Higher education in India has witnessed manifold changes since Independence. The number of universities have gone up from 20 to 378, colleges from 500 to 18,064 and teachers from 15,000 to nearly 4.80 lakh. Consequently, enrolment has increased from a mere 1 lakh in 1950 to over 112 lakh in 2006, and the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education has risen from an abysmal 1 per cent to 10 per cent.
Besides these numeric expansions, there has been significant diversification, with a marked shift in courses from the conventional disciplines to inter-disciplinary in emergent areas. Further, it’s not just public institutions, but also the private-aided and unaided sector that has had an important role in this expansion.
These developments notwithstanding, higher education today is faced with a number of challenges. In the forefront is the issue of improving overall enrolment, along with equitable access and quality education. We now recognise that the current access at 10 per cent is too low when compared with the world average of 23 per cent and 40 to 60 per cent in case of the developed countries. Besides, there are regional and social group imbalances in access, which varies between 6 to 8 per cent for the SC, ST, OBC and Muslims. The most deprived are the poor, for whom access is no more than 2 per cent. The GER in rural areas, at 7.5 per cent, compares poorly with the urban areas, at 24 per cent. Besides, regional disparities are also noticeable, with as many as 350 districts in the country having GER lower than the national average and 29 districts having GER of less than 5 per cent.
Equally important is the problem of quality. Out of 14,080 colleges, only 6,000, and out of 224 state universities, only 167 are able to meet the minimum prescribed norms and standards for receiving UGC development grants. Further, NAAC assessment of 3,492 colleges and 140 universities reveals that only 9 per cent of the colleges and 31 per cent of the universities are rated as A-grade and an overwhelming 68 per cent of them are rated as B-grade.
Besides, there are issues related to academic reforms. While quite a few institutions have been able to implement credit-based courses and a semester system with continuous internal assessment, others have continued with annual examinations, largely based on external written examination. Also, the affiliating university system is over-burdened as the number of colleges affiliated to each university has been on the rise.
Enhancing access with inclusion and excellence are the main challenges, which the Eleventh Plan approach recognised. It recognised that increase in access will have to come with focus on the regions and social groups that presently have lower GER. These also happen to be the regions with lower quality educational institutions.
The strategy of the Eleventh Plan will revolve around the issue of expansion, inclusiveness and quality, including academic reforms. The Plan sets a target GER of 15 per cent by 2012. This is proposed to be achieved through increase in the intake capacity of existing institutions and through establishment of new institutions. Under the PM’s initiative, 30 new central universities have already been announced.
This strategy for expansion will have to be combined with measures for reducing regional imbalances, with central support to states on matching basis. Under the PM’s initiative, the establishment of a college in each of the 350 districts with low GER and less number of colleges per lakh population has been announced. Besides, there will be focus on hilly, border, tribal, remote, rural and small town areas.
The strategy for enrolment expansion will be combined with that of inclusion for social groups like women, SC, ST, OBC, minorities like Muslims, the physically challenged and the poor in general. This will include support to universities and colleges having high proportion of students from these groups, and also to institutions located in districts with relatively higher concentration of their population.
There are a number of steps proposed for promoting quality and excellence. First, it will include support to 60 per cent colleges and 40 per cent universities that are so far ineligible to receive UGC grants. Bringing them within the orbit of UGC grant, with matching grants from states, shall certainly improve their quality.
Second, it will comprise measures for bridging the quality gap between C- and A-grade colleges and universities, which will again be based on matching commitment from states.
Third, it will focus on adequate availability of quality teachers, which, in turn, will require enhanced funding for research and
fellowships for PhD. It will also require steps with respect to salary, appointment, mobility of teachers and others.
The issue of academic practices relating to admission, examination and assessment has been in the public domain ever since the Radhakrishna and the Kothari Commission. These have been selectively implemented but have not yet become a uniform practice. It is important to identify the enabling conditions for their wider use. This may require selective approach, which calls for sharing of experience of those who have tried them successfully and with those who tried but failed.
The issue of regulating private education providers in a manner such that it facilitates their role and, at the same time, ensures quality and equity is equally important. All the three types of private providers — namely private-aided, private-unaided/self-financing institutions and also self-financing courses run by public-funded institutions — have seen rapid expansion in recent years. The Eleventh Plan proposed to develop a regulatory framework for private sector institutions, regulating admission, fees and governance.
In this sense, the Eleventh Plan takes a leap forward. It is important that these policies are implemented. It is with this in mind that the UGC organised four regional conferences of Vice-Chancellors, which culminated in the national conferences of Vice-Chancellors on October 10 and 11, to discuss the above issues and arrive at a common view.
Sukhadeo Thorat is Chairman, University Grants Commission