A new class act

Higher education in India is failing. Overhauling the system can salvage it

Written by Pranab Bardhan | Published:January 20, 2017 12:24 am
(Illustration by C R Sasikumar) (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Let me start with a blunt statement: India’s higher education is in general a decrepit, dilapidated system, it’s afflicted by a deep malaise.

The National Knowledge Commission—Report to the Nation (2006-9) put it only a bit more mildly: “There is a quiet crisis in higher education in India which runs deep”. Three widely acknowledged criteria for judging an education system: Access, Equity, and Quality. We have failed our young people by all three criteria.

On account of financial hardship, inferior schools, lack of remedial education and social compulsions for early marriage for girls, the majority of young people from poor families drop out of school at or before completing secondary education. So they have no access to higher education. In addition, for socially disadvantaged groups discrimination at workplace and occupational segregation lower the rate of return from (and hence demand for) higher education for them compared to other groups.

Even for those who complete secondary education and are willing to enter, entry into premier higher education institutions is riddled with various kinds of inequity (only marginally relieved for some people by lower-caste reservations). For example, the currently almost indispensable intensive entry examination preparation in coaching classes (or private tuition) with high fees is often out of reach for poor students. (NSS data suggest that in 2014 nearly 60% of male students in the 18-24 age group cite financial constraints or engagement in economic activities as the reason for discontinuing higher education).

The quality of most higher education institutions in India is abysmal. Let me elaborate on this.

In terms of quantity the expansion of higher education has been impressive. At the time of Independence, we had about 20 universities and fewer than 500 colleges in the whole country. In 2014-15 there were 760 universities and more than 38,000 colleges, catering to about 34 million students. But the expansion in quantity has often been at the expense of quality.

There is extreme faculty shortage, apart from stark deficiencies in the matters of library books, laboratory facilities, computer and broadband internet, classrooms and buildings, etc. As much as 30 to 50% of faculty positions are vacant in many institutions. Many faculty posts are filled by under-qualified “temporary” recruits.

Two-thirds of enrolment in higher education are in private institutions (the majority of them, according to NSS data, say that there were not enough government institutions nearby or where they could get admission). Fees at private institutions are more than double those charged at government institutions. In parts of western and southern India with a large expansion of for-profit private colleges with high ‘capitation fees’ and politically managed loans from public banks, politicians have entered into the business of higher education in a big way, turning colleges into lucrative degree-giving factories.

There are many familiar accounts of rote-learning, outdated curriculum, and just cramming for exams. There are severe learning deficits in our institutions of higher education. Just to give one example : in a recent survey of M.A. 2nd year students in Economics in a reputed state university in Maharashtra, reported in the Economic and Political Weekly, students were asked 6 simple questions from the basic class VI school textbook in Mathematics; only 11 out of 200 students could answer all of them correctly.

The (erstwhile) Planning Commission had estimated that only 17.5% of our graduates are employable. Many of the graduates lack even basic language and cognitive skills. In the Information Technology sector the main chamber of commerce, NASSCOM, estimates that even for engineering graduates, only 20% of graduates of engineering colleges in India are employable in IT companies.
In terms of quality of post-graduate research, while some of it is no doubt significant, over all our research quality is much below the world average. It has been widely noted that India does not have a single university in the top 200 in the world rankings (China has about 10 universities in that list).

The international rankings are far from perfect, but many of the Indian complaints against them sound like ‘sour grapes’. There is no doubt that India lags behind (compared to even some developing countries) in most metrics, particularly in terms of population or GDP—full-time researchers, papers published, scholarly citation impact, no. of patents taken out, and so on.

So if most of our graduates learn very little and are not employable, and the very poor drop out anyway, and there is meagre world-class research going on, what is the point of this higher education system?

Reformers, like many in the past, have tried to tweak the system here and there, with very little effect. One has to think in terms of a quantum leap.

I know in today’s circumstances thinking of a complete overhaul over the next 20 years or so may be recklessly utopian, but not completely useless if we want to think big and draw up a plan for fundamental changes. I am obviously skipping the formidable (though not insuperable) problems of transition and for now mainly concentrating on the major goals. Below is my suggested plan in broad contours. On account of constraints of time and space I am leaving out many of the nuances and qualifications which should be part of a fuller treatment. The financial requirements of the whole plan also need to be worked out.

In my plan all school-leaving students should have universal access at near-zero tuition fees with option to join two alternative streams:

One towards local vocational institutes to learn different skills (like plumbing, welding, carpentry, auto mechanics, driving, nursing, policing, firefighting, and so on)

These institutes should be spread out all over a state, with facilities also for evening classes.

After 2 years students with enough class credits and after passing a test will earn a diploma.

Funding of these institutes should be shared between the state and the business community (with a special cess on medium to large business)—the latter will benefit for having the chance (and incentive) to monitor and directly employ (or get as apprentice) some of the graduating students, with recruitment offices in the institute itself. (This draws somewhat on the current German model).

The other alternative stream will go to a 3-year local college where general science and humanities subjects will be taught. The main purpose will be to train school teachers, clerks, accountants, actuaries, lab and library assistants, basic programmers, and so on. After 3 years students with enough class credits and after passing a test will earn a degree.

The funding will be borne entirely by the state. (This is somewhat like the California Community College model).

The top 10% of streams (a) and (b), if they pass appropriate entry tests, will be allowed to enter two alternative streams at a higher level (d) or (e):

Professional schools (in subjects like Law, Business, Engineering and Medical). Here the tuition fees will be high, but with availability of a large number of student loans, repayable in the first five years of the student’s getting a job. Some of these schools can be private, others state-funded.

Public universities, of which there should not be more than 50 in the whole country. The subjects taught will be specialized branches of science and humanities. Again the fees will be high, but with availability of a large number of student loans, repayable in the first five years of the student’s getting a job. The financial and faculty resources that are currently spread thin in more than 700 universities should be conserved and more effectively used in not more than 50 universities (roughly 2 for each major state).

The top 1% of streams (d) and (e), if they pass appropriate entry tests, will be allowed to enter a World-class Research University, of which there should be not more than two in the whole country. Tuition will be free and everybody will have a scholarship. The funding will be entirely by the state. For the sake of stimulating in India the current world-wide trend in collaborative research across disciplines, departments should be reorganized with a focus on multi-disciplinary research.

With this structure in mind I shall now have some remarks on the functioning and administration, faculty recruitment and promotion, etc. in these higher education institutions, particularly in streams (d), (e), and (f).

No involvement by politicians, administrators or regulators (like UGC) in personnel selection, particularly in any of those three streams, neither in the selection of officials like a college principal or VC, nor in the appointment or promotion of faculty, nor in the conduct of the examination system. This is, of course, most difficult to achieve in India, and quite contrary to the persistent Government initiatives (including the new Education Bill with the Lok Sabha). Every education minister, either at the state or central level, believes that as the government provides the money, he or she (and the associated bureaucrats) have the right to interfere in the running of the college or the university. This is a curse of the Indian higher education system that must be exorcised. Every three years or so a public college or university should, after an independent audit, be accountable to the legislature on explaining how the total budget assigned has been spent, but the latter should have no say on personnel selection or internal governance matters. The best public universities in the world are mainly free of outside involvement.

Faculty selection and promotion should be entirely the responsibility of the faculty in consultation with outside (both outside the department and outside the university) faculty members in peer review. In (a) and (b) institutions the main criterion for judging faculty will be teaching quality (partly depending on serious and anonymous student evaluations for each course). In (d), (e), and (f) institutions, of course, along with teaching, quality of research will be evaluated by peers inside and outside departments and impact of publications, including in recognized international outlets. In new appointments, instead of interviews by closed-door selection committees the candidates on a short list should be invited to present a research paper in an open seminar, where the candidates should be answerable to questions and criticisms by anyone present. After appointment, every three years each faculty member, junior or senior, should have a merit review by a departmental and university committee (with some outside referees). No seniority-based promotion is to be allowed.

With a positive merit review salaries should be adjusted upwards. The salary structure should be sufficiently flexible, within some well-defined general parameters, so that exceptional merit judged by peer review can be rewarded. The current system of academic salary structure linked to civil service rules and scales, periodically revised by the Pay Commission, should be discarded.

The new technology of distance learning should be fully utilized in upgrading the teaching and knowledge standards. Particularly in streams (b), (d) and (e) we should take advantage of the basic courses currently being offered in the international Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) system, expanding on a big scale the current Indianised version being tried out in some of the IIT’s and IIM’s. These courses should be aligned with associated topic-wise tutorials by the current faculty. Apart from quality upgrading, this can also partly relieve our acute shortage of qualified faculty. Of course the constraints of inadequate facility of students in English medium of international teaching and dearth of internet access will continue to limit this for quite some time.

Our higher academic institutions remain in splendid Brahminical isolation from the surrounding economy and society in their locations, though, alas, not from the local sectarian and party politics. In the US the connection between the ongoing research in universities and the innovations in the local industrial and commercial economy is quite impressive. The Indian experience is often dismal in this respect.

Just to give an example from a locality nearby: I have heard stories that Howrah, which used to be a major centre of light engineering products, declined over time throwing off thousands of jobs, partly because it failed to carry out some simple technical innovations (which its competitors around the world managed). Yet in Howrah there was a thriving engineering college nearby (BE college, now a university), which was a potential source of collaboration in these innovations, and but there was no established forum or mechanism for any connection or interaction.

Similarly in social sciences there is ample scope for our Economics and Sociology students to carry out their honours and post-graduate research projects using field survey data from the local bazaars and neighbourhoods (including slums where our maid servants and cobblers live).

Let me now discuss an important downside to the principle of non-interference by administrators and politicians that I have advocated. With full autonomy some colleges and universities can degenerate into cosy, nepotistic clubs of rampant mediocrity. Sociologist Diego Gambetta has described such a system of collusive mediocrity in Italian universities, which will not be unfamiliar in some Indian universities—a culture of mediocrity where mediocre people get other mediocre people around them and thrive in a cocoon of comfortable cronyism. Autonomy vs. cronyism is the inexorable dilemma of a higher education system.

In the US this problem has been mostly averted by a culture of constant competition among the better universities—they raid one another for the best faculty, and try to generate a critical mass of good faculty and students. Students also gravitate to where the best faculty are. When professors move from one university to another they move with the whole paraphernalia of funded research projects, labs and affiliated students. So it’ll be costly for a university to lose its good faculty members, if it fails to provide a stimulating environment.

It is, of course, not easy to reproduce this culture of competition and mobility everywhere, but one can try, with some external monitoring mechanisms in place.

Periodic reviews of a whole department by outside professional peer groups (of academics, not bureaucrats), particularly if the review report is taken seriously by the external financial authorities in the allocation of faculty slots to the department, can be a significant deterrent to indulgence in mediocrity. In many fields research grants from external funding agencies are an important source of finance for a US university (in the form of overhead costs charged to the grant), and mediocre people failing to get such grants can become financially costly for a university. For this to work the Indian research funding agencies (like UGC, ICSSR, ICHR, CSIR, etc.) themselves need to be shorn of the current overload of bureaucratic control.

Apart from mediocre faculty, the other problem of autonomy may be in encouraging low-quality degree giving. The solution to this is not state or regulatory interference (we are familiar, for example, with many scandals in the examination system under such interference). The ultimate solution will have to be the market test. Job-givers will not value such degrees given by colleges or universities that abuse their autonomy, and students will soon find this out.

Finally, a word or two on the acute and potentially overwhelming political and sociological issues. The vested interests in the current stagnation are quite powerful—politicians, bureaucrats, mediocre faculty, etc.

As Machiavelli had observed five centuries back:

“The reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new”.

Nothing will happen unless the potential beneficiaries of change get organized. It is easy to run down any substantial proposal to improve quality as elitist. When it comes to academic excellence, I am unashamedly an elitist. Even in Communist countries, say in the erstwhile Soviet Union (or China today), the Academy of the various Sciences, for example, were (are) highly elitist. What is important to me is ensuring equality of opportunity to everybody. But that does not mean equality of outcome.

In India the default redistributive option for politicians has been caste reservations in admissions to higher education institutions for the disadvantaged. But when these institutions keep on churning out graduates who are mostly unemployable, I believe the consciousness will rise among our poor and middle classes and castes that the way forward is to fight the vested interests and move in the direction of improving education quality, along with access and equity.

At the same time we have to understand that equity is not ensured simply by ensuring free and universal access, as we have proposed for our streams (a) and (b). It is also not just a matter of arranging for enough scholarships and remedial courses for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom are first-generation entrants to the higher education system. In the social churning that India is going through many of our colleges and universities have become sites of contestation for our larger social conflicts. Given this context, we have to nurture an enabling and empowering atmosphere and institutional culture for these new entrants in an alien environment of long domination by upper classes and castes. Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide and last letter at the Central University of Hyderabad last year point to the many challenges we face in our long road to equity in the field of education. But equity and quality need not work at cross purposes, and it is our duty to convince the political leaders of all groups about the importance and feasibility of these two goals working together.

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