India's Higher Education Needs a Paradigm Shift

The state has a great and important role to play in maintaining the quality of education at both the primary and higher levels.

India has the third largest higher education system in the world, after the US and China, according to the World Bank. However, in terms of expenditure per student as well as per teacher, India falls behind.

In the last decade, access to higher education has improved as more IITs, IIMs and central and state-level universities have been established. However, this proliferation has also raised concerns about an imbalance between excellence and inclusion.

The regional-state-level universities suffer from a shortage of good-quality teaching staff and laboratories, although they are more inclusive in terms of their geographies and social groups. More than 70% of Indian students study at local and regional universities, but these institutes have smaller budgets and have become known for inflated grades, deflated quality and absenteeism among students, even teachers.

They are poorly funded by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which allocates a major chunk of the budget to central universities, and a smaller fraction of students attend them.

Increasing quality of education

Local and regional universities urgently need to correct course and improve their infrastructure, increase the number of laboratories and enhance the skills of teachers to teach and motivate students.

We know this is possible because India has developed islands of excellence such as IITs and the IISc, and is now producing about 15-20% of the faculty members universities worldwide. India’s higher education contribution is also visible in such sectors as engineering.

But while this should be celebrated, it also hides a troubling truth. Within the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, for one, China’s contribution to knowledge-intensive business services – which requires skilled professionals – is 10% while Indian’s is only 2%. This suggests Indians are mostly absorbed in the lower strata of ICT jobs.

We need to rise up to international, and better national, benchmarks and provide quality education to our students. The recently introduced National Institute Ranking Framework and grade systems for universities are steps in the right direction.

Rankings increase the quality of education. Universities compete among themselves to rank higher as this begets them greater autonomy from regulation, and also more money. Some other reforms like semester systems, choice-based courses and MOOCs could also enhance academic performance and free students to explore their interests.

Universities have to give equal priority to teaching, research and practice. This entails balancing faculty members’ time between teaching, research and institute-building based on their individual capabilities.

The ideal ratio would be 50:30:20 but could vary per teachers’ preferences. Universities have to prioritise research to make it onto lists of world class universities known for both good research and teaching. For this, universities can be linked to research institutes of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Indian Space Research Organisation so students can share their laboratories and researchers can work with young talent.

Universities should be society’s catalysts of change. They can help students better confront real-world challenges with socially relevant curricula and research, dual guidance (student guidance by both professors and practitioners), mentor-mentee programmes, visiting scholar programmes, faculty development, etc. This in turn will reduce the need for separate skill-development programmes, especially in practice-oriented courses like engineering and management.

Sidestepping over-regulation

Additionally, state universities will have to better use local resources and develop course curricula based on local requirements rather teaching the same courses at all campuses. This will provide the necessary knowledge and skills for the local youth to help their communities and also access employment opportunities.

Local and regional universities have to participate in reducing local poverty, improve the implementation of governmental development schemes and increase awareness of education, science and society.

The introduction of eminent professors, national professors and senior professor cadres will also help retain some of the better faculty members in academics rather than having them opt for administrative positions. This is a less known form of brain drain within universities.

In the same vein, the recent ‘Institutions of Eminence’ initiative – which will select and assist 20 public and private universities with achieving a strong global presence – should not disfavour local institutions in the process. It could widen the already yawning gap between national and local institutions.

In fact, many of India’s state universities are over-regulated with interventionist government policies. This is not healthy, and the government should instead consider focusing on results rather than ensuring that certain procedures are followed.

For example, universities often take years to acquire land, construct new buildings and setup research infrastructure. This problem can be sidestepped by the government setting up laboratories and other infrastructure in a 1,000-acre campus. Students and faculty members from nearby institutions can then share these facilities. This also overcomes the issue of thinly distributing an already meagre stream of funds.

After infrastructure, the next big issue is faculty recruitment, frequently entangled in administrative and legal issues. As a result, many universities currently run with only 60% of the sanctioned positions having been filled.

And due to understaffing, teachers are over-burdened with non-academic activities like transportation and accommodation responsibilities, etc. Instead, there should be a stronger effort to insulate them from non-academic activities, and free up more of their time to teach students and undertake research. This is true from central universities to local state universities.

Of course, digitisation initiatives are helping reduce delays but there is still a need to make them more user-friendly. Otherwise, only a few faculty members and students are able to use the digital systems properly, and the project is at risk being under-utilised.

Balancing regulation and intervention

Today, private universities take up about 40% of all students, and this fraction is only going to increase in the future. Some of these private universities are flourishing thanks to less regulation and more autonomy. But they are also becoming money-spinning machines as they increasingly favour more market-driven courses like MBA, engineering and medicine. The student fees, together with alumni funding and other contributions, are cross-subsidise other activities. This pattern has resulted in excessive fee spikes in recent years.

One consequence of this has been the utter neglect of fine arts, culture and history – which in turn jeopardises the whole concept of the university. The word ‘university’ is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning “community of teachers and scholars of various disciplines”.

Finally, more students also depend on loans for their higher education. But with recent reports that NPAs in student loans have increased, banks may make it harder for students to avail these loans.

Through all of these issues, it is evident that the state has a great and important role to play in maintaining the quality of education at both the primary and higher levels.

Additionally, a university’s leadership is quite important for a society to reach its goals and improve itself, to promote humanity, science and reasoning. So the state should also step up to frame the rules for recruitment and appointment of vice-chancellors in public universities and ensure their statuses are upheld.

In 1992, the Yash Pal committee recommended replacing the University Grants Commission and the councils covering medicine, nursing, architecture, accountancy and other areas with a single authority: the National Commission for Higher Education and Research. The committee believed that this would enhance standards and improve the status of higher education system in India.

But of late, as a consequence of frequent transfers and limited fixed-term positions, faculty members have struggled to take ownership of their universities. Universities should encourage them to opt for long-term career options as a way to have them help the university achieve its goals.

The state should also maintain a balance between regulation and intervention. The former can’t be escaped but the latter can, in order to promote free-thinking. The state should examine higher education systems in different countries by asking the right questions. E.g., how does it work? And why has it failed?

A. Amarender Reddy is the principal scientist, ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad. Gayathri Vaidyanathan is an independent journalist.