The budget this year devoted very little time to higher education, though even in that little it managed to give good policy directions and reiterate the government’s focus on improving quality. Finance minister Arun Jaitely in his Budget speech said that there will be emphasis on reforms in the University Grants Commission (UGC) so that institutes gain autonomy based on accreditation and ratings. I have always believed that combining autonomy with competition among institutions is the only way to promote quality.
The system of affiliating a large number of institutions to single universities has for long been the bane of our higher education system. This system is unique only to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh – and India. Affiliating institutions have to wait for clearances from the parent university for even the smallest kind of change or innovation they may want to effect. This delays and subverts any attempt at improvement in quality. In India we have several state-run universities with over 500 affiliated colleges. Making them autonomous, both academically and financially, is the way to go.
Another important announcement is the setting up of a National Testing Agency to handle all entrance exams in higher education which at present take up a lot of time of Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Among various other exams, CBSE also conducts the joint entrance examination (JEE) every year which determines admissions in Institutes of Technology and the AICTE conducts the combined entrance examination for management institutions. Freeing up both the institutions from a plethora of administrative work involved in conducting such large examinations will give them more time to focus on issues related to improvement in quality.
However, if this centralised testing agency ends up replacing the examinations being conducted by state level bodies or other organisations which are working in niche areas then it would be against the overall move towards autonomy and openness. It remains to be seen whether institutions are given the choice to voluntarily subscribe to the services of this agency or whether they will be forced to do so.
One would have liked to see higher allocation of funds for research. In particular, the abundant public funding of research in autonomous government institutes needs to move the higher education system. That would enable us to raise research in Higher Education from 0.04% of GDP to the global average of 0.4%.
Also, the budget is silent on improving the quality of teachers and for making education an attractive career option for young people but the budget is silent on that. Some more wide-reaching reforms such as need-based subsidy in public institutes instead of blind subsidy, removal of curbs on fee and allowing independent assessment and accreditation agencies are the crying need of the hour. The budget may not be the right place to address these, but they need attention.