Challenge of higher education

In his recent visit to Australia in early April, HRD minister Kapil Sibal did a sterling job of laying out the magnitude of the challenge that India faces in increasing its gross enrollment ratio (GER) from the present 12.4 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020 (GER in developed countries is over 70%) -an increase that would need approximately 800 new universities (nearly double the existing number) and about 35,000 -40,000 new colleges. He was also absolutely on the mark when he argued that the global community should, in its own interest of both access to a well-qualified pool of human resources as well as to avoid the social conflicts arising from a possible failure from doing so, invest in educating Indians. In laying out these statistics, Sibal was conveying India's seriousness about its invitation to foreign universities to invest in India. More power to him.

However, the key challenges in India are two. One relates to the poor quality of academic performance in the country and the other to the huge gap identified above. The poor quality of the existing institutions -out of 17,000 colleges and 317 universities in 2006, only 30 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively, have some quality assessment undertaken and only 97 colleges and 9 universities of these have been identified as those having potential for excellence -speaks volumes of what is ailing our education system. The most obvious issues relate to the lack of incentives for teaching as a profession (India has a student, teacher ratio of 26:1, which is double that of Brazil and China), lack of investments in higher education (0.37 per cent of GDP compared with well over 1 per cent in the developed world) and the lack of incentives for pursuing doctoral studies that has become a self-limiting factor for a future pool of university teachers! Only about 25 per cent of the teaching staff in colleges in India have PhD degrees.

In a booming economy, the past few months notwithstanding, the question that jumps out at you is -why would anybody want to do a PhD in India? It would take anywhere between 4-7 years to finish a PhD, your success rate is probably less than 50 per cent, the likelihood of finding a committed and qualified supervisor is slim and the market for PhDs is still limited to either the academic sector or academic institutions. So after going through all this stress and time-investment, a PhD candidate in India would start at a salary level that would be a fraction of what he/she may have earned as a post-graduate joining the corporate world -and all these years invested would not even count towards the qualifying criteria for a professorial position when the same years invested in the pursuit of knowledge without getting a PhD degree would! Inviting foreign universities to set shop in India is, prima facie, an essential but not a sufficient step in the direction of both improving quality as well as reducing the demand gap. Looked at from a reputed foreign university's perspective what is it that is attractive about this offer?

They would need to first of all step into an unknown and notoriously unstable policy environment in India. Second, they are highly unlikely to dilute their brand by associating with any educational institution apart from those that have been identified as having the `potential for excellence'.

Third, why would these institutions give up/share their prized faculty members? And, from the point of view of the faculty members themselves, why would they work in India for a salary that may be a fraction of what they would earn internationally -not to speak of the respect they command from their current affiliations.

So, where would that leave India? We may, at least till the medium term, concentrate on quality improvement in the top-rung institutions bringing them closer to international standards. But this would not help the millions that are competing hopelessly for the very limited number of seats in these same institutions. We may be able to attract back the very few altruistically oriented NRI/foreign faculty members but there is no guaranteeing the quality of all such faculty members. To say that any international faculty is superior to our homegrown faculty would be an insult to these brave academics. Not to speak of the tremendous churn that could be created if the terms of employment for foreign faculty were to be any different from those for the Indian faculty.

Sibal cannot be envied his task. The goals that are being set are ambitious. However, it is extremely important that this challenge is addressed in a holistic manner. The finance ministry and other ministries need to align themselves towards these goals. Adequate financial resources need to be provided for both education and research and a liberal environment created in which to pursue research.

Today, both the academic as well as the research institutions are languishing and unless special efforts are made to reinvigorate them through proper incentives and recognition, India stands to lose the limited but hard-earned capacity it has developed since Independence.

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