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No textbook solutions here

It is time to have a serious rethink on the key issues that are dogging our higher education system: access, equity, quality and governance, writes Shahid Amin.

india Updated: Jun 08, 2009 23:16 IST

The new Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister, Kapil Sibal, reportedly called for the file on the foreign educational providers Bill on his first day in office. On the same day, Indian students were being done under in Australia. Are we capable of providing quality education to our youth? Why should so many of our talented youth vote against India with their student visas? Are we fit to create and administer the 1,500 new universities that the Knowledge Commission has recommended? Would the HRD Ministry continue with the scandalous practice of appointing Vice-Chancellors so haphazardly?

It is time to have a serious rethink on the key issues that are dogging our higher education system: access, equity, quality and governance. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of informed discussion on all these crucial matters. We seem to be heading for the equivalent of educational enclaves that are surrounded by an indifferent desi educational hinterland. The World Trade Organisation’s regime may require us to open the education sector to foreign players, but it would be a serious mistake to think that the variegated needs of the Indian educational sector could be met by off-shore outfits of American and European universities. At best, these outlets will cater to the demand for short-term value-added courses in information technology or management. We need a much more challenging and potentially transformative educational changeover. And this involves making our existing and newer universities attractive to a differential set of learners, national as well as international.

I will limit myself to two key issues: first, the question of reservation and the issue of numbers and quality, and second, the manner in which we recruit and remunerate our teachers. A lot has been said about the lack of infrastructure to absorb the tremendous intake that the OBC quotas have necessitated. This is a genuine problem: buildings arise overnight only in fairytales, not in real life.

But even if infrastructure was in place, the question of empowering the disadvantaged, enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities of higher education and research, will still remain. There is much talk about time-bound improvements — newer courses and a semester system, but there is little discussion on how to make a Dalit or an OBC graduate, say in history or economics, capable of absorbing and contributing to the knowledge that was earlier denied this group of first-generation university entrants.

To take in differentially abled students in MA or in research degrees (M.Phil and Ph.D.), without helping them cope with the demands of quality courses is to disadvantage both the target group and the class as a whole. At present, we have a system where no questions are asked if a candidate fails in MA or MSc: the drill of confidentiality and fictitious roll numbers — a colonial Indian invention — ensures that no one is bothered. But the requirements to admit a certain number of students from the quota groups for research degrees, accompanied as it is at present by a total absence of ‘special needs programmes’, has meant that very few of these students are able to benefit as much as they should need to.

What is required are a series of imaginative competence- building programmes, whereby those opting for research degrees are given seed money, say for six months during which they are taught the elements of the disciplines, research techniques, writing and language skills. All this to aid them in doing research, and enabling them further to enrich the class and the discipline. Accessibility and equity need not be seen as antithetical to quality in education. ‘You cannot lift a bucket of water from mid-air; you have to lift it from the ground’ — this modern Chinese saying has a lot to commend to our educational planners, especially those advocating a Great Leap to catch up with China. There is not much use in updating the curricula according to University Grants Commission diktats, unless we think creatively and pragmatically about how much our students are learning. Here again we have to move beyond the binary of mother-tongue versus English education: the aim should be to enable our educated to be bilingual.

The jump in student enrollment has created a crisis in faculty recruitment. University administrators have shown a penchant for recruiting academics who are based abroad. That often is taken as the candidate’s USP. Having myself benefited from doing research in England, I am not one for harking on the innate superiority of our desi gurukuls But the problem is that no sooner the foreign-trained Indian academic returns to an Indian job, he loses his USP, for he ceases to be one of those who are abroad. The search, so to speak, for renewable academic energy, must begin anew!

Quick-fix solutions in HRD are an oxymoron. Development, specially of human capacities, takes time. And it can’t be divorced from the ground realities of access, quality and sustainability.

Shahid Amin teaches at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Delhi University.

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