What are the must-have reforms for higher education?

The Indian government is in the process of undertaking a major review and development of its higher education policy, and other levels – the third such major event, following earlier significant policy statements in 1968 and 1986 (revised in 1992).

Whereas previous new policies focused on access and quality, this time there is a major opportunity and indeed imperative to address not only these issues, but also other important reforms in the context of the massification of higher education, burgeoning private provision of education, rapid technological change and the internationalisation of education and to meet the needs of rapidly changing labour markets and industrial needs, among other things.

To this end, the Ministry of Human Resource Development is conducting a highly consultative exercise and has released various papers, including a discussion paper entitled Themes and Questions for Policy Consultation on Higher Education and Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy 2016.

These inputs hit most of the right notes:
  • • Addressing the cascading effect of poor early education outcomes on later education;
  • • Recognising the lack of employability of graduates, the need for better teaching training and for prioritising quality in the system as a whole through mandatory accreditation and other methods;
  • • Promoting more broad-based curricula to emphasise softer skills;
  • • Addressing governance problems at the system level and institutionally (for example, hiring practices of vice-chancellors and academic freedom) as well as regulatory issues;
  • • Recognising the need to foster linkages between research and industry and to put greater emphasis on vocational education and integration of vocational and higher education;
  • • Addressing disparities in access and provision of higher education (and earlier education) for females, minority groups and different regions;
  • • Accelerating deployment of new technology for pedagogy and online delivery of courses;
  • • Promoting greater internationalisation of the tertiary education system, including allowing selected foreign universities from the top 200 in the world to establish a base in India in collaboration with Indian universities; and
  • • Exploring financing models, including more public-private partnerships and alumni funding (although the documents are somewhat vague about the perennially vexed issue of private provision in India and its role), as well as support to help students get greater access to loans.
Lack of overarching vision

Much of what the discussion papers cover is commendable and certainly vital, but there are still questions as to the government’s overarching narrative or pathway within which priorities can be developed and about whether opportunities to fundamentally re-make a moribund system might be lost.

First, there does not appear to be a comprehensive roadmap to an end goal – for example, what are the absolute and immediate ‘must have’ reforms upon which other reforms will be based? Certainly the discussion papers have a ‘wish list’ feel to them and, of course, in casting the net far and wide there is some inevitability in this.

Second, they represent an institution-heavy response to India’s higher education needs which run the risk of inflicting more bureaucracy onto an already top heavy system.

More and more advisory boards, committees, commissions and specialist bodies seem to be the underlying message – an Education Commission to assist in identifying new knowledge, a new Central Educational Statistics Agency, a new Teacher Education University, an expert committee to study accreditation abroad and a taskforce of experts to study recruitment, promotion and retention of academics, are just some of many examples.

At a time when new technologies ought to be leading to more devolution, accountability and distribution of responsibilities, this seems more than a little contrary.

Third, the linkages between research and industry, while flagged, do not appear to be accompanied by many ideas of how to make them happen.

Greater two-way mobility of personnel between higher education institutions and industry, including much less restrictive hiring practices, should be part of this, as should developing strongly functioning eco-systems with key linkages between government, higher education, vocational education, industry, research and the financial sectors.

It is instructive that, while there is some notion of creating ‘pace-setting’ institutions to be academic incubators, there may be a missed opportunity in not explicitly linking these academic incubators with industry (elsewhere in the documents, however, there is reference to incubation centres for entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity).

Having a much stronger, explicit and overarching eco-systems approach is critical and a key challenge. Further, while the discussion papers call for better linkage between higher education and society, this could perhaps be better fashioned around ensuring that higher education meets the specific challenges or missions confronting Indian society.

Access and internationalisation

Some other issues are worthy of mention. India has certainly embraced MOOCs – massive open online courses – and online delivery of courses, but ensuring quality remains a major challenge.

In addition, there is an opportunity for India to become a ‘massification-segmentation’ provider of tertiary education, in which new information and communications technology can be deployed not only to provide access for large numbers of students, but also to tailor education solutions to particular student needs.

While the documents speak of internationalisation of higher education, there is little by way of strategies to attract more international students – apart from the laudable aims of making India’s curricula comparable to the word’s best and developing Indian cultural studies – to strengthen the global flow of ideas.

Perhaps this is a pipe dream given capacity and other constraints in India. The approach to internationalisation is focused more on institutions – attracting them to India and encouraging Indian institutions to locate abroad.

Further, one of the problematic cornerstones of the Indian higher education system is its affiliation system in which colleges that are tied to universities have limited, if any, autonomy at all, with a consequent impact on accountability, motivation and capability.

The discussion papers make a somewhat lukewarm attempt at reform, recommending that the “existing affiliation system will continue but with a maximum limit of 100 on the number of affiliating colleges”. This could be a lost opportunity for some much needed fundamental reform.

Indian higher education is at a crossroads. Its future direction, as exemplified in the two documents, points to some tentative positive steps to address the massive challenges faced by the sector. However, there is an uneasy sense that more could be done to address more fundamental issues despite the various political constraints that come with proposing reform.

Anand Kulkarni is senior manager, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia, and author of the forthcoming book, India and the Knowledge Economy: Progress and perils.