INDIA: Call for massive overhaul of higher education

"There is no doubt that the Indian higher education system, given the enormity of challenges it is facing, needs a drastic overhaul." The Yash Pal Committee Report, 2009.

The problems facing higher education in India are manifold and demand effective and immediate action. Mushrooming of 'deemed' universities, poor governance of institutions, lack of funds, difficulty in providing speedy accreditation to colleges and universities, insufficient teachers, want of a revived syllabus and the necessity to encourage research are some that are ailing the nation's higher education system.

If the Yash Pal Committee report on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education were to be judged on addressing these issues, it would find many supporters because it does take up matters that do need immediate attention. But there are key areas where, despite its worthy recommendations, many questions are left unanswered.

The committee, led by former University Grants Commission chairman Professor Yash Pal, was appointed by the then Minister of Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, in 2008, to review the commission and the All India Council for Technical Education, as well as various other councils connected with higher education.

Foreseeing the huge task and to discover areas requiring further evaluation, Pal had suggested the committee's task be made broader and that it should be called the advisory committee on "Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education". Innumerable meetings, discussions and open interactions with vice-chancellors, teachers and students resulted in this revolutionary report being touted as an attempt at doing "something that would make a difference".

One of the key recommendations that will make a difference is the plan to create a single apex body to regulate matters related to the higher education. This all-encompassing organisation will be called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research and will replace the existing regulatory bodies.

The recommendation has been lauded by vice-chancellors, educationists, deans, students and even parents. But not everybody is happy: "The UGC will be subsumed, the AICTE won't remain AICTE any more. They feel ignored, shunned and even insulted. I am surprised that the press and universities have given a positive response," Pal commented.

The creation of one ruling voice would drown out the chaos of cries created by the multiplicity of watchdogs such as the UGC and AICTE. They had failed to work together and never seemed to agree with each others' decision anyway.

Even the report mentions that "the very little coordination among the statutory bodies has led to very embarrassing situations in which we find two regulatory agencies at loggerheads and fighting legal cases against each other".

Establishment of the national commission is likely to facilitate expansion and execution of the Pal committee's recommendations at a much faster pace: "The idea of unifying the fragmented governance into one governing agency is excellent. I would however like to see this regulator being funded through creation of a corpus," said Professor Samir K Barua, Director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

"It should not depend on funding from the government in the form of allocation every year. The regulator may also be funded through a small charge on the revenues of the regulated institutions."

The report emphasises the need for interdisciplinary experiences and this should help students sustain themselves "when the demands of a particular job market change". It would mean that students would be exposed to multiple subjects under the aegis of one university or college.

"Connection with the outside world should be maintained at every cost. What we have currently is a steel box of a system within which there are smaller boxes with no interaction with the outside or with each other," Pal said.

Even the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management needed to shed their isolation and expand their scope to include other subjects such as the humanities. This could prevent their isolation as just engineering or management hubs and introduce an inter-disciplinary approach.

Surendra Prasad, Director of IIT-Delhi, accepted the recommendation, saying: "Like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology we need to go beyond science and technology and nurture other disciplines as well. This is not to encompass each and every subject but to have a healthy exchange and inflow of ideas from every direction and field."

Private sector participation is seen necessary to reach the goal of doubling higher education's capacity. But the report lashes its whip at those private universities which make profitability their singular focus. It recommends massive modification in the legal framework to tighten regulations on auditing the accounts of such universities, on transparency, on paying a minimum salary to the teachers and so on.

The report also recommends that the granting of 'deemed' university status should be put on hold till unambiguous guidelines are evolved.

"Interest groups have been shocked. The shops that had opened up like family businesses will be rooted out now. They teach only business or management courses because of the high fee involved. Setting up a private college or university is a business proposition for them and nothing else," Pal said.

Years of theoretical learning may find a new dimension with the report insisting on summer jobs or internships as part of compulsory exposure for all students, irrespective of the discipline. The report also suggests that teachers should be assessed by the students although it does not state how and when any of this will be executed.

Teacher education should be the responsibility of institutions of higher education and all teachers must undergo refresher courses regularly, according to the report. It has also been suggested that since teaching and research go hand in hand, there should be an increased emphasis on research as well.

"It should be necessary for all research bodies to connect with universities in their vicinity and create teaching opportunities for their researchers and for all universities to be teaching and research universities," the report says.

Vocational courses have failed to gain popularity in India as they are seen as the recourse of those who fail to gain admission to a regular university or are poor and require a speedy source of livelihood. To remove this stigma, the report recommends a skill development council be set up at the central level.

"Alienation of this sector can be overcome by bringing it under the purview of universities and by providing necessary accreditation to the courses available in polytechnics, industrial training institutions and so on" the report states.

The neglected condition of the state universities has been addressed and the report calls for their liberal funding. It also recommends that the nearly 1,500 colleges providing good standards of education should be upgraded to the level of a university.

While the report welcomes opening doors to foreign scholars to facilitate exchange of ideas across borders, it suggests that only the best foreign universities be allowed to open campuses in India. It also says Indian universities should be given full autonomy and be subjected to the least interference and inspection.

This has been accepted by the educational institutes: "Autonomy is essential if we are to compete with the foreign institutions which are likely to be permitted to set up campuses in India," Barua said. "Otherwise, the foreign institutions should also be subjected to the same controls and regulations as the public institutions. I also think it would be good idea to specify what the foreign institutions desiring to set up campuses should bring in capital."

Kapil Sibal, current Minister of Human Resource Development, is enthusiastic about the report and has announced that it will be implemented within 100 days.

Although the report represents an attempt to give Indian higher education a facelift to match global standards, the weakest link is that it leaves many how-to-do-it questions unanswered. As the report itself states, "What exactly needs to be done in detail is beyond the scope of this report and we are separately suggesting that a Task Force is given the responsibility for it."

Problems with implementation are not just limited to devising ways to execute the recommendations but also arranging for funds to put them into effect. For example, the report suggests that education should be made affordable to all and an assured loan should be available to every student, apart from scholarships.

India's expenditure on higher education in 2009-2010 is Rs154 billion (US$3.2 billion) which is around 20% more than the previous year but is not even half the required amount if the planned results are to be achieved. The teacher shortage needs to be tackled by making teaching a lucrative profession and that too requires attractive salaries.

Achieving results with less funds than required may be difficult but the promise of change has given hope to many. Deepak Pental, Vice-chancellor of Delhi University, said: "It is a quite practical and promising report. I don't know how and where the funds will come from but at least we are going in the right direction."

*Kanika Tandon is an Indian journalist currently based in Britain.

BITS Pilani which is one among the top ranking universities in India Today is a model worth studying and emulating. Admissions by online Test BITSAT, dual degree option for MSc(Hons) student to obtain a second degree in Engineering, cafeteria approach to
selection of electives, Practice school option for all degrees analogus to Internship for doctors. BITS with various Engg branches is a T school, with various Science Programs is a S School, with various IT Programs IT School, with Pharmacy it is a P School, with its MBA it is a B School.... BITS iteself was formed in 1964 by merger of Birla College of Engineering, Birla College of Arts and Birla College of Science, Commerce & Pharmacy. All degrees at BITS Pilani have common foundation years. BITS Education puts emphasis on Interdisciplinary approach. BITS Model of education has been acclaimed in many global forums.

Partha Sarathy