From where I sit - Quality tested by growing pains

October 2, 2008

The quality of a university is best measured by the kind of student it turns out rather than the kind it takes in. How, though, do you improve quality in the midst of accelerating expansion? The answer to this question is one that has India scratching its head.

A quality-improvement exercise in universities is unfolding even as the Government seeks to expand access. At the University of Delhi, where I teach, highly paid teaching assistantships are available for bright PhD students for the first time in the history of higher education. Those, like me, who pursued doctoral research without any contribution from university coffers can only imagine what it means to be able to trawl libraries and pursue fieldwork without fretting about finances.

This commitment to enhancing quality has come at a particularly propitious time in terms of government funding. Between 2002 and 2007, 7.68 per cent of the total budget outlay was spent on education, but this is likely to be as high as 19 per cent during the period 2007-12. That this is sorely needed is clear from the abysmal enrolment ratio of those in the traditional university age group - 90 per cent of potential students have no access to institutions of higher education. If this figure is reduced to 85 per cent, as many as 1,500 universities will have to be created.

There are currently about 400 universities in India. In other words, we are not even scratching the surface of the problem, so the Government's budgetary benevolence may have to expand further as time goes on.

The other method of expansion, also centrally funded, is through inclusion - by extending a quota system to include socially disadvantaged classes. This has immediate consequences. At the University of Delhi, while the earlier reservation of places for students through affirmative action stood at 22.5 per cent of the student body, it will now be as high as half. Mercifully, judicial guidelines ensure that the number of students admitted on account of academic calibre cannot be reduced. This makes the arithmetic even more formidable - a 54 per cent jump in student numbers in just three years.

The biggest staff recruitment drive in the history of this university will now have to be launched in order to hire 646 new academics. This is easier said than done. At the core of the institution's malaise is a time-consuming over-centralised recruitment system that simply cannot respond to such largesse. Three members - a government nominee, the vice-chancellor and the pro vice-chancellor - form part of all selection committees. If this remains the case, at least ten years will elapse before all the required appointments can be made.

At the moment, though, the problem is summed up by the phrase plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Will the Government grit its teeth and relinquish its leverage in hiring faculty? Will university administrators release their grip on the appointment process? Will appointments shift towards a system of peer judgment and search processes? This may be the way out of the tunnel if quality is not to be the biggest casualty in this time of enormous and rapid expansion.

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