Funding green light for higher education rejuvenation

India is set to launch an ambitious higher education plan that will pump money into state universities, link university performance to funding and set up new institutions, thus creating expanded access to higher education for the country’s growing number of school-leavers.

The Ministry of Finance recently approved Rs250 billion (US$4 billion) towards Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, or RUSA, which proposes to spend Rs990 billion (US$16 billion) over the 12th Plan (2012-17) and 13th Plan (2017-22) periods.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development, or HRD, will now approach cabinet for approval to implement the project in the current fiscal year.

The plan was initially proposed in 2012 by then HRD minister Kapil Sibal, and was approved by a parliamentary finance committee last July.

A finance ministry official said the committee had in principle approved the programme with a few riders. “We have told them to focus on the quality of institutions rather than just creating new infrastructure. Emphasis should be on student needs such as laboratories and training faculties rather than just building offices and classrooms,” he said.

Focus on states

Under RUSA, the focus will be on strengthening state institutions and building their capacity to use resources efficiently.

Notably, only 6% (500,000) of students studying in public institutions are enrolled in centrally funded institutions while state-controlled public institutions cater to about 94% (7.9 million) of students enrolled.

Yet the majority of funding from the central government goes to centrally funded institutions. In the 11th Plan (2007-12), central institutions grew by 13% while state institutions grew by 4.5%.

To be eligible for funding under RUSA, each state will have to set up a higher education council, which will channel funds from central government to colleges and universities – unlike the current system, where the money is paid directly to universities.

States will monitor the funding flow and will commit to their higher education spending not shrinking year after year. At least 4% of the gross domestic product of states has to be spent on higher education.

Other prerequisites include academic and institutional governance reforms, setting up state accreditation agencies and filling faculty positions.

“RUSA links the state government, the centre and the university, with all three working towards strengthening the higher education sector. This can rejuvenate declining state institutions and give a big boost to higher education in states,” said Professor Baishnab Charan Tripathy, vice-chancellor of Ravenshaw University in Odisha state.

Notably, two-thirds of teaching posts across Odisha are vacant. “As per the RUSA guidelines, 80% of teacher posts in colleges should be filled. The [state] government is keen to fill the vacancies to qualify for RUSA funding,” said Tripathy.

Quality over quantity

While the central government set up dozens of new institutions under the 11th Plan, RUSA will focus on improving existing institutions rather than setting up new ones.

One focus area is strengthening state colleges and university departments. For instance, RUSA will limit the number of colleges affiliated to a university to 200, in order to improve governance.

Some universities currently have a huge number of constituent colleges. For example, Osmania University in Andhra Pradesh has more than 900 colleges affiliated to it.

“Universities spend time on administrative work such as conducting examinations, overseeing curricula and channelling funds to affiliated colleges, when they should focus on teaching and research,” said Professor MK Sridhar, member secretary and executive director of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, a think-tank under the chief minister’s office.

“RUSA correctly focuses on decentralisation and autonomy. It limits political involvement in the university’s administration and gives autonomy to the process of selection of vice-chancellors and curriculum development.

“All these will go a long way in improving the quality of education,” Sridhar said.

Colleges will be encouraged to gain academic and administrative autonomy, become responsible for the curriculum and assessment, and become eligible to receive funds directly.

“The idea is to support some of the best colleges to develop into universities rather than starting new universities,” an education ministry official said.

Performance-based funding

RUSA also ambitiously talks about performance-linked funding to states, with institutions funded based on their performance.

“Until now a certain amount of funds was allocated and went to an institution irrespective of its performance. Under RUSA, the funds given to a state will be linked closely with the outcomes it can achieve. In short, good performance will be incentivised,” the ministry official explained.

“States and institutions will be encouraged to compete with each other in order to reap [the] benefits of competition-based formulaic grants.

“We want to achieve a gross enrolment ratio of 30% by 2020. This is possible only if we strengthen state institutions and build their capacity. Secondly, a focus on states will also ensure access to less privileged students, thus ensuring equity,” said the official.