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India?s higher education needs policy

The government has to play the role of facilitator and regulator of quality in curricula and institutions

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 23:32 IST

When the new state of Chhattisgarh was formed, it passed the Private Sector University Act in 2002. Result: Overnight 117 private universities were set up in backyards of houses and shopping complexes. Two years later, the Supreme Court declared them illegal and ordered closure. Over 15,000 students, who invested considerable time and money, were left in the lurch.

The example highlights the sorry state of India's higher education system. Nonexistent policy, poor regulation, severe resource crunch, substandard quality of education, lack of innovation, outdated curricula and political interference have all compounded the chaos.

The mushrooming of medical and engineering colleges in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra is another example of how an overwhelming demand got around an indifferent government. In fact, private sector engineering colleges, which accounted for 15 per cent of the seats in 1960, now account for 84.4 per cent of seats. The proportion of private medical colleges is also rising. From 6.8 per cent seats in 1960 it is 40 per cent now. The irony is that despite UGC affiliations, many of these universities and colleges are no less than education shops.

The original bill to set up the UGC in 1953 provided that its approval, apart from that of the education ministry, would be necessary to establish a new university. The original draft of the bill also gave the UGC the authority to derecognise any degree. However, just before the act was passed, these two key provisions were deleted and the commission became a mere coordinating body invoking standards rather than monitoring and regulatory institution.

It is evident that the lack of policy regulation has a direct bearing on the quality and quantity of institutions. In a scathing CAG report in 2002, the UGC was found to have hardly used its supervisory power of inspection. Only six universities were evaluated for standard of teaching up to 2000. It was also faulted for not being able to develop parameters to monitor the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of change. It found that the universities were not only running unrecognized courses and degrees but also that the recognitions of colleges by UGC per se were falling. From 1993 to 2000, the number of colleges increased from 7,958 to 11,831, but only 5,169, or 44 per cent of the total were recognised.

If the policy has been clearly floundering, resource allocation has been abysmal. Public expenditure on higher education per student dipped from Rs 7,676 in 1990-91 to Rs 5,522 in 2002-03. On a more macro scale, while the government spends 4 per cent of its GNP on the entire education sector, only 0.4 per cent is spent on higher education. That's not all. Access to higher education remains limited to seven per cent of our population in the age group 17-23. Contrast this with some other countries: US and Korea -- 80 per cent; UK -60 per cent; and global average - 20 per cent.

Higher education cannot wait until primary and secondary education is made completely universal. The traditional sequencing of first taking care of primary education, followed by secondary and higher education does not work any more. And more elementary education will lead to a demand for more higher education. In fact, a World Bank and UNESCO study in 2000 said higher education in developing countries not only improves individual lives but also enriches entire societies. It helps increase wages and productivity and promotes independence and initiative, both valuable intellectual resources for any nation.

A report "Policy Framework for Reforms in Education" prepared in 2000 to assess the need gap in higher education, by Mukesh Ambani and Kumarmangalam Birla for the Prime Minister's Council on Trade and Industry, projected that by 2015 we need to double the number of colleges in India. The report said that the task would require an investment of Rs 11,000 crore. It recommended that 60 per cent of the recurring and non-recurring expenses would have to come from the private sector.

The argument in favour of private investment to tackle the rising demand for quality higher education is not a new one. As the next section shows some of the top-of-the-line universities abroad run on private initiatives while the government plays the role of a moderator. The issue has been debated several times at the highest level. Some of these issues were covered in the Private Universities (Establishment and Regulation) Bill 1995. But the bill is still pending in the Rajya Sabha.

The muddle

* Lack of a comprehensive central policy on higher education

* Curricula not in tune with present day market needs

* Mushrooming private universities with no standards

* Severe government resource crunch to build infrastructure

First Published: Nov 28, 2005 02:55 IST