A 1968 article about IITs by C Rajagopalan in the Economic and Political Weekly suggested that while no student was intentionally precluded from admission into IIT, many disabling factors ensured that a potential elite was being recruited from the higher strata of society almost to the neglect of the lower strata. Hindsight suggests that IITs were a masterstroke for India’s human capital, but the social mobility goal of higher education highlighted by Rajagopalan is important. The virus lockdown has exposed the urgency of more inclusive employment, employability, and education. Yet skill universities that deliver employability and employer financing are held back by regulatory cholesterol; three Acts and two regulations. Twenty changes will enable 20 million new employer-financed university students.
The question “can we be equal and excellent?” asked by educator John Gardner’s 1961 book captures the contradictory objectives of universities. We need, and can have, both equality and excellence. But this may need two different systems. The differential lockdown outcomes for skilled and unskilled workers highlight our university system’s pre-existing conditions — broken employability promises, poor employer connectivity, and poor return on private investment that frustrate parents and students. An exasperated mother vented to me at a job fair — “why can’t our universities be 1/4th college, 1/4th ITI, 1/4th apprenticeship, and 1/4th employment exchange?” Skill universities can never substitute for traditional universities, but they can surely meet the aspiration articulated by this parent.
A skill university differs from a traditional university in four ways. It prays to the one god of employers; for governance, faculty, curriculum, and pedagogy. It has four classrooms; on-campus, on-line, on-site, and on-the-job. It offers modularity between four qualifications; certificates, diplomas, advanced diplomas, and degrees. And it has four sources of financing — employers, students, CSR, and loans (though employers contribute more than 95 per cent of the costs).
The crucial point of financing is demonstrated by contrasting the financing of Delhi University (disclosure: my alma mater) and the Gujarat government’s skill university (disclosure: my PPP partner). Both are similar — Rs 700 crore plus in annual costs with only 3 per cent of this covered by student fees. The difference lies in who funds the gap — 97 per cent of DU’s budget comes from taxpayers and 97 per cent of the skill university’s budget from employers. Contrary to the myth about employer negligence in carrying their skill development load, the Gujarat experience shows how employers enthusiastically adopt university products that meet their needs.
Globally, universities are broken in many ways. First is broken promises. The world produced more graduates in the last 35 years than the 700 years before and graduates now include 60 per cent of Korea’s taxi drivers, 31 per cent of US retail check-out clerks, and 15 per cent of India’s high-end security guards. Second is broken financing. More than 50 per cent of $1.5 trillion in student debt was expected to default even before the COVID pandemic. Indian bank education loans have high NPAs.
The third is broken inclusiveness. The system works for privileged urban males studying full-time, but today’s students are likely to be female, poor, older, rural, or studying part-time. Fourth is broken flexibility. Employed learners will cross traditional learners in three years, but they need on-demand, on-the-go, always-on, rolling admissions, continuous assessment, and qualification modularity. And finally is broken openness. Google knowing everything makes learning how to learn a key 21st-century skill. Yet too many universities are stuck in knowing.
Skill universities are a scalable, sustainable, and affordable vehicle to massify higher education by innovations in finance. But they need regulatory change. The UGC Act of 1956 needs rewriting: Clause 8.2.6 needs to be rewritten to equalise four classrooms (online, on-site, on-campus, and on-job) and section 22 (3) to recognise apprenticeship linked degree programmes. The UGC Teacher Regulations of 2018 need rewriting: Clause 3.3.(I),(II) to redefine the qualifications, roles and numbers of teachers required, and clause 4 to recognise industry experience as a teaching qualification. The UGC Online Regulations 2018 need to be rewritten: Clause 4(2) and 7(2)(3) to allow innovation, flexibility, credit frameworks, and relevance in online curriculums and clause 7(2)(2) to allow universities to work with any technology platforms.
Similarly, NAAC IQAC Regulations need rewriting: Criteria 1 and 1.2.2 to include work-based learning and work integrated learning, criteria 1.1.3 to include life skills and proctored/evaluated internships, and criteria 2 and 2.3.1 to integrate online learning with university programmes. Criteria 2 and 2.4.1, 3 and 6 need to be modified to recognise teachers with industry experience, and include industry-based research, criteria 4 and 4.1.2 to include industry workplaces and online classrooms as campus extensions, and criteria 5 and 5.2.1 needs to be rewritten to incorporate apprenticeships. Clause 2, 8, 9, 21 and 23 of The Apprenticeship Act of 1961 also needs to be modified to allow and lift the licence raj for degree-linked apprentices and recognise skills universities.
Education reforms are an endeavour of profound optimism but have been stifled by purists, vested interests, and regulators. It is illogical to deny the poorna swaraj that comes with the Institutes of Eminence tag to Ashoka University and Ahmedabad University or pursue regulation-driven standardisation for our 993 universities.
Ronald Ross, the Almora-born Nobel winning physician who discovered mosquito-borne malaria transmission while living in Bangalore, said: “It takes at least a decade to understand a new idea”. But even Ross would have agreed that history lurched over the last 60 days and COVID has compressed every calendar. However, a crisis doesn’t do the work; it exposes problems but can’t choose among alternatives. Poorna swaraj for Indian universities is a decade overdue. But 20 reforms with a flick-of-the -pen that liberate skill universities can be completed in 90 days.
The writer is co-founder of Teamlease Services
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