What do you think are the challenges in higher education today and what role can the government play?
Today, higher education in India is at the cusp of a major change. Two important elements of this change are: linking excellence and innovation in education with private control and investment and full government control of publicly funded education. I believe that in the new globalised India, the government has a major role to play in ensuring good quality education for all citizens, including those groups that have historically been kept away from learning. This is the only way to achieve excellence. No excellence is possible unless all citizens have an equal opportunity of access to higher education. Unfortunately, this principle is being diluted by the current policy and this is clear from enrollment and participation of marginalised social groups in higher education in the last five years. The death of Rohit Vemula and turmoil on campuses across India (Delhi, Manipur, Gandhigram, Hyderabad etc.) are just extreme expressions of diluting the principle of universal access and controlling debate and deliberation in higher educational institutions.
What are the key changes in policy regimes on higher education?
There is stagnation of allocations to Central Universities (33 per cent of total allocations to autonomous bodies). The implication for institutions of starving of funds is to face future indebtedness or go for ‘internal resource generation’. Fee hike and making higher education available only for those who can afford is the inevitable consequence of this process.
The sharp fall in the UGC’s budget in 2016-17 by over 5,000 crore compared to that in 2014-15, was an outcome of direct disbursement of grants to HEIs in the states through Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) and not through UGC. The criterion adopted for RUSA (accreditation, implementation of digital systems, CBCS regulations, admission tests, semester system and universal evaluation methods) actually overrides the autonomy of states to have their own education policy and framework for running colleges. College funding has been worst affected by the shift to route funding from RUSA instead of UGC. This has adversely impacted the educational infrastructure for ordinary students in small towns of India.
What about the emphasis being laid on vocational education?
Vocational education policy shows no links with macro economic policy. There is an over-emphasis on ‘self employment’ in identifying future skills from the vantage point of a highly competitive globalised market economy. The highly precarious nature of self-employment is not part of the discussions, sadly. There is no attempt to identify the real skills needed to ensure sustainable employment for all and there is over dependence on private sector to impart skills. Unfortunately, even the existing National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme shows a dismal record in the last three years in utilisation of funds.
What, according to you, is the future of higher education in India?
Right now in the policy and approach of the government towards higher education, everything appears to be important, except meaningful teaching and research. Key elements of the current governments approach towards higher educational institutions are: Marking of attendance, organising programs like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, marking surgical strike days or yoga day, putting up statues of Vivekananada, uploading videos and tweeting loyalty to the
Government by the heads of the institutions, degrading and humiliating teachers who question insensitive administrations, destruction of decentralised/democratic/transparent decision-making process and the list goes on.
How can higher education in the country be made more meaningful?
Higher education in India has a future if we look at it beyond means of making India an attractive destination for global investors by offering cheap labour. Can a nation have a dream that subjugates its vast majority of working poor to vulnerabilities and profit needs of global capital? Real stakeholders in education (teachers, students, academics, researchers) have to have a say in the role of higher education in India and making of policy.
We need to produce more nation builders, thinkers, artists, scientists, philosophers and much more. These thinkers and artists need to come from all regions, gender and social groups in India. This is the only way we can attempt to come close to the dream of founders of the nation like Ambedkar, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh.