What is the common thread that ties rampant poverty across the country, the Chennai floods, the six-lane highway merging into a one-lane bridge in New Delhi, urban migration to Mumbai and other metros, student suicides in Kota and Hyderabad, and the recent events in JNU? It is our higher education system. If the nerve centre of the body is faulty, every part suffers and India&’s nerve centre is in crisis. It is broken on all fronts that matter and is disconnected from the needs and aspirations of all its stakeholders — students, parents, society, industry and the nation.
Just consider the following. The gross enrolment ratio to higher education in India is a mere 23 per cent compared to developed nations where this ratio is anywhere from 50-100 per cent. Our islands of excellence, the IITs, IIMs and AIIMS, are all single-field institutions — an ineffective model that serves less than 0.5 per cent of the enrolled students. Parents are spending $50 billion per year on private coaching and overseas education for their children. That is, they are either trying to improve their child&’s chances of getting into premier institutions in India or completely giving up on the country&’s education system. According to one study, 75-90 per cent of students graduating from Indian institutions are considered unemployable. As a result, corporations are investing in six months to a year&’s training to prepare these graduates for productive work. It is blatantly apparent that everyone is paying a hefty price for this broken and disconnected system.
Fortunately, India has done well in times of crises. Remember the green revolution (at a time of food shortage), the white revolution (during milk shortage) and the 1991 economic liberalisation? The need of the hour is urgent and comprehensive reforms to transform the higher education system on all the key dimensions — scale, scope, structure, excellence, impact and speed. One way of thinking about this revolution is by imagining that one is building a new house.
Here are the six key steps:
Vision: Having clarity about the kind of house you want to have.
Team: Selecting an architect and a construction company to build it.
Cleaning up: Removing the hurdles and mess that come in the way of laying a foundation.
Foundation: Laying a base that would stand the test of time.
Rooms: Building the spaces that serve a unique purpose.
Roof: Making sure that the main purpose of a home is served — having a roof over the head.
Each step and the overall sequence are important. Would you start laying the foundation without having a vision and plan? What would you do if you built the house and then realised that the builders had forgotten to include the right materials in the foundation? Let&’s address the steps mentioned.
First, vision and team would entail aiming to provide excellent education for all. The USA, South Korea, Singapore and many countries have demonstrated that universal access to excellent education is achievable.
Cleaning up would mean discontinuing the affiliated college system in which only about 75 per cent of the students get their credentials and is a bane of our undergraduate education. We must also eliminate the requirement of getting approvals and licences to establish a new university from the University Grants Commission, All India Council for Technical Education and additional Central and state government agencies.
Third, we must nurture, recognise and reward values of excellence, honesty, integrity and hard work. Ultimately, the reputation and prestige of high-impact universities rests on the work and commitment of its faculty members. We must attract, prepare and retain the best and brightest minds of the country to become faculty members. The salary and incentive structure must be decoupled from the rest of the government machinery. A tenure system, to foster higher accountability and better results, must be incorporated. Massive open online courses and technology-led innovation have to be the bedrock of our higher education system.
Coming to the rooms of this new house, the country and states need a mix of world class multi-disciplinary research universities, graduate colleges and community colleges.
Community colleges prepare students to reach research universities, colleges or learn vocational skills. It is a proven model in the USA, a nation that leads the world in higher education. In addition, we must stop replicating the old models of narrowly specialised institutions such as IITs, IIMs and AIIMS and focus more on the multi-disciplinary research university model.
Finally, students are the most important stakeholders for colleges and universities, the largest segment of the college community, and the future of society and nation. Thus, higher education institutions must focus on and deliver the best learning opportunities and pathways for enriching the lives of students and their careers.
India was once called the “Golden Bird”. We are 1.3 billion people strong. If we can send a rover to Mars, win Nobel prizes, entertain billions of people and win medals in global competitions, we can surely transform the country&’s ailing higher education system.
Achieving this end is not just about human resource development; it is also about economy, defence, energy, environment, geopolitics, global competitiveness, health and water. It is about fulfilling the aspirations of the youth and their families. To top it all, it is about a more prosperous and peaceful society.
The writer, a graduate from IIT, Kharagpur, has Published a book called building golden india: How to unleash India&’s vast potential and transform its higher education system. He has a mba degree from Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a former administrator, UC Berkeley and UC, San Diego