Higher education is critical to India’s emergence in the global knowledge economy. However, there is a major quality crunch, leading to institutes churning out unskilled graduates.
India’s size, history, diverse cultures and the complicated nature of its polity and policy process makes higher education a complex enterprise. Running the Higher Education system is the shared responsibility of the Centre and the State Governments. The task of maintaining its quality is primarily entrusted to the University Grants Commission (UGC). Other statutory regulatory bodies like NAAC, NCTE, MCI and AICTE etc also monitor higher academic institutions. The Department of Higher Education (DHE), MHRD, is responsible for the overall development of the basic infrastructure of the higher education sector, both in terms of policy and planning.
However, India’s higher education system is going through a crisis. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) calls it a ‘quiet crisis’, the Human Resource Minister calls it ‘a sick child’, whereas industries point toward huge skill shortages. Shortage of faculty, continuous increase in workload due to introduction of new courses and decrease in research and development activities have led to an overall drop in the quality of higher education. Ideally speaking, the system is perceived as a promoter of upward social mobility, economic and technological development, while providing equitable opportunity to the youth. Thus, it plays a critical role in the development of the country.
Studies by NASSCOM and Aspiring Minds indicate poor employability skills among a large number of Indian graduates. The fact that most companies have to spend time and money training fresh graduates, can be seen as an indicator of the industry-academia skill gap. The reason for this is the Indian demography. With more than 30 per cent of the population below the age of 15 and more than five million people entering the 15 to 24 age group annually, the demographic impact is high. Adequate provision of higher education will have to be ensured for this lot.
Indian youth has understood that higher education is a vehicle to prosperity. The Government’s inadequate spending in the sector has paved the way to mushrooming of private higher educational institutions. In spite of this, employers find unskilled graduates through campus placements. This raises doubts about the quality of training provided to the students.
Moreover, these institutions charge premium fees. Inspite of high fees and mediocre quality, students throng to these institutes for coveted degrees. Many of them don’t even use their judgment in choosing the appropriate institute.
A major reason for the disintegrated scenario in higher education is attributed to the ‘isolated islands’ approach of functioning. These institutions do not ‘talk’ among themselves and generate synergy. There is no integration among different levels of education. The feeder to higher education is the secondary education and consequently primary education, which again are not up to the mark. Higher education outcomes are the product of interactions between all these players, and failing to consider the links between higher education institutions and the wider world around them leads to poor performance and outcomes.
Very few talented students enter the teaching career by choice at a young age. The dearth of intellectuals entering the academic arena makes the task difficult in terms of quality of instructions and research facilities provided at higher education institutes. Most of them look for teaching opportunities abroad. As a result, standard of teaching and research are abysmally low. Rigid formal education with no transferability of courses and lack of orientation and guidance to students at an early age adds fuel to the fire.
Indian higher education also fails to provide the type of research needed to boost technological upgrading in firms. Quality of research is so low that it does not guide us about how our future higher education should be. The question of quality versus quantity bugs the system. Governments are urging universities to go beyond simply providing skills to support innovation through research and technology. Research enables universities to produce ideas for the business community, thereby contributing to knowledge and technological innovation through basic and applied research and technology transfer.
There is no debating the fact that India needs to overhaul its higher education system and create a framework to make inclusive growth. Access, equity, quality and relevance are the most important parameters to be kept in mind. The question is ‘How to make the system scalable and cost efficient without compromising on quality?’ It’s a tough job as all three factors are so intertwined that a change in one can affect the others adversely.
India definitely has the talent for original research at the highest level, but our institutions are ill equipped to support such talent in terms of finance, facilities, incentives and ecosystems. The reforms have to take place at all the levels like curriculum, infrastructure, resources, faculty and certification.
The author is former dean, School of Distance Learning, NMIMS