Quality of higher education


The central government does not appear to have taken seriously the issue of achieving excellence in education so far as its expansion and inclusion of all sorts of students is concerned. This also involves providing equal opportunities to students from all the sections of the society including those, who are talented but cannot afford to get admission in Institutions of Excellence (IoE) both in public and private sector. Time and again, the successive governments have promised to provide equal opportunities to students from economically and socially backward classes for participation in IoEs, but these students have never got an opportunities to get coaching and training for getting into such institutions. Keeping in view these shortcomings, a working group was constituted for making necessary recommendations to the erstwhile Planning Commission for achieving these targets. In its report on higher education for the Twelfth Plan, the working group identified expansion, inclusion and excellence as the three pillars for growth. The NDA government had the theme of excellence in its 2016 annual budget, with a proposal to make 10 institutions each in the public and private sectors globally competitive. The challenge of excellence is to develop liberal institutions founded on academic rigour, high scholarship and equitable access for all classes of students. Quite ambitiously, the Human Resource Development ministry has taken the decision to give IoE status to six institutes, three each from the public and private sectors. Potentially, this will help the select few rise above the many state, central and private universities, national-level institutes of technology, science, management and humanities, and attract talent from varied backgrounds. This is a creditable achievement, but the recognition raises the bar for the chosen few: the IITs in Mumbai and Delhi and the IISc in the public sector, and BITS Pillani and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, which are in private sector. Giving the similar tag to Jio Institute, which is yet to come up, generated understandable heat and controversy. Quite obviously, many eyebrows were raised on this issue in view of the fact such practices have never been adopted in the past unless the institute comes into being and is checked for all the requirements it fulfils for this purpose. It should be ensured that this conditional recognition is fulfilled transparently, and that it meets the requirements on governance structure, infrastructure and faculty within three years. It definitely brings into focus why the BJP-government was inclined in giving recognition to any institute opened or proposed to be opened by any of the corporate houses in the country. The idea and proposals for developing centres of higher learning in line with the Nehruvian vision of building ‘temples of modern India’. The IoEs can become models of autonomy, academic innovation and equity of access, and lead to a transformation of higher education in various disciplines. That there is need for urgent reform became clear during the selection process: the empowered committee found that state universities had a low output because some of them had several faculty members recruited on contract basis, with no incentive to do research. Such ad-hocism must end, and public universities should be insulated from political pressures. This is why such ad-hoc appointments have been questioned not only by the academicians but also the teaching fraternity, which wanted advancement in both career as well as research projects. The vice-chancellors should be appointed on merit, free of ideological biases. But unfortunately, this is not happening because the VCs are being appointed on pursuing agenda of the right wing political party ruling at the centre. With good governance structures and significant new financial grants, the selected public institutions will be able to innovate on courses and encourage research. The growth of these and other national institutions will also depend on policies to raise the expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP. Among countries with a comparable research output, India with 0.8% R&D spending trails Russia, Brazil, South Korea and even Singapore, according to UNESCO data. Islands of eminence can inspire, but the long-term goal should be to raise the quality of higher education in all institutions through academic reforms. The quality is uneven, and at the bottom levels, abysmal.