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.