Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Higher Education in India – A vision for the future

(This is an edited version of the essay which won the Second Prize at the Essay Writing Competition for the teachers & academics of IGNOU as part of the Foundation Day Celebrations held on 19th November, 2007).

Anything that comes free of cost is likely to be abused and higher education is no exception. How often have you seen water running away from the tap unattended? How often have you seen, in houses; lights, fans, and other electrical equipment left 'ON', even when the incumbents are out?

Well, if you have, it's most likely that these amenities are either being heavily subsidised or provided free of cost in such households. It is the same with education, not the least, higher education. At least that appears to be the case with elite conventional universities epitomized by institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University.
How can such waste in education be prevented? What plagues university research? What road should Indian Universities take for the future? This essay dwells upon these three primary questions.

According to the data available from the Department of Education, Government of India - in the Annual Report 2006-2007, there are 18064 colleges for general education and 369 Universities, which includes Deemed universities, and Institutes of National Importance such as IITs. The combined capacity of these universities is churning out lakhs of graduates whose training, in most cases, leads them no where. Thus, adding to the burgeoning body of educated unemployed.

Barring the National Institutes of Importance and Deemed universities, the state of education in majority of these institutions / universities is deplorable. Student attendance in colleges is at its lowest ebb. In most semi-urban and rural colleges, even classes are not held regularly, Professor absenteeism is high, and in places, few and far in between, where classes do take place, students are fed with the same notes over the years.

As pointed out by the World Bank in its report, 'Higher Education in Developing Countries - Peril and Promise' [2000], "higher education institutions (and whole systems) are politicised, poorly regulated, and sometimes corrupt."

Research has taken a backseat in most of these universities / colleges. Most of them have a dismal research publications record. Nehru once said, "a university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth"; one wonders; if truth were to be found, how would it be discovered without research.

Some premier universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University that are heavily funded by the UGC / other government agencies, operate more like sanctuaries for future civil / government servants than as nurseries for research scholars. According to a conservative estimate, at least 70% of the scholars at the M.Phil. / Ph.D. level, studying subjects other than the pure sciences at JNU, aspire to be civil servants. The figures for such aspirants in the pure sciences are lower, but significant. For them, their aspirations come first and research comes last, other co-curricular activities filling the slots in between.

There also exists a section of students / scholars who have got admitted to the university just to avail of the university facilities like hostel accommodations, internet, gym, sports complex, etc. These 'scholars' are either employed or are running their businesses / NGOs with the campus as their base. The remaining scholars, who are serious researchers, are under a constant temptation to convert to the two former types, given the vitiated research environment.

It is evident that near cent percent subsidy in education and hostel accommodations is responsible for such state of affairs. Can our developing economy afford such waste of public money? The government and the university administration should rise from their soporific slumber and take initiatives to prevent such wastage.

One possible course of action could be to introduce a fee which should be just enough for the students to feel the pinch. If not for the course, fee may at least be charged for the lodging. Perhaps the feel of such a pinch will keep the uninterested scholars away.

Detractors of this view would argue that ‘scholars’ start looking for alternative jobs only when they realise that there are no career prospects in academics. If that is the case, the university should admit just the adequate number of Research Scholars so that they can later be employed as academics, researchers or in other related fields. This would relieve the strain on hostel facilities.

Besides, the fact that fee would be charged would make the prospective scholars more discreet in weighing the costs and benefits of undertaking the course and they would join it only if they find adequate value in it. This, in effect, will filter out the non-serious applicants and restrict the number of candidates to serious research scholars who foresee a career in academics and related fields. The dwindling number of applicants would make it exigent upon the universities to create the required value in the courses offered to the students to attract the best talent. One of the various parameters for value creation in the course could be in terms of taking care of students' concerns of employability on the completion of the course.

Some of my friends who are in favour of continuation of free higher education clamour that the government should not only continue its subsidy but also increase its budgetary allocation towards education. They should realise that India is already amongst the highest spenders in Asia and being a developing economy it has other obligations. A comparative study of Asian countries by UNESCO in its 'Statistical Yearbook', 1999, indicates that in 1996, India spent 3.02% of the GNP on education which was comparable to Japan's 3.6% and better than China's 2.3% and most other Asian countries whose spending was lower. In 2005-2006, the Indian government spent 3.72% of the GDP on education. Despite a relatively handsome spending by the government, illiteracy level remains high - at about 35%.

The goal of universal primary education remains a distant dream. The fiscal deficit remains a constant factor in the economy. All these combine to create a situation that makes it incumbent upon the government to take some harsh measures such as cutting budgetary support to the universities and diverting energy and resources to substantially augment the literacy rate of the country. Of late, some head way has been made in this direction, thanks to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. However, much more needs to be done.

At the same time, the government would be expected to grant greater autonomy to universities for formulating new professional courses and devolving alternative sources of funding. The government in turn should concentrate on financing adult literacy programmes and primary education by increasing the density of such schools, especially among the rural folk and tribal regions. The universities, on their part, should make the most of the autonomy that would be granted to them. They may formulate new courses, improve the faculty base, improve infrastructure, and garner a wider resource base such as course fees, Research & Consultancy, and other private sources for funding university programmes.

However, the government will do well to protect the interests of disadvantaged sections of the society by providing adequate number of need and merit based scholarships. Corporate sources may also be tapped for instituting scholarships. Emulating some of the initiatives of IITs and IIMs would be of great help in this regard.

So, then, what should be the approach for Indian Universities for their future? One tried and tested way to go is to adopt the 'Triple Helix Model' as proposed by Henry Etzkowitz*, which recommends a reciprocal convergence of government (public), industry (private), and academia (university). Since the government would continue to provide a substantial portion of the grant, it would expect the universities to fulfil its obligation of welfare state. However, its stipulations must remain stifled.

The other two partners in the model have an immense opportunity for mutual benefit hence they are expected to be the more active partners in the trilateral relationship. The model provides for the appropriate synthesis of the monetary strength of corporations and the intellectual prowess of universities for transcending research in the twenty-first century. While businesses can relocate research and development (R&D) in the proximity of university campuses where all the required skill and knowledge lies, the universities, on the other hand, can take advantage of the R&D infrastructure in providing their faculty with opportunities for carrying out cutting edge research work. More importantly, these facilities will enable the universities to churn out graduates with the right kind of credentials.

Some critics of the university-industry collaboration apprehend that such an association will be a setback for basic research at universities as the industry would be keen on conducting applied research only. However, studies indicate that such apprehensions are ill founded. The data available suggests that the universities that are strong in applied research are also strong in basic research. Indeed, the two have a circulatory relationship, with one leading to the other and vice-versa.

Additionally, the university - industry association throws open the possibility of industry sponsored programmes as well as increased capacity of the universities to provide employment to its graduates.

As a first step, the universities must identify their core competencies in science disciplines. Thereafter, they must consolidate on their strengths and seek industry partnership. As a measure in that direction universities may set up science parks, research parks, incubators, discovery exchanges, etc.

Instituting Science Parks, Research Parks, and Discovery Exchanges would provide opportunities for partnership with businesses for conducting joint research in development of new technology and their transfer from the university to the industry.

Incubators can provide the necessary expertise and ambience for graduate students with an entrepreneurial bent of mind to start their businesses, which, on attaining maturity, can vacate the incubator. Incubators have the added advantage of providing relevant employment to university graduates ensuring that their graduate training is appropriately utilized. It is obvious that such initiatives and associations would be more easily possible in the pure and applied science disciplines.

However, it has been observed that in some countries like Brazil and the USA the incubator concept is being implemented in humanities and social sciences also. There the students are being trained to start their own NGOs, Publishing houses, and Research & Consultancy organisations.

The revenue generated in the form of fees, rent, etc. from these initiatives will ensure a steady cash flow into the university coffers. The revenue so generated may also be used for funding programmes of other disciplines that may not inherently have the capacity to draw funding from the industry.

To summarize, firstly, the government should end the free party at the universities. This may be done by gradual attenuation of government funding for universities over a planned period of about 10 years. At the end of the planned period, the government may settle for a constant rate of about 75% funding by its agencies leaving the rest to be self-generated by the universities. This gradual approach will ensure that the increase in the fee charged from the students is also gradual.

At this ratio, the universities would be required to charge just enough fees to thwart non-serious applicants. Further, to ensure that research remains a primary objective at universities, targets for research publications could be set which would depend on the size of the university.
This target may be spread over the University Professors, Research Fellows, and Research Scholars undertaking the M.Phil. / Ph.D. programmes. Performance Incentives may be evolved to ensure that Professors maintain a balance between teaching and research (i.e. paper publications).

Publications in scholarly journals may be made mandatory for the award of M.Phil. / Ph.D. Degrees. Lastly, the government should make the first move to impress upon the universities the needs of the changing times and the exigency of implementing the 'Triple Helix Model'. Towards this end, government should initiate policy measures for enabling a trilateral relationship of the three stakeholders: government, university, and industry.
Manoj Tirkey
Wish you a Merry Christmas and a very happy & prosperous New Year.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Before we discuss the critical issues facing the Distance Education Institutions it is pertinent to understand what exactly does success for a Distance Education institution mean? Does it mean increase in enrollment? Does it mean increase in the number of new programmes launched? Does it mean launching new study centres in remote geographical regions? To me a successful DE institution is one which not only has an affirmative answer to the previous three questions but also adds value to the learners through its programmes, i.e., after having undergone the programme a learner should have significantly enhanced his well being in terms of the knowledge gained, his social status and also his ability to be absorbed in the job market. In this process the institution should have also enhanced its goodwill in the society.

Being a distance learner as well as an academic of Distance Education (DE) this author is at a vantage point to view the critical factors for the success of distance education from both the perspectives. However, here the issues have been discussed primarily from the perspective of the learner. This learner feels that the issues discussed below need to be addressed by DE institutions for the success of their programmes as well as the success of the mode of Distance Education itself.

The issue of credibility: There is exists some amount of cynicism about the quality of the DE programmes as well as students enrolled in them in the society as well as the job market. The Batchelor Preparatory Programme of IGNOU, for instance, is a passport to the Batchelor Degree programme for students with no previous education. Such short cut provided by the university has proved to be a pitfall for the students enrolled for the programme. It has invited criticism from all spheres – students, the job market, and the academia. It has led to a blanket ban on employment of IGNOU students by many private sector firms. Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal Pradesh is refusing to admit such students for further studies. Also, it has led to confusion in the minds of the existing students as well as prospective learners – many think that after getting a degree from IGNOU they will not get admission for further studies. The DE institutions need to take urgent measures to stem the rot and restore pride and prestige to distance learning.

Inadequate counseling and untrained counsellors: As a learner it has been observed that counseling is not being provided for many programmes. In many programmes the counseling provided is inadequate. Often counselors resort to lecturing as opposed to counseling. The lectures very often do not conform to the course content. Often the staff at the student support centres is not found during the appointed hours of duty. The institutions should ensure sufficient number of counseling sessions through counselors trained in the DE system.

Lack of proper intimation of counseling schedules: It has been observed that often counseling schedules are not displayed on the notice boards, and if displayed, changes in the counseling are not intimated properly. It is important for the DE institutions to have a mechanism for constant communication with distance learners.

Underutilization of ICT facilities: It has been observed that the existing teleconferencing facilities are not functional in some study centres. In some others, the staff is not adept at operating the satellite interactive terminals. DE institutions should have trained staff to handle ICT infrastructure to ensure better utilization of the facilities.

Non-receipt of study materials is a very common complaint among many students. Even more chronic problem is the delay in delivery of study materials. This gives the student very less time for study and submission of assignments. Besides improving the logistics of delivery of study materials, DE institutions should take measures to make the study materials and prospectuses readily available in the market. Students who do not receive the material on time or those who have misplaced their study material can source it from the market.

Delay in declaration of results of Term-End Exams and assignments are yet another chronic problem. Such delays cause uncertainty in the minds of the learner. Often results of the previous term-end exams remain undeclared even as the next term-end exam begins. Hapless students have to appear for the next term-end exam without knowing the fate of their previous attempt. This leads to frustration among the learners. Many of whom get demoralized and drop out from the course. Also, such delays cost dear to the learners in terms of the extra time spent by them. DE institutions must ensure timely declaration of results.

Inadequate student support: Often queries and complaints of students are not attended properly at the Study Centre, Regional Centre, and even the Head Quarter of DE institutions. In a DE system the learner is remotely located and therefore lonely in his/her academic pursuit. Therefore, it is important to be sympathetic towards distance learners’ queries and provide all possible help to them.

Manoj Tirkey,


According to Sir John Daniel “Distance Education (DE) is any educational process in which all or most of the teaching is conducted by someone removed in space and/or time from the learner, with the effect that all or most of the communication between teachers and learners is through an artificial medium, either electronic or print”. Therefore, by definition, in DE the normal or principal means of communication is through technology. The advancements of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the last two decades have made DE more relevant today than ever before.

Globally, over the last two decades, the mode of delivery in DE has moved beyond the traditional correspondence system to include more sophisticated systems that may be categorized as follows: television and radio systems, Multimedia systems, and Internet based systems including the broadband networks.

Educational television and radio systems use various delivery technologies terrestrial, satellite, and cable television and radio to deliver live or recorded lectures to both individual home-based learners and groups of learners in remote classrooms where some face-to-face support might be provided. Some systems offer limited audio or video-conferencing links back to the lecturer or a moderator at a central point.

Multimedia systems encompass text, audio, video, and computer-based materials, and usually some face-to-face learner support delivered to both individuals and groups. In this approach, which is that used by the open universities, instruction is no longer an individual’s work, but the work of teams of specialists: media specialists, information specialists, instructional design specialists, and learning specialists. Programmes are prepared for distribution over large numbers of learners, usually located across a whole country.

Internet-based systems are used to deliver multimedia (text, audio, video and computer-based) materials in electronic format to individuals through computers, along with access to databases and electronic libraries. Thus enabling teacher-student and student-student, one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many interactions, synchronously or asynchronously, through e-mail, computer conferences, bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messaging, etc.

The convergence of all communication networks including the satellite network, the telephone network and the internet has been brought about by bringing all the backbone technologies to a common digital platform. Thus heralding a future that promises to be even more exciting for the distance learner. Learners today can download multi-media educational content via internet from the comfort of their homes. Institutions have also successfully experimented with live web-casting of important events through the internet. It is only a matter of time before live web casting of regular lectures becomes routine.

The spread of broadband Internet communication is stimulating new types of educational organizations and also stimulating re-thinking about the effectiveness of the older ones. Thus the new technologies are being taken up with equal enthusiasm by open universities, correspondence schools, and other DE institutions.

Non-traditional providers, including private profit-oriented new companies are entering the global market, selling educational services online, especially to adult learners in the labour force. In Europe and America some for-profit online programmes have grown twice as fast as the conventional DE institutions’ programmes which have some face-to-face interaction. Some traditional education institutions are responding to such competition by establishing their own for-profit affiliates, while corporations have established their own in-house systems to meet their own needs for ‘just-in-time’ and ‘just-enough’ education.

The growth in enrollment of learners which often includes cross border learners, especially by for-profit providers, has resulted in adverse quality issues. However, a quality culture has been emerging among the DE institutions. All mega universities, including seven in Asia, have developed and implemented Quality Assurance standards and procedures in key areas of distance education activities, and at least three mega universities in Asia have institutionalized a central QA unit and sought the development of a more systematic and coherent quality culture.

Internationally, convergence of traditional campus-based higher education with distance education and the blurring phenomenon between the two modes has been observed. Increasingly, conventional universities have been embracing innovative DE programs and e-Learning. In Korea for instance, of the 201 colleges and universities surveyed in a study, 85 percent of them had implemented e-Learning and are equipped with technical infrastructure and operational supports.

Increasingly, countries and institutions see DE, especially e-Learning, as an alternative mode of delivery to widen access to education, satisfy continuing educational needs of adults, expand trained workforce, and/or train teachers to improve the quality of schooling. Pedagogical changes have been observed in DE. For example, one-way broadcast-based or correspondence courses have been replaced by two-way interactive courses, problem-based, case-based, and/or resource-based learning. Personalized learning and support services have been introduced in several DE institutions as well.

Whereas advanced ICT offers options to both expand educational opportunities and improve upon quality, it poses many new challenges as manifest in the 'digital divide’ in developing countries. However, with rapidly declining tariff rates and prices of handsets, cellular phones with computer like capabilities could become the instrument to bridge the digital divide. Integration of the Internet and futuristic concepts like virtual reality and miniaturized projectors into the mobile phones hold the key to portable education – anywhere, any time.

Manoj Tirkey,