Thursday, June 18, 2009

Greater Priorities

The rankings of Asian universities, recently released by Quacquarelli Symonds, is a glaring reminder of the bleak state of higher education in the country. Not even one Indian university is included in the top 20 Asian universities. While Japan is, as expected, the leader with as many as nine universities in the list, China — including Hong Kong — has six institutions that rank amongst the first 20. Even South Korea with three and Singapore with two, outclass India. Fortunately, it is clear that higher education ranks amongst the top priorities for the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, rooted in his vision of transforming India into a “global knowledge hub”. Equally important, the new human resource development minister, Kapil Sibal, has already signalled a willingness to lead change. The president, in her address to the parliament, too, emphasized the importance that the government accords to higher education. The real challenge, however, is no longer to just prepare a blueprint for reform, but to generate a consensus amongst the main stakeholders and implement an agenda for change in a time-bound project mode.
The QS ranking system is far from perfect. Ten per cent of the weight is given to internationalization — including the presence of foreign faculty and foreign students — in which most Indian universities would clearly rank poorly. But 90 per cent of the ranking is done on the basis of research quality, teaching quality and graduate employability. Thus even if internationalization is discounted, Indian universities would not fare much better. QS are the compilers of the well respected Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings and need to be taken seriously. In any case, the rankings underscore a reality that is only too well known. In the QS list of top 200 Asian universities, there are only 11 Indian institutions. And, outside the Indian institutes of technology, only four Indian universities find a place (Delhi, Pune, Calcutta and Mumbai).
On a more optimistic note, in the rankings by subject, four of the IITs find a place in the top 20 in engineering and information technology, and so do Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Delhi in the social sciences, arts and humanities and the life sciences. But this is small comfort for a country that boasts of one of the largest network of institutions of higher learning in the country.
The crises in Indian higher education have been documented ad nauseam. A few years ago, the prime minister was emphatic when he stated: “Our university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair…. In almost half the districts in the country, higher education enrolments are abysmally low, almost two-third of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters.” While many of the complex issues impacting higher education will be and need to be debated, the blueprint for reform is virtually ready. The recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission together with the Yashpal committee report on renovation and rejuvenation of universities provide a sound basis for timely action.
Any plan to transform higher education must work with the following two objectives. First, there needs to be a massive expansion of institutions of higher learning (including universities, community colleges and vocational training institutions), which are well-endowed and do not compromise on quality. To ensure that the “demographic dividend” of our youthful population does not become a demographic nightmare, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education must increase from the existing seven-eight per cent to at least 15-20 per cent over the next decade. Hence the need for massive growth. Second, most existing institutions of higher learning need to be restructured and reformed. A majority among them are badly governed, over-regulated, poorly funded and lack even basic infrastructure. Of the 251 state universities, and 119 deemed universities, less than 10 per cent would meet the benchmark of even “average” quality.
Stemming from these objectives are three issues on which the HRD ministry must act speedily: regulation, funding (including infrastructure), and governance. It is clear that the existing system of regulation, currently within the ambit of the University Grants Commission and as many as 13 professional councils, has not worked for a number of reasons. Both the knowledge commission and the interim Yashpal committe report recommend the creation of a new independent regulator, which would not be in the business of disbursing grants. The NKC has recommended an independent regulatory authority for higher education which would be established by an act of Parliament and would be responsible for “setting the criteria and deciding on entry… monitoring standards… licensing accreditation agencies and it would apply exactly the same norms to public and private institutions, just as it would apply the same norms to domestic and international institutions”. The interim YCR has suggested setting up a commission for higher education, which “would perform its regulatory role in a manner that does not interfere with academic freedom and institutional autonomy…. And [it would] prevent chaos in the expansion of higher education and… stop fragmentation of related policy-level decisions”. An independent regulator would, hopefully, not just end the licence-permit raj, but also help to create an environment in which growth and excellence go together in a strong competitive environment.
The 11th plan places the highest priority on education as a central instrument for achieving “rapid and inclusive growth”. At Rs 2.70 lakh crore, it constitutes 20 per cent of the plan and a four-fold increase in resource allocation. However, this is still not enough. State universities require massive infusion of funds and so will new universities. Private-public partnerships, including with top foreign institutions, is essential, as is the need for giving universities more autonomy and incentives for innovative and imaginative fund-raising. But so is a more optimal use of infrastructure, nationally, particularly information and communication technology-driven, through the creation of instruments like the national knowledge network.
The single most important reason for the decline of universities, especially state universities, is the almost day-to-day political interference and the unfortunate petty political and bureaucratic role in the appointment of heads of institutions. Again within the NKC reports and the interim YCR, there are practical recommendations to ensure better governance and greater autonomy. There are also thoughtful suggestions, within these reports, to ensure that vice-chancellors, among other university leaders, are selected after careful consideration and after applying the highest standards of integrity, administrative skills and academic contribution to the potential candidates. Equally essential is the need to think of imaginative ways to attract and retain top-grade faculty. The challenge is not just to offer greater financial incentives, or streamline the selection process, but to create a research environment which can generate academic excellence.
Finally, of course, the HRD ministry must think in terms of a few grand projects which can become models to be emulated in the years to come. The possibility of creating five knowledge cities in different parts of the country in the next five years must be seriously examined. While those would need a private-public partnership, and even the creation of a special purpose vehicle, the HRD ministry could invite state governments to become partners and provide real incentives. Education and skill development, as the prime minister has repeatedly said, can be India’s global opportunity. The time has come now to translate that opportunity into reality, within the term of this government.

(Source: The Telegraph, 18/06/09)

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