Thu. Sep 28th, 2023

Taking Higher Education in India to the next level – A road Map

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✍️ Madhukar Gupta

The University ecosystem in India should primarily focus on excellence in higher education. In a populous and large country, which is a welfare state, education should be made accessible to the highest number of students in the remotest parts of India.

Education is a fundamental right. We have to democratize education practically feasible. The State of California is an example of how governmental intervention can take accessible and affordable high quality cost education to the next level. It is no wonder that it has the 8th highest GDP in the world amongst nations.

There is a misconception that quality of education and the number of students are mutually exclusive. In addition to establishing new colleges and universities, seats for students depending on the demand have to increase regularly. Quality of education can be maintained with quantity if we do it the right way.

Quality of education and research in Universities is dependent on the quality of educational leadership. Meritocracy to the extent practically possible should be respected. The system for appointment of Vice Chancellors needs to be revisited. It is predominantly dependent on the pleasure of the Governor (Chancellor) or CM of the state or the HRD Ministry.

The members of the search committee for appointment of VCs should not be appointed by the CM or the Governor, but by the UGC or another specialized entity. Alternately, a standalone agency like the PESB (for the public sector) could be mandated by GOI for the appointment of VCs, their goal setting and concurrent performance evaluation.

It is said ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. When I was appointed as VC for the 1st time in 2002 I realized that they had much more power than CEOs of Corporations. In the name of autonomy, VC’s have been entrusted with many powers which are dispensable. The VC can appoint his immediate juniors like Deans and Directors. They continue to function till they enjoy his confidence. In a Corporation, the MD has a say in the appointment of other Directors, but he can’t on his own appoint or remove them. There needs to be a check on these powers.

VCs should not have the power to appoint syndicate members which often become an arena for playing politics and not furthering the University agenda. VCs should have more authority in the day to day running of the University, but should be curtailed in policy making and appointments. At the same time, their accountability to government through an independent authority has to increase.

Central and State governments should also reduce the number of officiating VCs and fill up replacements well in advance. Consciously, the number of VCs from non academic streams could be increased to increase competition in the academic community. Efforts should be carefully made to corporatize selected Universities to begin with to make them more focused, market oriented and efficient.

We hardly measure the output of Universities and VCs in real time. Advisories could be issued by the HRD Ministry to VC’s to undertake their own self assessment for the last few years/months they have been in position. Thereafter, this appraisal can be reviewed by the UGC or an agency appointed by the HRD Ministry. In addition, public scrutiny of the performance of VCs is imperative if we want to bring about a qualitative difference in the functioning of our Universities.

There could be a country wide exercise to review the functioning of each University and College, especially in the last twenty years to have a better sense of where they are heading. Thereafter, a road map prepared by the University could be approved by the Central or State governments as the case maybe for the short and long term.

UGC and the HRD Ministry should issue advisories to Universities to appoint Committees to review courses, curriculum and the strength of students with them. New courses with future potential could be introduced while curtailing or closing courses which are not in demand. For courses in great demand more classes/sections or increase in the strength of sections can take place. These Committees should also engage with students, their parents and stakeholders to assess the potential of various courses. Curriculums have to be overhauled and tailored according to current demand and perceived future needs. They have to evolve regularly and should be dynamic to all academic institutions which should be ensured by the UGC and HRD.

Restructuring of the organizational structure of colleges and Universities have to be undertaken to assess their man power requirements and realign their deployment to maximize their utilization. Wherever it is required contractual employment should be resorted to in the short run in Universities. Underutilization of human resource is a big issue in the higher education apparatus.

Research focus in our Universities has to go up to create more knowledge. We’ll have to strategize to Incentivize research and original paper writing. One incentive could be to give a part of the grant provided by external funding agencies to the team and their team leader. Often Universities do not allow research students to change their guides during research which is highly restrictive. Universities should allow students to change their research guides to reduce exploitation wherever there is justification in doing so. The principle of ‘publish or perish’ has to be diligently and uniformly applied.

Many Universities have sprung up in the private sector which are not doing well. We should give them options to bail them out so that existing Colleges and Universities can take over these institutions where there is value in doing so. Likewise, state governments to accommodate some individuals who want to build their own empires have opened small Universities with a limited mandate like Skill University or University of Journalism which may not be viable in the long run. These could be merged with bigger entities to make them workable. On the reverse we could establish Universities exclusively for women where they can blossom; they are in their own space and do what they want.

To the extent possible politics should be kept away from the four walls of Colleges and Universities. Government should not allow appointment of sitting MLAs or MPs on the University syndicate for obvious reasons. It is extremely seductive to use Universities politically, but those countries which have done so also, had uprisings and unrest. It is an extremely risky proposition and we should take a call very consciously. Personally, I have experienced that there is more politics within the teaching community than within their pupils. We need to be very clear in our objectives while sending our children to college and University. What is our final destination, high quality education or politics or a desirable combination of both?

Vocational training is the need of the country to upgrade existing skills of the youth besides, providing them new skills. Skill development and training especially for those who are already working can be best done using infrastructure in colleges in evening, weekends and holidays. There is hardly any need to create new infrastructure and leverage the existing or unused or dysfunctional infrastructure at no additional costs We should introduce community colleges in a big way across the country to promote teaching and learning after office hours, especially for working men and women. The focus has to be on value addition to their skill sets to enhance their demand in the market place leading to higher incomes along with increasing the quality of goods and services provided by them.

Consciously, commercial use of land has to be promoted to ensure that most Universities and colleges leverage their land in the best possible manner to not only become financially self sufficient but also, like Harvard make future investments in the best possible way. They should be innovative in using their existing infrastructure also, and do not allow it to be unused. Career Point, a coaching institute in Kota for instance is earning more by developing real estate and using it than through tuition fee. Malls, multiplexes, cafeterias, restaurants, hotels, shopping centres, cultural hubs, auditoriums, nurseries; so many businesses have synergy with the business of running a University. Any VC or the Syndicate of a University expecting financial assistance from the government either doesn’t know what he is doing or is not fit to be in that position.

Infrastructure should not be left idle in Universities. It should be put to the best possible use. In vacations students and academia from other places should be able to use their infrastructure. Increased collaborations between Universities to pool in resources would also ensure better utilization of infrastructure.

The final objective of the University is to provide high quality education at a cost effective price. It is time Universities go vertical in India like LSE or NYU which are right in the city. Unlike the earlier land grant universities in the US which were sitting on so much of land, these Universities in downtown provide great access, safety and hygiene while reducing commuting time and expenses. We don’t need to relax the criteria for constructed space, but relax it for land available in the University. The minimum land criterion is also restrictive. It will be a big relief to everyone if these guidelines were to be reduced for land in a University. Also, a University can have more than one campus in addition to their city campus. The HRD Ministry and UGC have to take a call on this as soon as possible.

The litmus test of any academic institution is its demand in foreign countries and the number of foreign students opting to study there. Often the fee structure for the foreign students is very high which discourages them from joining our institutions. Diversity has many beneficial effects and should be really promoted in order for our institutions to compete globally. The tuition fee structure for foreign students has to be very carefully structured to have the best talent from everywhere in the world at the best fee.

Flexibility in registering for courses between institutes should help students in getting the best from more colleges than one. There should not be major issues in implementing this change. At the same time faculty member who are in great demand could be allowed to teach in more places than the institution where they are employed. Flexibility in paying faculty in more demand would incentivize excellence and also, higher access to good quality education from quality teachers. Such teachers should get higher remuneration according to their number of hours of teaching. Also, lateral movement between industry and academia should be encouraged to get more perspectives in education including learning from practitioners. It would also increase linkages between academia and industry.

Concurrent grading of students has great value since year end examinations do not encourage mastering of fundamentals by students. It is common sense that yearlong study will be more productive than year end last minute burning of midnight oil. Likewise, students should be encouraged to grade their own teachers to improve the quality of teaching and learning. The number of classes tutored by teachers and hours taught by them should be regularly monitored and feedback provided to them for corrective action to improve the quality and quantity of output of teachers.

Most Universities have Centres for focused study of various issues and subjects. More such centres could be established for traditional Indian studies to engage more researchers and academics on India focused research. Yoga studies should be encouraged in most educational institutions. Likewise, impetus could be given for increasing seats in Ayurveda Colleges. Governments in the Centre and States should fill up positions of Ayurveda teachers and announce existing vacancies. In states like Tamil Nadu traditional Indian medicine systems are highly successful.

Focus on Indian languages through short and long courses has to be introduced in many institutions and scaled up in those where they are already been taught. Learning of Sanskrit and other Indian languages by Indian and foreign students has great potential. Students could also be given incentives to learn three or more Indian languages. Incentives and scholarships could be considered for professors and faculty to teach Indian languages in foreign Universities and countries for increasing the influence of Indian culture overseas. On the flip side we must incentivize Indian students to learn more foreign languages to be able to send more of them to those countries for studies, work, and business and also, to leverage their learning and technology.

Fees in Colleges and Universities should be charged differentially from students depending on their parent’s income to generate additional resources. It is imperative that access to education for deserving students should be increased through lower fees. However, for students with better paying capacity, fees could be charged differentially to raise more resources. Most of these Universities should be self sustaining. At the same time increase in the number of paid seats will to generate more resources besides giving more students with varied backgrounds more access to education.

Like in western countries we have to encourage students to work and earn after 10th grade. Child labor in developing countries has been primarily a western propaganda tool whereas they have been engaging students to work on and off campus. The government surely has to take a call on this to encourage work for students to inculcate in them a spirit of self dependence and also, dignity of labor.

In addition, educational institutions have to give options to students to work with non profits and civil society on weekends and in vacations. They could give credit to them in courses for community work. They could also consider making a minimum community engagement mandatory before they graduate of get their degrees or diplomas. The UGC and

In a phased manner educational institutions have to increase the exposure of students, more for boys than girls, in para military and civil defence training initially through NCC, Scouts & Guides, NSS etc but later through short and long term training with the para military and military depending on the response and feedback. There are innumerable benefits from this exposure, both tangible and otherwise.

In every educational institution we must encourage food carts to serve inexpensive but fresh and hygienic food at predetermined rates. In addition to providing employment it reduces the need for students to leave the campus in search of food. This arrangement could be institutionalized in the University and college system across the country. Some of them could be open 24 by 7 to enable students to work of their own schedules during day or night. Imagine the value in providing high quality food to students at affordable rates on campus leading to more employment and savings in time and transportation.

Invariably, Universities in the West have a church, often more than one in their midst. Likewise, Universities in Israel have synagogues and Islamic countries have mosques in their institutions. It is not the case in India where Universities are expected to be neutral and equidistant from all religions.

When most of the students in Indian Universities are from a majority group why should they be required to go elsewhere for prayers, ceremonies and rituals? GD Birla in contrast conceived a temple to be central in the scheme of things in BITS Pilani, a private University. For about three decades non vegetarian food wasn’t allowed inside their campus.

The time has come when we shouldn’t shy away from building temples in our Universities, new as well as old. We should construct meditation halls for prayers and monasteries for our religious leaders and saints to stay and interact with the students regularly.

It is surprising that priests in temples want their new generation to look for routine jobs, while at the same time there is great paucity of priests who can perform pujas, ceremonies and religious obligations. Departments to train people as priests to perform rituals, no priests in churches in US, formal training, scholarships

However, there is no one size fits all. The ideas are generic in nature. Colleges and Universities will vary from place to place depending on the context, turf, local conditions, its mandate, expectations of the people and their culture. These are ideas which have to be executed both top down and bottom up.

The HRD Ministry and UGC are the key players in introspecting on these issues. They could increase their engagement and discussion on them with the relevant stakeholders before issuing directives or advisories as the case maybe. Many of these initiatives could be taken independently by the states, even by the institutions themselves.

More importantly, we’ll have to create an environment in the country that things have to change for the better in the higher education space, and at the earliest.

Writer is ex IAS officer and Mason Fellow, Harvard