Why a new higher education review is a waste of time
This is the latest, and seemingly one of the most elaborate, of an endless series of official reports and programmes aimed at improving higher education in the post-independence period.
These documents – the first of which was the Radhakrishnan Commission of 1949, continuing with the national education policies of 1968 and 1986, the Yashpal Committee of 2009, the National Knowledge Commission in 2007, and most recently the draft NEP of 2019 – have all basically said the same thing.
While it is always valuable to point to the importance of higher education for India’s economy and society by way of various government committees, it is not necessary to convene many experts through initiatives such as EQUIP to tell government and the academic community what it already knows.
Perhaps the time, energy and resources that EQUIP will require can be better spent implementing the obvious. Everyone agrees that Indian higher education needs significant improvement – especially as the country seeks to join the ranks of the world’s premier economies.
However, central to both quality improvement and increased access is money. Indian higher education has been chronically underfunded – it spends less than most other BRIC countries on higher education. The latest Indian central budget allocates only 37,461 crore rupees (INR374.61 billion or around US$5.2 billion) for the higher education sector.
Other related ministries and departments such as space, scientific and industrial research, skill development and entrepreneurship, science and technology, health research, agricultural research, etc, have been allocated only modest support – under 38,000 crore rupees in all (INR380 billion or US$5.3 billion).
Inadequate funding is evident at all levels. All of India’s state governments, which provide the bulk of higher education money, also fail to adequately support students and institutions.
The central government, responsible mostly for the top of the academic system, does not provide sufficient resources. Even the recently announced ‘Institutions of Eminence’ scheme falls short of requirements and is dramatically behind similar programmes in China and several European countries.
Funding for basic research, which is largely a central government responsibility, lags behind peer countries and industry provides little support. Notable exceptions are the support provided by Tata Trusts, Infosys Foundation and Pratiksha Trust.
Thus, India requires quite substantial additional resources devoted to higher education to serve the needs of educating a larger proportion of the age group, improving quality and building a small but important ‘world-class’ higher education sector. Massive effort at both state and central levels is needed – and the private sector must contribute as well.
A key goal of EQUIP and the NEP is that India must expand the percentage of young people enrolled in post-secondary education significantly – up to 50%. It is interesting to note that while the draft national policy aims at increasing the gross enrolment ratio (GER) to at least 50% by 2035, EQUIP targets doubling the GER to 52% by 2024.
Currently, India’s GER is 25.8%, significantly behind China’s 51% or much of Europe and North America, where 80% or more of young people enrol in higher education.
India’s challenge is even greater because half of the population is under 25 years of age. The challenge is not only to enrol students but to ensure that they can graduate – non-completion is a serious problem in the sector.
And of course, the challenge is not only to enrol students and improve graduation rates but also to ensure that they are provided with a reasonable standard of quality. It is universally recognised that much of Indian higher education is of relatively poor quality – employers often complain they cannot hire graduates without additional training.
The fact that many engineering colleges even today have to offer ‘finishing programmes’ to their graduates underlines the pathetic state of quality imparted by these institutions.
India needs a differentiated academic system – institutions with different missions to serve a range of individual and societal needs. Some, but not too many, ‘world-class’ research-intensive universities are needed. Colleges and universities that focus on quality teaching and serve large numbers of students are crucial. Distance education enters the mix as well.
The draft NEP’s recommendations for a differentiated system of research universities, teaching universities and colleges are in tune with this. However, the ways suggested to achieve these objectives are impractical.
The private sector is a key part of the equation – India has the largest number of students in private higher education in the world. But much of private higher education is of poor quality and commercially oriented. Robust quality assurance is needed for all of post-secondary education, but especially for private institutions.
The structure and governance of India’s higher education system needs major reform. There is too much bureaucracy at all levels, and in some places, political and other pressures are immense. Professors have little authority and the hand of government and management is too heavy. At the same time, accountability for performance is generally lacking.
To summarise, key needs are:
- • A dramatic increase in funding from diverse sources – the NEP’s recommendation for a new National Research Foundation is a welcome step in this direction.
- • Significantly increased access to post-secondary education, but with careful attention to both quality and affordability, and with better rates of degree completion.
- • Longitudinal studies on student outcomes.
- • The development of ‘world-class’ research-intensive universities, so that India can compete for the best brains, produce top research and be fully engaged in the global knowledge economy.
- • Ensuring that the private higher education sector works for the public good.
- • Developing a differentiated and integrated higher education system, with institutions serving manifold societal and academic needs.
- • Reforms in the governance of college and universities to permit autonomy and innovation at the institutional level.
- • Better coordination between the University Grants Commission and various ministries and departments involved in higher education, skills development and research.
The latest draft NEP and EQUIP have reiterated the importance of some of these points. There is really no need to spend money and attention on a new review. The needs are clear and have been articulated by earlier commissions and committees.
The solutions are largely obvious as well. What is needed is not more research, but long neglected action.
Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. Eldho Mathews is an independent higher education researcher based in Thiruvananthapuram. This article was first published in The Hindu, Chennai, India.