Rebooting Higher Education -Building India as a Knowledge Economy-

In my last Essay I shared my thoughts on what ails India’s Primary Education system and had suggested some possible actions. Primary education undeniably forms the foundation of a strong and progressive nation. But the criticality of Higher Education, especially for an economy such as India can not be undermined. Amongst the 114 indicators mapped by the the World Economic Forum, quality of primary, higher and tertiary education are factors that impact the competitiveness of a nation. The Global Competitiveness Index released in October 2016, ranks India at the 43 rd position for its Quality of Higher and Tertiary Education.

With India having produced world acclaimed scientists, teachers as well as CEOs, why is it that we rank so low on quality of education? Graduates of our very own system have worked to send the Mangalyan to the Mars, placing India amongst the elite club of nations that have achieved this fete. What then is the reason for India’s education system to be considered below par? What prompts a larger percentage of Indian students to pursue their higher education overseas, despite India boasting of the third largest education system in the world after USA and China?

India is a vast country, characterized by pockets of excellence co-existing with large areas that have no access to higher education. While we have a sizeable budget for missile development, almost 85% of our students do not have access to colleges. India will have to overcome these and several other challenges in its higher education system to move up the Global Competitiveness Index rankings. The three sub indices of this Index i.e. basic requirements, efficiency enhancers (quality higher education & training and technological readiness) and innovation & sophistication are interconnected and work in a cyclic fashion and therefore each one of them must be addressed.

However, in this essay, I will address one key efficiency enhancer “quality of higher education” which in my view is a critical pillar for sustained growth. Quality higher education combined with social and emotional skills will be the most important requirement of the 2020 job market. India’s graduates, unfortunately, are often not adept enough at job related skills and are lacking in social skills too. This leaves much to be desired and fixed.

Historically known for its universities such as Nalanda and Takshila, India has severely lacked in building the capacity of its higher education system. While the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), offer world class education there are others that have poor quality infrastructure and shortage of academic staff. Though the last decade saw the number of universities increasing at a CAGR of 7.5%, their severe crunch leaves many students disheartened. Given the severe crunch of higher education institutions, students often pay cash to secure a seat. Even as India is becoming the regional hub for Higher Education, more than 6,000 students fly abroad every year to pursue courses of their choice. These and several other factors ensure that the India’s higher education Gross Enrollment Ratio remains a low 23.60 per cent.

Those who do manage to secure admission in India’s colleges, spend a large part of their time reading from books, learning in classrooms and writing exams. Our engineering graduates study about 40 subjects in four years, spending 6,000 hours in the classroom. They spend a large percentage of their time writing internal assessment papers and exams. With very little practical experience and exposure to the real world, almost 85% are unemployable. Rethinking its approach to higher education is thus India’s 21 st century imperative.

With our higher education system lagging behind and the Patent Regime not so well developed, India also remains a laggard in applicable research. We have close to 1.92 lakh researchers currently working on various research projects. This number does not place us anywhere amongst the top 10 countries in the world. China sits at the third position! Given that innovation also determines a country’s competitiveness, there is a pressing need to create a system that inspires youngsters to pursue research.

In this backdrop, Prime Minister Modi’s vision to use technology to expand the reach of higher education to the remotest corner of the country is very heartening. But in a knowledge driven global environment, some questions that we need to address while rethinking our Higher Education system are: What kind of structural changes in the system can help better our education system? How can we ensure that our courses are aligned to industry requirements? Will the use of technology help bring in the necessary academic rigor and improve the quality of education?

To leverage its demographic dividend, India needs to implement transformational interventions across the higher education spectrum. The New Education Policy, being drafted by the Government in a consultative mode with the industry, will surely fast track transformation of India’s higher education system. The Government is seriously considering industry recommendations including a completely new approach to industry – academia linkages, providing academic and financial autonomy to institutions, injecting innovation & research into mainstream curriculum and vocational training.

In my view India’s higher education system offers huge potential for improvement. Crucial structural changes to integrate technology in teaching as well as governance, enthusing industry to participate and encouraging research and innovation, are the need of the hour.

Industry can play a key role in improving the quality of higher education in India. However, the provisos of Section 8, disallowing higher educational institutions to function as for-profit organizations, are not very conducive to industry participation. Currently, most higher educational institutions beef up their topline with incomes from programs other than the full time courses. Government could consider newer models that draw a balance between encouraging industry participation and keeping higher education affordable for the masses.

The existing academic institutions of repute also have a role to play in lifting up India’s higher education system. The success stories of some of our world class educational institutions such as IIMs and IIT’s can be replicated by harnessing their knowledge. I believe that AICTE’s proposal of asking every quality education institution to handhold ten institutions in their neighborhood is a welcome step in this direction. While it might take time to gather speed, if delivered with sincerity, a cascading effect will ensure positive outcomes.

While these are standalone initiatives I believe that an overall initiative driven in a mission mode is essential to bring the necessary structural changes. Perhaps an initiative on the lines of “Ease of Doing Business”, might ensure an overhauling of the system, help to weed out inefficiencies and boost quality of education. It will perhaps also encourage industry players to consider education as an investment opportunity.

While it is encouraging that the key stakeholders in reforming India’s higher education – academia, industry and government – are making a conscious effort to bring change, there is a lot left to be desired. The question remains whether these efforts are enough for the scale and size of our country? Do we not need to hasten our steps and start making a change before it is too late? Can we really lead our higher education system to becoming a “Class Apart”?

The views expressed are personal.

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