The blueprint for higher education that the government is now considering has come about 50 years too late. The proposal seeks to increase the number of central universities to 30 and set up administration and course structure on the lines of Jawaharlal Nehru University. A joint entrance test is also on the cards for all universities, central, state and private. So if all goes well, we should soon see a grand plan in place for upgrading higher education. From remuneration for faculty to infrastructure and curricula, the ambitious proposal involves a total overhaul of existing structures and expansion plans at a cost of Rs. 1,31,022 crore over the next seven years. By 2015, the National Knowledge Commission has noted, India should attain a gross enrolment ratio of at least 15 per cent from the current 10 per cent. The blueprint was given an impetus by the Prime Minister’s speech at Mumbai University last month where he detailed the miserable state of this sector in India. “Less than 50 per cent of secondary school students continue into college education in any form. Almost two-thirds of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters. And, most important, there is a nagging fear that university curricula are not synchronised with employment needs.”
However, the delivery mechanism will only be one part of the project. The first problem is that the University Grants Commission is the nodal agency for the plan. Going by the way higher education in India has run itself into the ground over the last few decades, it is doubtful whether the UGC will be able to infuse the project with the energy required to bring it to fruition. There is already deep concern over the government’s aim to regularise the fee structures of private universities. Equality of access is one thing but lowering the benchmark of universities quite another. The Bill on the entry of foreign universities is still hanging fire. Private universities and foreign universities cannot be on par with central and state universities — especially when it comes to fee structures. As the row over Arjun Singh’s quota imposition has shown, realpolitik has taken precedence over any long-term pursuit of excellence. So, no matter how much the seat-on-merit concept is bandied about, doubts still remain as to the extent to which universities will be allowed to be autonomous. If it’s government-style autonomy as we’ve known it, there is little cause for cheer. To be able to fill up all the seats that the 30 new universities will have on offer by 2015, the secondary school sector has to expand and primary education improved drastically to encourage retention.
The expansion of higher education cannot work without strengthening the foundations of the system. Universal primary education by 2010 was once our goal. And, of course, we have nowhere near made the grade so far.