Guest Column | Restructure higher education system to achieve NEP goals
It needs to be realised that to achieve the ambitious target of enrolment in higher education under NEP 2020, it is not necessary only to open new universities, but strengthening the existing HEIs can help to achieve the target to a large extent
Ambitious targets have been fixed in the National Education Policy 2020 for the country. “The policy says that all ‘higher education institutions’ (HEIs) shall aim to be multidisciplinary by 2040. By 2030, there shall be at least one multidisciplinary HEI in or near every district. The policy aims for the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education to increase to 50% by 2035 from 26.3% in 2018”.
The word ‘university’ has its origin in the Latin word ‘universitas’ meaning “the whole, total, the universe, the world”. Thus in the true sense of the word, universities are institutions of higher learning offering courses in almost all disciplines; these are not subject-specific institutions of higher learning, a better word for such institutions could be colleges or schools. It was with this vision that developed countries created such HEIs and named them universities where provisions were made for curricula delivery in varied and diverse subjects.
The Americans realised it more than one-and-a-half century back by raising multi-disciplinary universities by enacting the Land Grant Bill passed by Congress in 1862 after its introduction by a Congress member named Smith Morril. Under the provision of the Act, each US state was granted 30,000 acres of Federal land which could be sold/used to build a university. Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue University, Ohio State University, University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin are among the earliest land grant universities which have now attained world-class status. All land grant universities are multi-faculty universities and offer courses in agriculture, engineering, medicine, veterinary science, business management, law, social sciences and humanities. About one-fifth of all students seeking degrees in the US are enrolled in land grant universities.
India adopted a truncated US land grant pattern
Given the extraordinary success of the US land grant pattern of education, India too attempted to establish such universities; the first was established at Pantnagar in Uttarakhand, named GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in 1961, followed by many other such universities numbering more than 75 now. The world-famous Punjab Agricultural University, credited with ushering in the Green Revolution, too was established on this pattern. These universities immensely contributed to making India a food-sufficient state from a food-deficient one. This happened even though India adopted a rather truncated US land grant pattern, only for the agricultural sciences generally with components of agriculture, agricultural engineering, veterinary sciences, home science and basic sciences. Had we adopted the complete land grant pattern of education, the benefit would have been manifold. While reviewing the land grant pattern of education in India, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), New Delhi, made several suggestions in its policy paper (1992), including the following:
“The present practice of proliferation of agricultural universities through the creation of new universities, campuses, colleges and through bifurcation of existing universities is indeed counterproductive and not in the interest of quality education. This practice needs to be stopped at the state level. On the other hand, there is an obvious need for the consolidation and downsizing of existing institutions for efficient utilisation of limited resources”.
Need for consolidating universities
Unfortunately, those who matter did not take notice of this advice. Instead of consolidating these universities with the addition of other faculties such as medicine, humanities or social sciences etc; bifurcation or trifurcation of the universities was witnessed. For instance, veterinary and animal sciences universities were established at the same location/campus by bifurcating the PAU; CCS Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar; Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, Jabalpur; and Rajasthan Agricultural University, Bikaner. Further, several horticultural universities were established, segregating the discipline from general agriculture. Several colleges were elevated to the level of universities without ensuring sufficient infrastructure and resources. To cite an example, the Gujarat Agricultural University was split into four in 2004; all four colleges were upgraded into four universities. Surprisingly, even a small state like Kerala has three agricultural universities — Kerala Agricultural University (Trichur), Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (Pookode) and Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (Panangad).
The decision of the government to establish multi-disciplinary HEIs/ universities should be welcomed, but the target of establishing at least one such institution of higher learning (by the year 2030) in each district (total of 739) looks like a bridge too far; equally challenging is the task to meet the target of 50 % GER by the end of the year 2035.
Now is the time for course corrections. All those universities which came up because of the bi- or tri-furcation of the existing universities should be merged with their parent universities. Further, consolidation of the universities should be initiated by merging the subject-specific universities (medical, veterinary, agriculture etc) into one multi-faculty HEI/university. This would also optimise resources through the judicious use of infrastructure and human resources. Though the Indian Government cannot afford to allocate 30,000 acres of land to each state for building a university as was provisioned in the land grant act of the USA, adequate funds need to be spared to accomplish the vision contained in the National Policy of Education.
Strengthen existing HEIs
It needs to be realised that to achieve the ambitious target of enrolment in higher education, it is not necessary only to open new universities, but strengthening the existing HEIs can help to achieve the target to a large extent. Enrolment in our universities and colleges is much less as compared to those in developed countries. Surprisingly, there are private universities on record with enrolment up to two digits only and many where it could not reach four digits. This is in stark contrast to universities in the USA, where generally a university enrols more than 20,000 students. It is a misconception that the cause of education could be better pursued by opening universities; the colleges could serve the purpose equally well, and that too shedding the burden of a university set-up. Imperial College of London remained a college for more than a century, but it mostly ranked amongst the top ten institutions of higher learning, at the world level.
The tiny state of Punjab has 27 universities: 11 public and 16 private. All the public universities could be consolidated into just four public universities. For instance, one multi-faculty university at Ludhiana could house faculty of agriculture (PAU Ludhiana), veterinary (GADVASU), medical (two medical colleges i.e. DMCH and CMCH, dental and homeo colleges etc.), engineering and humanities etc. Similarly, Guru Nanak Dev University at Amritsar could be strengthened by merging various faculties of the region. The Central University of Punjab at Bathinda could cater to the needs of western districts, and universities/colleges could be merged/affiliated to make it multi-disciplinary in the true sense of the word. The same could follow for the Punjabi University, Patiala. Further, the state should constitute a commission to monitor the functioning of all the private universities and come up with recommendations on which ones should be reverted to the college status; which could be merged and which to be discontinued, in the larger interest of the education.
No one should forget that education and health are the primary duties of any government, and it should not shed this responsibility simply by allowing private players to take these over. Adequate funds should be spared for this sacred cause rising above the politics of the vote bank. Lessons need to be learnt from the pandemic where it was largely government hospitals, government schools and government transport, which came to our rescue.
(The writer is the former dean of postgraduate studies, PAU, Ludhiana. Views expressed are personal)