It appears that educational institutions in India have been plagued by the perquisites of the Nehruvian state that guaranteed an endless flow of taxpayers’ money without any accountability in terms of quality of teaching and research. But the yardstick of efficiency, productivity and utilisation of resources, the mushroom expansion of the education system has broken down completely . Insensitive to the changing context of contemporary life and unresponsive to the changes of today and tomorrow, higher education may be referred to as an immobile colossus. It is so absorbed in trying to preserve its structural form that it does now have the time to consider its own larger objectives.

Further, due to the absence of a single machinery to look after the planning of higher education and centre-state relations on the basis of cooperative federalism in higher education, there is no viable alternative. A vicious cycle of mediocrity has come to prevail which puts the entire education system beyond redemption.

It may be politically expedient to increase the number of colleges and universities in order to make them accessible to all. This expansion would not have marred education had it been accompanied by sincere measures of consolidation and standardisation, as also by a perspective plan of linking universities with production units for ensuring growth targets.

When the Centre unveiled its New Education Policy, beneficiaries of higher education were sceptical about the prospect of privatisation. However, the subject remained a debating topic until cuts in government grants began to take effect.

Many states started encouraging privatisation of higher learning, particularly professional education, and several universities were inclined to generate funds through distance education. vocational courses. Higher fees were introduced for these centres and the hitherto astonishingly low fees for general education were also increased. But it was observed that such

initiatives were actually cosmetic attempts to cope with reality, indeed the fact that the

system itself had become dysfunctional.

Students of the higher education centres form a rather privileged group on whom the state spends a lot and expects a suitable return. Opening the doors of higher education to students who are not serious, while the masses remain illiterate, is a luxury the state can ill afford. The only justification for state funding of higher education can be the promotion of excellence in society’s pursuit of knowledge. Enough facilities are available for those who want to make it to the higher levels of learning.

Correspondence courses, open universities and online learning show the way.

More often than not, higher education delays the days of fruitful endeavour for the average learner. Like Eliza Doolittle in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, who was transformed from a self-sufficient flower girl to a useless society lady, these young men actually become less self-reliant as a result of their wasteful study. Also, the unwarranted expansion bestows a false sense of righteousness on the political, bureaucratic and educational leadership, preventing them from shouldering the responsibility of discharging their duty.

There is a popular misconception that students are the beneficiaries of higher education. A nation like ours, which stipulates no higher education for its President, for its ministers, and for its chief of industry, is able to get all the clerks it needs without waiting for them to be graduates and postgraduates. Considering that there is so little available for elementary education, is it fair to demand subsidised higher education even if there is no economic or professional need for it?

Because of the unplanned growth of higher education, there is a shortage of qualified people in certain disciplines particularly in the frontier areas of knowledge and technology. The system is thus unable to fulfil its primary objective of providing manpower to a knowledge-intensive economy. The Kothari Commission pointed out that the average standard of higher education has been falling and that rapid expansion has resulted in the lowering of quality. If the CAG reports are any indication, there is little doubt that the major problem of our university education system is its unplanned growth. The shameful performance of our postgraduates in NET etc raises questions about the credibility of degrees awarded by our highest institutions of learning.

Restructuring the University Grants Commission, autonomy for major institutes, emphasis on “outcome-based learning”, and formation of a national testing agency might be radical steps towards enhancing quality without putting a sizeable burden on the government exchequer. While about 6 per cent of the GDP is allocated to the education sector almost on a regular basis to lend an impetus to quality education, a revised system of fund allocation would be welcome to improve India’s prospects as a nation that is keen on building its human capital. With an eye on world-class infrastructure, some premier institutes could have been supported in addition to the previous allocations.

Higher education suffers from a massive faculty crunch, and it is certain that hiring quality teachers for world class universities will prove a challenge before the HRD ministry. It is encouraging to aim at excellence, but unlike the proliferation of business schools, a world class institute cannot be established in haste. A high-level committee of the HRD ministry has criticised the chaotic expansion in higher education and has suggested the formation of a single apex body instead of other regulatory bodies like UGC, AICTE and MCI. It has also recommended that the government should interfere less in academic and administrative matters.

Unfortunately, the Centre is yet to venture in the right direction. The government must wake up to the failure of its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and midday meal schemes and learn from its mistakes prior to venturing towards upgradation of world class universities. Envisaging world class universities without aproper vision would be delusory; it is like asking for the moon. Let us hope that the most ennobling legacy that our Prime Minister can bequeath to the country is pursuit of excellence in higher education, lest we should forget that Modi’s “vibrant Gujarat’ had registered a consistent decline in most of the learning indicators a decade ago, often falling below the national average in both literacy and numbers.

The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata