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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

Issue of Higher Education in India

Monday 27 July 2009, by P R Dubhashi


Thoughts are expressed from time to time regarding various facets and issues relating to higher education in India. Not all of them are necessarily consistent with each other. They are even mutually contradictory and can prove misleading as well. The Knowledge Commission was expected to give a sense of direction. But it itself proved to be a a divided house. Its Vice-Chairman and some members resigned. It faced the opposition of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Now a new Minister has taken over. Will he be able to steer clear of contradictions and provide positive leadership to ensure progress of higher education in India in the right direction? This requires that there should be a clear ideological outlook relating to higher education.

Ideology of Higher Education

At present, we seem to be in the grip of an over-riding ideology which is governing our economy, polity, technology, society and culture. This is the ideology of marketisation, globalisation, privati-sation and liberalisation which is also powerfully influencing our educational system.

The ideology of marketisation has led to the ‘commodification’ of everything. Education is one such ‘commodity’ to be bought and sold in the market. An educational institution is the shop where ‘ education’ is bought and sold. The type of education provided and its ‘quality’ depends on the demand and supply in the market.

This concept of education is a far cry from the classical liberal ideas of education in Europe as also from our own ancient traditions. Cardinal Newman, in spelling out the goal of universal education, observed that it should produce a ‘gentleman’ with good judgment regarding right and wrong. More recently, Edward Dabono said that education should produce a thinking individual. In the scintillating convocation address to Allahabad University delivered in 1948 Jawaharlal Nehru said:

A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for adventure of ideas, for secret of truth, for onward march of human race towards ever lasting goals of life.

In today’s system of higher education in India, we seem to have given a go-by to all those ideas and concepts. Young people wish to go in for courses which would launch them on a remunerative career. The more money they can earn, the better. In taking such courses of education, students pay scant attention to their own likes and dislikes, their inclinations and capabilities. Till recently medicine and engineering were the top courses in demand. Now since medicine has become an expensive, long-drawn out course that will not guarantee immediate pay back because it takes a long time to equip oneself to settle as a doctor, the students have turned away—even tough the nation, especially in the rural areas (and the world at large), requires qualified doctors. Now the students are going to courses for computer engineering, information technology, management, animation and gaming because on graduation, they can get remunerative jobs. No wonder traditional arts and science courses have no takers. Good students don’t take them. Students do not want to go in for pure sciences and mathematical courses. A leading scientist, C.N.R. Rao, has drawn attention to this phenomenon and warned that if this goes on, there will be no ‘science teachers’. This would have disastrous consequences because after all science is the foundation of technology and without a sound foundation of science no country can progress Science research will come to a standstill. Also neglect of literature, philosophy, history etc. lead to lopsided education and an unbalanced society. That is why the Yash Pal Committee has recommended an inter-disciplinary approach to higher education even in technical institutions like IITs.

There is a tremendous competition for the limited number of seats available in the small number of IITs and IIMs and other institutions of technical education. They have to get top ranks in the CET or other entrance examinations. Under the pressure of competition, students concentrate on passing examinations with high rank rather than acquiring knowledge and skills and enjoying the process of acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and the depth of understanding it provides. Students even spend large sums by way of fees of coaching classes which prepare them for competitive examinations. While the coaching classes are full, classrooms in colleges are deserted.

The liberal outlook on education has given way to a purely utilitarian and commercial outlook. Education is looked upon as an instrument of producing human resources needed by the economy. Educated and trained human resources have become a scarce commodity specially in the context of demographic changes in the advanced countries like Japan and Germany and other European countries where gerontocracy prevails. Young human resources are in short supply. This has put India with its young profile (50 per cent people of less than 25 years in age) in a position of advantage. India can be the factory for producing human resources for the rest of the world.

Drastic Expansion in Number and its Impact on Quality

It is in this context that the Knowledge Commision has called for a drastic increase in institutions of higher education like IITs, IIMs, and universities. India needs a minimum of 1500 universities, according to the Chairman of the Knowledge Commssion, Sam Pitroda. Following its recommendations, the Union Government announced the setting up of thirty new Central Universities and several new IITs and IIMs.

But institutions of higher education cannot be a hot-house of growth. They require not only substantial financial resources for infrastructure but also high quality teaching staff which is not readily available. If institutions are hurriedly set up, they will remain below the requisite standard. Already we are seeing this in India’s system of higher education. Quality is sacrificed at the altar of quantity. In a special report on India (The Economist, December 13-19 2008, “China and India—a tale of two vulnerable economies”) it is stated: “The quality of teaching in India’s 248 Universities and some 18,000 colleges is generally poor. NASSCOM, the IT Industry’s lobby group, reckons that out of 30,000 engineering graduates who emerge each year mostly from private college, 25 per cent are unemployable without extensive further training and half are just unemployable… In a recent ranking of world’s 500 best universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, only two were from India.”

Under the pressure of demand, a rapid growth of these institutions has become a necessity. An enormous number of young people with high aspirations can be an asset to India if they can be given knowledge and skills required in the modern economy and society governed by modern technology like that of internet. If there is no adequate number of institutions of higher education, the youth would remain unemployable and get frustrated and rather than they being an asset, become a liability posing a grave danger to society.

Those belonging to the affluent sections of society (and even not so affluent) seek entrance in the institutions of higher education in advanced countries like the USA, Germany and Australia. It is estimated that their number is about 3.5 million and they spend $ 13 billion on pursuing education abroad. It is, therefore, rightly argued that this amount could be invested within the country to set up quality institutions of higher education.

Privatisation of Education

It is rightly stated that the number of institutions of higher education required to be set up is so large that they cannot be set up by the government alone. A larger number of institutions have to be set up in the private sector. Educational institutions in the private sector are not unknown in India. During the British rule, public spirited Indians like Lokmanya Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai took a lead in setting up such institutions. Their outlook was essentially nationalistic. They were educationists. They wanted qualified Indians with patriotic spirit to come out of these institutions. Today the outlook of those who have come forward to set up such institutions in the private sector is very different. They look at it as a lucrative business opportitunity. And they are those who have political connections (some-times politicians themselves), who use political influence to get generous concessions from the government in many forms including large tracts of land at convenient locations at throwaway prices. These are called non-aided institutions but they get government aid in the form of concessions which is considerable. Moreover as they call themselves as non-grant institutions, they think they are at liberty to charge whatever fees they deem fit, not to talk of donations, open or clandestine, from rich families and the NRIs. Money rather then merit is the criterion of admission. Students of rich families with poor academic performance get admission to highly regarded professional courses, creating frustration amongst those students who cannot afford to pay high fees or donations and at the same time do not find a place in the limited number of seats available in government institutions. The academic standards of these private institutions of higher education are often below standard. The teachers are not full time but on a contract basis or just guest lecturers. The infrastructural facilities like libraries and laboratories leave much to be desired. And yet the government cannot set them right because they have political connections and support. They have grown from strength to strength making the educational enterprise into a flourishing business. Rather than being affiliated to established universities inviting university regulation, they have successfully claimed the status of Deemed Universities whose number has grown by leaps and bounds. The HRD Minister in the last UPA Government was liberal in according the status of regular universities to institutions previously known as Deemed Universities. Their number has gone upto 125. The new HRD Minister, Kapil Sibal, has now declared that his Ministry would be examining whether such full-fledged status to these 125 institutions was justified. The USA has several private universities like Harvard and Yale which are world-famous institutions of excellence in teaching and research. Our private universities are a far a cry from these celebrated institutions in the USA.

Entry of Foreign Universities

Another way of augmenting facilities for higher education is the entry of Universities of the UK, USA into India. They could set up branches or facilities to enable Indian students to pursue their courses obviating the necessity of going abroad. In the beginning like the entry of multinationals, the entry of foreign universities was also looked at with suspicion. But now the benefits of such entry of Universities from abroad is increasingly recognised. Not only would they augment the facilities, they would bring new and higher standards and pose a challenge to our institutions of higher education which have been suffering from stagnation. They could introduce new ideas of course, content and methods. They would also stimulate research. The Foreign University Bill would facilitate the process.

A variant of the branches of foreign Universities is the setting up courses in Indian institutions in collaboration with foreign Universities. Everything can be said in favour of such partnership. It will have a synergical effect on the progress of higher education in the country.

State of Indian Universities in Public Sector

India has a long tradition of higher education. The first Indian Universities, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, were set up way back in 1954. Subsequently many new universities came up especially after independence But it is now realised that university education in India leaves much to be desired.

The courses are not updated; students miss classes; standards are not rigorous; innovative methods like project work do not have a place; research is lacking and hence the productive relationship between teaching and research is non-existent; the infrastructure is crumbling; administrative lapses in conduct of examinations and declaration of results are frequent bringing the university in public criticism. The blame is put on the unwieldy administrative structure of the universities. They are set up under the Act of the legislature. Universities have their own system of self-governance with their statutes and ordinances. But the University Act itself contains provisions curtailing the autonomy of the university. The Vice-Chancellor, the academic head of the university, is appointed by the government and it is often said that political influence and lobbying takes place in such appointments. The Vice-Chancellor who owes his appointment to the political factor cannot provide independent leadership. Politicisation seriously erodes the academic and administrative autonomy of the university which is a sine qua non for the existence and development of a university of excellence.

The Vice-Chancellor is assisted by an administration headed by the Registrar. But both the VC and the Registrar often lack administrative capabilities leaving things to lower level clerical staff who are found to be negative in dealing with the students and the community. There is no sense of understanding between the academic community and the administrative staff. The academic staff feel that they do not get adequate administrative support. The university has its governing system in the shape of the Executive Committee, Senate (Court) and Academic Council. But often these institutions follow the model of political institutions. The meetings tend to be stormy and long drawn out and the initiative of the VC can get stalled. The concepts of academic sanctity and autonomy are sacrificed at the altar of politics and government interference. Recently we witnessed the autonomy of even reputed institutions like IITs and IIMs sacrileged in the name of reservations for OBCs and fixation of fair fees. Such curtailment of autonomy have a long term effect on the quality of higher educational institutions.

Another aspect of the working of Indian universities is that they are mainly affiliating universities. The colleges affiliated to them run into hundreds. Often many of the colleges are below standard and have the effect of bringing down the standard of the university as a whole. The preoccupation with the issues connected with the affiliated institutions detracts from teaching and research in post-graduate departments of the universities. The proposal to turn these affiliated colleges into autonomous institutions has not made much progress. Many colleges are reluctant to assume autonomous status since they do not want to assume attendant responsibilities.

Regulatory Institutions

Then there is the issue relating to regulatory institutions. At present we have the University Grants Commission and the Council for Technical Education and professional institutions like the Medical Council. The UGC was mainly set up to provide grants for Central Universities. These grants to State Universities—the largest of institutions in the country—were limited. And yet they laid down qualifications and pay scales. This imposed a uniformity which is not in consonance with the different types and standards of institutions and created disincentives. A greater measure of flexibility is needed. The All India Council of Technical Education acquired a bad reputation because of questionable practices relating to giving sanctions. The Knowledge Commission has recommended a Single Regulatory Authority of Higher Education in the country. The entire issue of financing and regulations of institutions needs to be examined at length. The All India Association of Indian Universities should discuss the subject at its annual conference.

Dr Dubhashi, IAS (retired) is a former Secretary to the Government of India and erstwhile Vice-Chancellor, Goa University; he is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra. He can be contacted at

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