For the first time in 20 years – with violence at its peak in the last two decades – students in colleges and departments of the University of Kashmir have been able to take up summer placements at companies that came to the campus to recruit.
“Students from the [Kashmir] Valley will be placed all over India. They will realise that the notion that nobody supports Kashmiris is wrong,” Kashmir University Vice-chancellor Talat Ahmad told University World News. He was referring to often-disaffected youths who can turn to militancy in the conflict-ridden state.
With an eye to promote development and battle a lack of opportunities in poorer districts and troubled states, the Indian government has been setting up colleges and universities in poor and remote areas, and implementing policies that reach out to a growing youth population.
Over the past five years, the central government has established 12 new central universities, several of them in underdeveloped states with large tribal populations, including Jharkhand and Odisha (formerly named Orissa).
Six new health institutions modelled on the country’s top medical university, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in New Delhi, are also being set up in states that have only limited facilities for medical education and training
The older Indian institutes of technology (IITs) and Indian institutes of management (IIMs) – India’s premier engineering and management institutions – are all located in urban areas.
But eight new IITs and IIMs, established after 2008, are in small towns including Rohtak in Haryana state, Raipur in underdeveloped Chhattisgarh state, Ranchi in Jharkhand state, Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, Jodhpur in Rajasthan, and Mandi in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh.
“Less than 20% of eligible Indians are pursuing higher education. If we want to get to 30% [gross enrolment ratio] by 2020 we have to go all out in increasing access,” said Professor SS Murthy, vice-chancellor of the Central University of Karnataka.
This means reaching out to groups such as minorities and tribals who are less likely to attend universities, and providing higher education in areas where there is none, or where development is hampered by conflicts.
In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the government has said it will open a college in every district during the current Five-Year Plan (2012-17).
The University of Kashmir is opening three satellite campuses in Leh, Kupwara and Kargil – three hilly, inaccessible districts – with funding assistance from the central government.
In Leh, in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas famous for its beautiful but rough terrain, the university will start courses in earth science and tourism. In Kargil, an area that saw confrontation between Indian and Pakistani troops in 1999, the university will set up a school of life sciences to take advantage of the area’s rich biodiversity.
“There is no opportunity for higher education in these areas and local students cannot afford to go outside [the region]. The isolation that many regions of the state face will be broken by connecting the main campus with the three satellite campuses and encouraging student mobility,” said vice-chancellor Ahmad.
Some 1,200 students at the University of Kashmir were selected by various companies under a centrally funded government project that aims to provide skills – and consequently employment – to young people in the militancy-affected state.
The government aim is to provide campus placements to 40,000 students over the next five years with the help of the National Skill Development Corporation, a public-private partnership that funds vocational training initiatives in the private sector.
“This is one of the biggest steps taken for promoting higher education and skill development in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Ahmad. “There is a lot of migration to Arab countries for work. So we are also planning to start an IT course with Arabic language training.”
Reaching the unreached
Centrally funded public universities are being encouraged by the government to start satellite campuses in regions with little or no higher education infrastructure.
Hyderabad-based Maulana Azad National Urdu University has announced that it will open a campus in Srinagar, the Kashmir capital, and Aligarh-based Aligarh Muslim University is setting up a campus in northern Bihar state after opening satellite campuses in Kerala in the south and in West Bengal.
“The willingness on the part of established universities to spread their reach and of the government to support setting up satellite centres is welcome,” Murthy said.
Notably, both Shillong in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, and Srinagar, are dominated by minority communities, of Christian tribals and Muslims respectively.
The government’s policy to focus on minority and tribal dominated areas has been highlighted since around 2008 in its five-year plans. The gross enrolment among ‘scheduled castes’ is just 11.5% and for tribals just 7.7%, compared to a national GER average of 18.5%. The enrolment rate among Muslims is also very low – around 9.5%, according to government figures.
Scheduled castes and minorities are hampered by poverty, while tribal areas are also poorly served by higher education institutions and students must often ‘migrate’ to other areas for education, where they need residential facilities.
New institutions not only increase higher education access – several have made development issues and challenges a part of their research agenda.
The Central University of Jharkhand is collaborating on a pilot project with Columbia Water Center at Columbia University in the United States that could ensure safe drinking water for rural households in the state.
“In Jharkhand, 60% of rainwater is wasted, and rainwater harvesting structures have failed. This is a unique opportunity for the faculty and students to engage in an important research area,” said Amit Kumar, an assistant professor at the university’s Centre for Land Resource Management.
Students have been able to get paid internships and he hopes that many more will get opportunities in the coming years.
Kumar is working with colleagues to set up a centre for sustainable earth resource development in an impoverished state that is dominated by mining interests, and where 40% of the population are tribals or from disadvantaged castes. A proposal for the centre has already been submitted to the University Grants Commission for approval.
“Jharkhand is rich in resources but we have to work towards using them sustainably. The university has given us an opportunity to work towards this,” Kumar said.
AIIMS Patna, in the Bihar state capital, started teaching an undergraduate medical degree course in 2012 and has set up telemedicine facilities that will be accessible across the state via skype internet telephony.
“We are pilot testing in 12 to 15 villages and the programme has already benefited 8,000 people,” said Dr GK Singh, director of AIIMS Patna. “Today people of Bihar can get non-emergency advice sitting at home.”
According to Singh, the six new AIIMS will mean “a revolution in medical care” across the country. They will speed up the availability of emergency care and help educate people on emergency aid.
AIIMS Patna has brought out a mobile phone application that with the press of a button sends a signal to AIIMS with the geographic location of the person. “We can immediately rush the ambulance to the accident spot,” he said.
While opening up access to higher education and opportunities to the less privileged, institutions in poor and remote areas do face challenges, most notably in attracting qualified faculty.
“The students are there. In the first year of operation all our seats were full. But getting teachers to stay and teach in Koraput was a big problem. The situation has improved but it will take several years before we can get the best to work full-time rather than as visiting faculty,” said a senior teacher at the Central University of Orissa in Koraput, in the state of Odisha.
The university was recently criticised for holding its fourth foundation day celebration in Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, 500 kilometres from Koraput.
The teacher said an attack in August by Maoist militants near Pottangi, 50 kilometres from Koraput, in which four Border Security Force men were killed, had prompted the university to change the venue for security reasons.
“Each university will have its unique set of challenges. But we cannot wait for the districts to develop before starting. They will develop alongside us,” the teacher said, adding that the university had approached the government to set up a hospital that will cater to the local population and offer medical degrees.
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