Higher education: Public good or private consumption?

The advent of ever more private players is redefining the higher education landscape in the country, with access, equity and social justice being the main casualties

Higher education: Public good or private consumption?

Furqan Qamar

The delay in the formulation of the new National Policy on Education has not come in the way of major policy changes in managing and providing for higher education in the country. Pathbreaking as some of the initiatives are, they are largely operational measures and do not necessarily address the fundamental challenges of higher education.

Expansion, Equity and Excellence have been the triple objectives of higher education policy in the country since Independence. With concerted efforts and sustained public investment over time, we made major headways to become the single largest system of higher education in the world in terms of number of higher educational institutions and the second largest in terms of enrolment.

We have also been able to achieve significant success in terms of participation of women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other marginalised sections of the society. Even on the quality front, we have fared rather well as the world’s sixth largest economy worth $2.8 Trillion (in fact, the third largest with $10.38 Trillion, in purchasing power parity terms) has been sustained solely on the strength of human resources educated and trained in India.

The above accomplishments notwithstanding, we are still faced with the challenges of further expanding our higher education system to ensure equitable access to quality higher education. Though we have a large number of higher educational institutions, their dispersion across different geographies is still not uniform.

At the same time, we are left with a very large number of small-sized higher educational institutions, which are academically and economically non-viable. Similarly, though the participation of women in higher education has substantially increased, there are still institutions and disciplines where their participation rate is significantly lower than the national average.

It is also of critical import that certain marginalised sections of the society, particularly the Muslims continue to remain under-represented. Obviously, we need to do a lot more to address these challenges through policy initiatives and proactive approaches.

Our accomplishments in the areas of expansion and equity are paled by the perceived lack of quality and excellence in higher education; we have a small number of high quality higher educational institutions, but they are like islands of excellence amidst a sea of mediocrity.

Even the best of our higher educational institutions compare very poorly with the best of the world. Thus, our challenges are two-fold. We have to promote excellence in the best of our higher educational institution so that they can compete on equal footing with the best of the world and are thus reckoned amongst the top higher educational institutions of the world.

At the same time, we have to improve the quality of all higher educational institutions so as to drastically reduce the quality gaps between ‘the best’ and ‘the rest’ in order to ensure, on an average, a reasonably decent quality of higher education with affordability to all students in the country.

Regulatory reforms in higher education, which was so vehemently emphasised by a number of commissions and committees and repeatedly announced by the previous and the present governments, is yet to take shape. Consequently, higher education continues to suffer from multiplicity of regulatory bodies with overlapping functions and conflicting requirements.

Similarly, the under investment in higher education has not only remained unaddressed but has only accentuated, thereby adversely impinging not only on the quality of higher education but also on the ability of the nation to fully realise the potential of higher education.

We are nowhere closer to the cherished objective of investing a minimum of 6%of GDP on education and we are less than half way to that mark, investing a mere 2 % of the GDP in higher education.

Reduced public funding, increased cost recovery and consequent rise in the private players in higher education are obviously redefining higher education landscape in the country with access, equity and social justice being the foremost casualty. In essence they are challenging the stated policy of treating higher education as a public good as distinct from private consumption.

The much awaited ‘New National Policy on Education’ may yet not be in the offing but higher education in the country has already undergone critical changes.

University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) have come up with ‘quality mandates’ and ‘outcome-based learning’. The National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE), armed with the Verma Commission report, has introduced drastic changes in ‘programme duration’, curricula and pedagogy of teachers’ training.

Quality assurance mechanism and accreditation processes have been reformatted with the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) moving towards outcome-based accreditation of higher educational programme and with the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) making the third-party data validation integral to the accreditation of higher educational institutions. UGC has notified a regulation to register and recognise multiple agencies to accredit higher educational institutions.

The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranking is now in the realm of reality impacting higher educational institutions in a variety of ways. So has been the emphasis on higher educational institutions to seek world ranking.

Schemes like Graded Autonomy and Institutions of Eminence have been introduced to link funding and privileges to higher educational institutions based on their rankings and accreditation scores. So much so that the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) funding, which was essentially meant to strengthen higher educational institutions in the state sector, has now been linked to accreditation grades in many states.

Funding of higher education has undergone sea changes. Higher educational institutions now get their maintenance grants through MHRD or UGC, as the case be, but they are required to enter into Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with the funding agencies

Leveraging technology for improving the working and efficiency of higher educational institutions, systems and processes and the technology-enabled learning too has been the focus of reforms. National Digital Library (NDL) has been introduced to provide online digital resources whereas the National Academic Depository (NAD) seeks to provide online storehouse for all academic records of all students.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) offered through the ‘Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds’ (SWAYAM) have been launched to offer opportunities of online learning and certification to support, supplement and alternate the ‘massification of higher education’. Mainstream higher educational institutions have been mandated by the regulatory bodies to ensure that their full-time regular students take certain proportion of their courses through SWAYAM and thereby introducing the idea of blended learning.

Unemployability of graduates has been sought to be redressed through skill development and entrepreneurship initiatives which require all higher educational institutions to make their programmes in sync with the National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQF) Specialised courses like Bachelors of Vocation (B.Voc) and Masters of Vocation (M.Voc) were also approved by UGC to give fillip to the skill and vocational courses. Additionally, most universities now have skill development centres on their campus running in collaboration with the sectoral skill councils led mainly by the industry.

While Academic Staff Colleges (ASCs), renamed as Human Resource Development Centres (HRDCs), continue to organise orientation and refresher courses for the capacity building of teachers in higher education, a large number of National Resource Centres (NRCs) have been set up under Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya National Mission on Teaching and Teachers (PMMMNM) for further improving the quality of teachers in higher education.

A new scheme called Annual Refresher Programme in Teaching (ARPIT) has also been introduced recently whereby the newly established NRCs have launched knowledge upgradation courses through SWAYAM to be taken by all teachers in higher education on annual basis.

To address crisis of leadership in higher education, the Centre for Academic Leadership and Education Management (CALEM) and Leadership for Academic Programme (LEAP) has been established to train present and future leaders and administrators in higher education.

A new scheme called Scheme for Promotion of Academic Research (SPARC) has been launched to fund research projects of national relevance and significance. In view of shortage of quality teachers in science and technology, the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship (PMRF) has been launched to enable talented graduates to pursue PhD with enhanced financial support immediately after undergraduate degrees.

To attract international students, ‘Study in India’ programme was launched which sought to fund and empower the Educational Consultants India Limited (EdCil) to empanel higher educational institutions and to popularise their programmes abroad through campaign and provide a single window portal to facilitate admission of foreign students.

Funding of higher education has undergone sea changes. Higher educational institutions now get their maintenance grants through MHRD or UGC, as the case be, but they are required to enter into Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with the funding agencies to commit accomplishment of the stated goals and objectives, which among other things emphasise on mobilisation of non-grant resource.

The Plan and Development grants have been replaced by RUSA funding for higher education in the state sector and by the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) for the Centrally Funded Institutions (CFIs). Established by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) provides interest free loans with varying repayment obligations for different types of higher educational institutions.

To ensure timely, proper and effective utilisation of funds, a Public Financial Management System (PFMS) has been put in place to record and report all transactions as a prerequisite to access public funding. Initiatives like Higher Education Statistics and Public Information System (HEPSIS) have been introduced for timely and better reporting of data relating to various facets of higher education.

(Prof Furqan Qamar is the Secretary General of Association of Indian Universities (AIU) in New Delhi)

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