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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

REFORMING INDIAN HIGHER EDUCATION

Indian higher education system is going through a major crisis but I feel that as a Nation we are so used to such crisis situations. In India order comes only from extreme state of disorder and we seem to heading in that direction at this stage in our development and growth. We don’t have official privatization in education but de-facto privatization exists for over 25 years now. One sure way to determine if our education system is on a decline is to look at the growth of coaching centers. There is a parallel education system being provided for everything. Students are going more and more to coaching centers despite that fact that they are enrolled in schools and colleges. We are conducting entrance exams for almost everything in this country and our students spend more time in preparing for entrance exams than to acquire knowledge and skills in our university systems. With a few exceptions, our public universities are losing their credibility as they seem to be doing the same job for which India Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) was created. They are only admitting students and conducting exams.
Most Public Universities with a few exceptions have become local universities where students, teachers and staff are local residents of the city in which such universities are located. To add to the mess a large proportion of them are also related to each other. The best universities are still those that attract students and teachers from across the country such as JNU or Delhi University. There is no incentive for our universities to perform either in teaching or in research as they have become centers for political activity for both teachers and students. What will happen to our education system if the decision to appoint a Vice Chancellor is based not on academic & administrative competencies but more on political considerations? Universities are funded without any considerations of performance in either teaching or research. I do not want the reader of this blog to assume that I am putting down our education system; I am also a product of the same system. I however, recognize that there is too much going wrong with our education system that we have to start public debate on the subject.
Every now and then under pressure, the government decided to set up committees to look at the functioning of our universities and to reform them. The problem is that most of these committees have as its members the very same people who have been responsible for its decline. How do we expect them to reform the system? There is no new thinking in the process of reform of higher education. There are too many interest groups involved for the reform process to take its own course. So now the government plans to dismantle all regulatory agencies and form on National Regulatory Authority. But then they will shift all existing people from these dismantled regulatory agencies into the new one. It is believed that this will solve the problems, No it will just lead to more centralization with same people running the system all over again. What will be necessary is to have the new National Regulatory Authority run on the same principles of credit rating agencies and it should be free from Government control.
The other side of the coin is the private sector education. This sector has its own problems due to lack of transparency, accountability and regulation. Those in the Public system accuse the private sector of being too commercial in their character and fleecing students and parents. I cannot say that there is no truth in this and to some extent there is an element of reality in this thinking. But what bothers me most is that the same very people who have always voiced their resentments of the private sector have after retirement from Public Universities and government regulatory agencies joined hands with private players and started dancing on their tunes. This is what I call hypocrisy of the first order. If you go across the list of advisors in various private universities, colleges and institutions, you will find people who have retired from UGC, AIU, AICTE, MCI etc. All of a sudden they don’t find the private sector as being commercial anymore and are open in saying that private sector is the solution to India’s education reform. This is the typical I am OK syndrome which exists in our country and to a large extent has been responsible for the mess we are in today.
Although private sector may have its own problems, it is the regulatory system of the country that needs to be held accountable for the unchecked growth of the private sector. From Deemed Universities, to institutions, everything emerges from the incompetence of the regulatory agencies. The level of corruption that exists within the regulatory system is known to one and all in the field of private education. Pointing fingers at the private sector is not the solution to the problem and regulators have to take full responsibility for the mess that has been created both in the public as well as the private sector. As long as special interests will dominate this sector, there will be no solutions to the existing problems and reforms will take a back seat. Every person in government and at policymaking level knows the problems but they are unwilling to do anything about it till a point of disaster is not reached.
So how do we go about reforming our massive educational system which has been victim of so much administrative and regulatory failure? To begin with let us try and understand the realities and how we can deal with them one at a time.
  1. Given the supply-demand mismatch in Indian education, it is not possible for the public system to support the educational infrastructure required to educate all in the country. This will require us to clearly understand that both private and public sector will have to work together to create a robust educational system in tune with the current realities.
  2. Emphasis needs to be given to re-structure the Ph.D programs of all universities to make them demanding and to begin to produce good Ph.Ds who will fill the gap of the impending shortages of quality faculty members in the years to come.
  3. Make the regulatory system very stringent and transparent for both the public and private sector. There should be single policy and all higher education institutions will be measured on the same parameters’ irrespective of whether they are private or public. We cannot have two different quality standards in higher education. What is good for the public system has to be good for the private sector as well.
  4. Reform the funding criteria of public universities. There could be two different modes of funding. All public universities could receive a grant-in-aid which could constitute about 50% of their current funding. The remaining funding should be directed towards needy students directly through a voucher system. The students can go to any public institution of his choice and if admitted the government will fund each of such institutions by the value of the vouchers presented to them. This will ensure that every public university will have to now compete for students to ensure adequate funding. In the event that the needy student is unable to get admission in a public system he could go to a private institution and use the same voucher. The fee in public system has to be brought in line with actual costs. Since most needy students are going to be funded by voucher, all other students will have to pay higher fee to cover the full cost of university education. This will result in some students who can afford private education to exit the public system. The net result will be to open up more avenues for needy students who would otherwise not be able to afford higher education.
  5. The model works well and both private and public universities and both will co-exist to create a robust system which meets the needs of a growing economy like India. United States has a good system based on this principle and we can learn something from there. I cannot say that everything will work the same way, but it may be useful to study the USA model and make changes as per our own systems and requirement.
Above all this, there is one aspect that is critical to any reform in our higher education. There is a need to accept that there is a problem and that we need to find a solution to it.
I do not want the reader of this blog to assume that I have answered all question on educational reform, it is a complex issue and needs a greater degree of understand and public debate. I have just raised some critical issues for everyone to think and discuss. I believe that as a Nation we are now in a position where a fair percentage of the college going age students can afford private education and thus there is a need for us to see if we can divert a greater share of our public funds towards meeting the needs of those that cannot take care of themselves.
Reform is not about changes in the process of doing things in a country but about changes in the mindset of its population…
The views expressed in this blog are my personal views and do not represent the organization I represent.
Happy reading..

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