Front government will be given a sharp judicial reminder that West Bengal â€” like other states of the Indian Union â€” is governed by the provisions of the Constitution of India rather than the arbitrary diktats of the CPM politburo.
Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)
Parallel system fears
With the licence-permit-quota regime (abolished in Indian industry) having migrated to the education sector, capacity expansion in secondary and tertiary education has slowed to the so-called Hindu rate of growth (3.5 percent per year). As a result the annual rush for admission into the few surviving higher education institutions has become a national scramble. And with cut-off percentages in school leaving exams demanded by the best colleges now in their nineties and public entrance exams becoming progressively tougher, supplementary education provi-ders aka coaching institutes, have emerged as a powerful force in Indian academia â€” perhaps as a parallel education system.
Against this backdrop, reports that the Maharashtra Class Owners Association (MCOA) â€” a representative organisation of coaching institutes in the state â€” is designing eight-month certificate study programmes for teachers to qualify them to teach in private coaching classes, has caused a flutter within academia and the teachers community. MCOA plans to launch its courses by the end of the year, and private and government schools and colleges are bracing for a huge number of teachers to enroll and eventually sign up with the stateâ€™s growing number of coaching institutes.
Academics in Mumbai are increasingly veering around to the view that the rise in the popularity of coaching classes is in direct proportion to declining standards in mainstream â€” especially government-provided â€” education. These days it is normal for anxious parents of school-going children to start forming student groups for private tutorials when children are in class VIII, driven by the apprehension that if they delay matters, seats in the best coaching institutes with proven track records of preparing students to top school board exams, will be taken.
This anxiety persists in junior college with students keen to enter top-ranked undergrad colleges, and in colleges where students tend to be anxious about entering front-line postgrad institutions. Consequently Mahesh Tutorials, Sinhal Classes, Ideal Coaching Classes and Vidyasankar Classes are names almost as well-known as Mumbaiâ€™s most high-profile schools and colleges.
Now with almost 50,000 teachers in Maharashtra employed by coaching institutes, itâ€™s hardly surprising MCOA has resolved to train, test and certify them. MCOA secretary Narendra Bhambwani says that the MCOA curriculum will include student psychology, question paper patterns across various streams, and exam writing skills. To start with, the MCOA plans to offer three certificate study programmes â€” for teachers of junior college (Plus Two) students (price: Rs.9,000), for teachers of undergrad students (Rs.16,000) and for teachers preparing students for professional entrance exams (Rs.24,000). Subsequently a certificate course for teachers tutoring high school students for board exams will also be introduced.
"We regard this as an important initiative to improve the supply and quality of our teachers," says Jagdish Walawalkar, MCOA president and managing director of Maharashtraâ€™s hugely popular Ideal Coaching Classes. "All major coaching institutes will gradually start insisting upon MCOA certified teachers; others will automatically follow."
Not surprisingly, within the Maharashtra state governmentâ€™s education ministry, this MCOA initiative is being interpreted as a massive vote of no-confidence in the stateâ€™s 247 teacher training colleges. With coaching institutes rapidly emerging as a parallel education system, thereâ€™s a real possibility of a massive exodus of teachers â€” especially from government schools and colleges â€” into coaching institutes which pay much better. Moreover thereâ€™s a clear and present danger that MCOA certification will become more valuable and prestigious than of the state governmentâ€™s moribund teacher training colleges.
Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)
Runaway liberalismThe indiscriminate conferment of deemed university status by the Delhi-based University Grants Commission (UGC) to private sector colleges across the country, especially in Tamil Nadu (pop: 62 million) which has 13 deemed varsities (second in number only to Maharashtra), is creating alarm among academic and education administrators in the state. Currently the applications of 22 privately promoted higher education institutions in Tamil Nadu are pending with UGC for grant of deemed university status, of which 20 are likely to be approved. Meanwhile six other institutions are in the process of preparing their applications for submission.
Under s.3 of the UGC Act 1956, deemed universities (aka deemed-to-be-universities) are privately promoted institutions of proven academic excellence and general merit which are selectively conferred autonomous status after due diligence and deliberation by the commission. This explains why in the initial 34 years after enactment of the UGC Act, i.e until 1990, only 29 institutions were granted deemed varsity status. But during the past 15 years, 63 colleges/education groups have been declared deemed varsities raising the number to 92 countrywide.
This rapid multiplication of deemed universities has prompted fears of inadequate supervision by UGC and deterioration in the quality of higher education provided by them. These fears have been fanned by the rapid loss of reputation and credibility of several deemed universities offering engineering study programmes in Tamil Nadu. There is a strong body of emerging evidence that many of them are blatantly flouting sanctioned intake norms and other stipulations of the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and charging arbitrary tuition fees.
In March 2005, four deemed universities in the state witnessed unpre-cedented violent protests and agitation by students gripped by fear of derecognition of their engineering degrees because they were uncertain whether their study programmes had been approved by AICTE. The issue was resolved after the Madras high court ruled that AICTEâ€™s approval was unnecessary because UGC has primacy over AICTE in maintaining standards in deemed universities. However the student protests highlighted the reckless disregard of groundwork and rules by deemed universities in the state.
In the circumstances, educationists question the advisability of scaling up the number of deemed universities. "According to the approach paper to the Eleventh Plan, the country needs 1,500 universities against the current number of 352. However rapid increase in the number of deemed universities is hardly the solution as it will be at the cost of quality. UGC is required to send a team every three years to monitor deemed varsities but it canâ€™t cope with its current workload. Therefore not a single course of a deemed university has been discontinued for being substandard. Nor has the deemed status of any university been revoked for flouting UGC norms. In Tamil Nadu, most deemed varsities are either privately owned or run by family trusts solely for profit-making purposes," says D. Victor, former director of collegiate education, Tamil Nadu and currently director of Academy for Quality and Excellence in Higher Education.The prime cause of deemed varsities freely misusing their special status is lack of clear guidelines under the UGC Act, 1956. According to the Act, after an institution is conferred deemed university status, it becomes autonom-ous â€” free to design its own curriculum and award its own degrees although it cannot affiliate colleges. However the Act also clearly states that to qualify for deemed status an institution should be engaged in teaching and researching chosen fields of specialisation and that it should be innovative and of high academic standard.
Quite clearly as indicated by the rapid mushrooming of deemed universities during the past two decades, the root problem is that deemed status is being conferred too liberally by UGC with the result that it canâ€™t monitor them. Therefore a growing number of deemed varsities freely flout norms and stipulations of the commission. Some deemed varsities are also offering courses through the distance education mode and have unauthorisedly established study centres across the country run by franchisees.
"Undoubtedly, deemed varsities in Tamil Nadu are purely business driven. They need to exhibit greater responsibility towards students and use their autonomous status to focus on research and innovation. Unfortunately, this is not happening and deemed varsities tend to attract students not because they offer quality education but because they offer superior infrastructure facilities. However they donâ€™t attract good teachers and tend to admit students in excess of minimum eligibility and intake norms," says Nirmala Prasad, principal M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women, Chennai.
Quite clearly, unless UGC effectively regulates deemed universities and comes down heavily on errant institutions, students will have to pay the price of its acts of omission and commission. Moreover unwarranted haste in granting deemed university status is multiplying their number, and making the task of monitoring them more difficult for UGC.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)