Indian Higher Education Reforms are on Back-burner

Dr. H.Chaturvedi, Director, BIMTECH

Indian higher education has been one of the major national issue of concern during recent years due to various reasons. Never in the 64 years history of independence, higher education could attract so much attention at the national level.

India’s burgeoning two trillion economy can not sustain its robust growth unless supply of globally competitive and talented manpower is assured for coming decades. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) 2006-09 under the chairmanship of Sam Pitroda in its final report submitted in 2009 opined that there is a quiet crises in higher education in India which sums deep. The time has come to address this crises in a systemic and forthright manner.1

When UPA-II came into power in 2009, Kapil Sibal was made incharge of MHRD. After joining the MHRD, he has said very emphatically that he would initiate reforms to Indian Education in the similar zeal shown by Dr. Manmohan Singh in reforming the Indian Economy during the post-1991.

During the first 100 days of his tenure at MHRD, Kapil Sibal made several announcements and assured the nation that the major recommendations of NKC  and the Yash Pal Committee would be implemented by his ministry during the 11th plan itself. His articulation on educational reforms was widely welcomed and excited the intelligentsia to a large extent.

There has been nation wide debate on the directions and implications of higher education reforms proposed by the MHRD under the stewardship of Kapil Sibal. His proposal attracted diverse reactions from state governments, university teachers and eminent educationists. Recently Sam Pitroda has expressed his serious concern about poor implementation of the major recommendations of NKC. He was addressing a national conference of vice-chancellors called by the MHRD which was held at Delhi on March 25, 2011.

Since the XI Five Years Plan will be completed by 2012, it is worth stock taking whether we could achieve various targets of this plan on higher education. It is also pertinent to review the progress of higher education reforms for the last two years. Private sector has been assigned a very active role by the NKC and the Planning Commission.
Hence there is a need to assess whether there is a complete clarity in policy formulation and its implementation with regard to various issues related to higher education. According to Edge-2011 Report by Ernst & Young, the private sector accounted for 63 percent of all higher education institutions in 2006.

Assuming limitations of government’s resources available for future growth of higher education and also ever rising interests of the private sector in setting up new institutions in higher education, there will be a need for clear cut national policy about the respective roles of public and private sectors in higher education.

The current status of Indian Higher Education presents both promises and pit falls. During the last dacade the number of students pursuing higher education in India has increased from 8.4 million to 16.0 million which accounts almost 20 percent of the global population of university and college students. We have 26478 higher education institutions which are four times of U.S. institutions. Our current Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) is 13 percent which is much less than 23 percent GER of China. It is also lagging behind 21 percent GER of BRIC Nations and 26 percent global average. One of the major reason for our poor GER is our low spending on higher education. Our public spending on higher education is 0.6 percent of GDP which is much less than required. Lack of quality in Indian Higher Education is a big problem. According to NAAC data, only 11 percent universities and colleges meet the criteria to qualify for Grade ‘A’ rating.

Our country can feel pride in producing some of the finest brains for foreign universities where they are respected for their thought leadership. Amartya Sen, P.N. Bhagawati, Ramkrishnan, Late C.K. Prahlad, Nitin Noharia, Ram Charan, Dipak Jain, Anil Gupta, Nirmalya Kumar, Jagdish Seth are few examples. But do we have world class universities and institutions?

According to ranking of top 200 universities of the world published by the Times Higher Education (2010), US had 72, UK 29, Canada 9, China 6, Japan 5, Hong Kong 4, and Singapore 2. None of Indian Universities could find a place in this list. Main criteria for getting place in this list is producing world class research by the university. Why our universities and centres of academic excellence such as IITs, IISc and IIMs are unable to compete with universities of China, Hong Kong and Singapore which have made progress only recently?

While discussing success or failure of reforms in Indian Higher Education, we have to seek answer to this question. It seems that our universities and higher education institutions are too much pre-occupied with teaching and producing poor quality degree holders.

Higher education in India has played an important role in producing millions of engineers, managers, teachers, accountants, scientists, administrators and others who are running our factories, offices, scientific labs, schools, colleges, farms. Today Indian I.T. industry is respected worldwide for which credit should be given to hundreds of engineering colleges and IITs which produced thousands of engineers and software developers with requisite skills and competencies.

Resilience and robustness of Indian economy is largely dependent on our higher education institutions. Higher education in India is also credited as a catalyst for social change because it makes it possible for youths from down trodden or poor middle class strata, to dream big and to translate dreams into reality.

Higher education in India assumes further importance due to growing significance of knowledge industries and services in the globalised economy. Capital or natural resources are now relatively less important for sustainable growth of a nation than the trained and talented manpower. According to Ernst & Young, current spending on higher education in India may be around ` 46,200 crores which is likely to increase to ` 150,000 crore by the year 2020.

Highly education is not only critically important for Indian economy, it can make our country a big player in global higher education by the end of this dacade. Currently around 100 million students are enrolled worldwide in higher education. By 2020, it is likely to rise to 200 million. If planned efforts are made by both governments and private education service provider, India can be made a hub for higher education by the year 2020 in disciplines like engineering, management, medical, pharmacy and social sciences. We will have to develop clusters of would class institutions in 100 cities where foreign students could study comfortably.

If we could attract few lacs foreign students every year, India can become a hub for higher education by 2020. It may look a gigantic task but it is possible if we have a national will for achieving it. Singapore and Dubai are two examples where proactive government policies made these city nations as global destination for higher education.

The Reform Agenda of MHRD
Indian Higher Education has been facing a big policy vacuum for a long period. Our university system, mostly designed on British model could not manage the massive expansion of higher education held during the last two dacades.  The number of students in higher education increased from 49 lakh in 1990 to 1.60 crore in 2010. Since 2009, there has been a rush for reforms in higher education. It was overdue for a long time. There are nine bills formulated by the MHRD for enacting several higher education reforms. These bills are at various stages before becoming acts of parliament. These bills are (i) The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010, (ii) The Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical Educational Institutions, Medical Educational Institutions and University bill, 2010, (iii) The Educational Tribunals Bill, 2010, (iv) The National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill 2010, (v) The Universities for Innovation Bill 2010, (vi) The National Commission For Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill, 2010, (vii) The Protection and Utilisation of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill 2008, (viii) National Academic Depository Bill.

Ideology of Reform Agenda
It may be pertinent to note that higher education reforms proposed by MHRD are not a sudden development. During the post liberalization era, the government policy on education was under pressure for not following market led reforms. There are three major reports on higher education submitted by three high-profile committees appointed by the Union Government during last dacade. They were – The Ambani – Birla Committee, The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) and The Yashpal Committee. First two committees suggested to the Union Government that the private sector should be assigned a greater role in higher education. Yashpal Committee favored less regulation of universities by the government and advocated self- regulation.

If we examine the basic ideas behind objectives laid down in all bills proposed by MHRD, we may find a common thread of ideology. The first and foremost idea is that the government should focus on primary and secondary school education by leaving higher education to markets upto a large extent. An underlying assumption is establishing altogether new organizations rather than reforming existing institutions. While setting up ‘new institutions’, high degree of autonomy has been proposed. It can be seen that in every bill a ‘quick-fix solution has been envisaged to a particular problem of higher education which does not provide a long-term or holistic vision for higher education.
The most glaring feature of all these bills is that MHRD has not done a nation wide consultation with all stake holders. Since state governments have constitutional power to manage higher education at state levels, at least they should have been taken on board before formulating these bills. This is the reason why several state governments under opposition parties have not liked some of the bills because their powers on higher education institutions and universities are likely to be curbed by these bills.

Dr. H. Chaturvedi

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