Excellence is an island

August 29, 1997

As Britain debates the detail of the Dearing report, India, 50 years after independence, faces much the same issues, but on a very different scale

Nehru's vision of universities emphasised a liberal education that would develop a wider perspective and build character. In India this has now been replaced by a more pragmatic approach that relates education to the needs of society.

A 1986 national policy on education portrays it as a process of empowerment through the development of skills, knowledge and values; and as an instrument of social change, in its provision of opportunities for upward economic and social mobility.

In the five decades since independence the Indian higher education system has been transformed from an elite system into a mass system. The number of university-level institutions has increased from 18 to 229, and colleges from 591 to over 8,000; there are now nearly six million students instead of 200,000.

This rapid growth, and the revised expectations of the role of higher education, have raised issues of equity, access and quality. And as in Britain and other Commonwealth countries, Indian universities must function under ever-increasing financial constraints.

Six million students may appear to be a lot, but it represents less than 7 per cent of the population aged 18-23. There is clearly a need to ensure that a much larger proportion of young people, especially those from the weaker sections of society, can enrol in higher education and benefit from it.

Financial constraints mean that a further increase in the number of colleges is not feasible, and from past experience, not desirable. Distance education appears to be the most practicable solution, and is in keeping with the global paradigm shift in higher education from an instruction-centred college/university model to a learner-centred, integrated network model based on student initiative and access to learning resources.

Indian tertiary distance education began in 1982, in the form of correspondence courses at the University of Delhi. It has grown considerably since then and today there are eight open universities and 59 correspondence course institutes.

When the first open university was established in 1982, instruction and assessment methods changed substantially. The open universities follow rigorous instructions in the development of materials, and imparting of instruction provide regular counselling through study centre networks and make use of the electronic media.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University, charged with providing open distance education and coordinating the distance education system, has devised the open education network, a media networking and teleconferencing system to link all distance teaching institutions in the country. OPENET is poised to facilitate voice, image and data transmission through two-way audio and video-conferencing.

Soon each state will have an open university and about 50 per cent of the total higher education intake will be catered for through the open system. The system caters for those who desire a liberal arts education. It has also noted that the higher education model requiring selective learning over a specified period of time is being replaced by the model of lifelong learning for all.

Open universities provide industrial and related training, extension education and continuing education in professional areas, and plan to satisfy the educational and training needs of about 20 million people.

In a large democratic nation such as India, where social and economic disparities are a matter of deep concern, special opportunities must be provided for the traditionally under-privileged sections of society. These include women, the scheduled castes and tribes, the handicapped and the people of socially backward areas.

Reservations are provided for students from these categories (except women) and admission qualifications relaxed for them. Financial assistance is available in the form of freeships and scholarships.

Yet inequalities remain between the enrolment of general and scheduled castes and tribes, and between genders. One result of the reservations policy is that students on the same programme may vary in competence. Teachers and institutions have to adjust to this situation.

In the 1960s, and again in the last decade, a large number of academic institutions were established without adequate planning. Some lack appropriate infrastructure and adequately qualified academic staff. Institutions of undoubted quality, such as the institutes of technology and some well-known universities in the metropolitan areas, coexist with colleges best classified as "sub-viable". The situation has been described as the existence of islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity and has become a matter for serious concern.

Steps taken to ensure quality include the setting up of the National Board of Accreditation by the All India Council for Technical Education and of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council by the University Grants Commission. Assessment is voluntary although in future special funding from government agencies may depend on accreditation by these bodies.

Most universities in India are of the teaching-cum-affiliating type. While postgraduate teaching and research is carried out on the main campus, undergraduate education is largely carried out through affiliated colleges. Large universities have more than 300 affiliated colleges. All colleges follow the same syllabus and students appear for a common examination.

Conducting examinations is the universities' most important administrative function. The affiliation system was devised to regulate and standardise the quality of education. But with the tremendous increase in the number of institutions it has become counter-productive. Some sub-standard colleges are piggy-backing on the reputation of the mother institution. The system is a drag on institutions that would like to revise and update curricula and introduce innovative programmes.

The concept of autonomous colleges was introduced about ten years ago, allowing colleges autonomy in academic matters.

To date only 110 institutions have sought autonomy and most educationists agree that the programme of granting autonomy to the colleges needs to be vigorously pursued, perhaps to the extent of making every college autonomous and responsible for itself.

The colleges need attention. Far more of them must get quality improvement programmes.

It is significant that 88 per cent of students are in undergraduate programmes in arts, social science, commerce and science. These degrees provide some social status but do not count for much in the employment market.

An ambitious vocationalisation programme has been launched by the University Grants Commission to make these programmes more meaningful. The idea is to produce graduates who meet the requirements of potential employers or who are able to start out on their own.

Indian higher education is largely funded by the government. Its share in funding has increased from a little more than 49 per cent in 1950/51 to about 90 per cent today. The government spends 3.7 per cent of domestic national product on education. Higher education got most of this money (25 per cent) during the Fourth Five Year Plan period (1969-74) but now gets 8 per cent under the eighth Five Year Plan.

The government has promised that the general education allotment would be increased to 6 per cent of DNP by the end of the ninth Five Year Plan. However, higher education's share is unlikely to increase. Governments, both at the centre and in the states, are showing an increasing reluctance to support it.

In May this year a discussion paper on government subsidies in India called spending on higher education a "non-merit" subsidy. The reason for this is apparently the belief that the benefits of higher education (unlike those of primary education) do not extend beyond the immediate recipient. Unfortunately this categorisation does not recognise the very positive role of higher education in socio-economic development.

The indications are that government support for higher education will decline in the near future. Universities will have to generate more resources themselves and control their spending.

In future government funding may be related to the unit cost of education. The UGC and the Association of Indian Universities have worked out ways of defining unit costs, and universities are being advised how to determine the units costs of education in each of their faculties.

The contribution made by the tuition fee as a source of funding has steadily decreased from about 36 per cent in 1950/51 to less than 5 per cent in some institutions. The possibility of students financially contributing more to their education is also under review.

With the growing imbalance between demand and supply of higher education facilities, many private bodies and trusts have established colleges in professional areas of education, mainly engineering, medicine and management. Since the mid-1980s there has been a spurt in the number of such institutions.

Many maintain high academic standards and have adopted a professional approach in operating the colleges. However, quite a few institutions lack the appropriate infrastructure and financial and/or political profit seems to be the underlying motive for their establishment.

Although the fees charged by these colleges are beyond the capacity of the average Indian, access for low and middle-income groups has been facilitated by judgements of the apex court. It is now mandatory for the colleges to admit on merit 50 per cent of students to "free seats" that require payment of nominal fees.

There is a realisation that private initiative in higher education is, perhaps, necessary. The universities are looking to society, and especially industry, for meaningful cooperation.

Indian universities would welcome collaboration with foreign universities on the development and implementation of their academic programmes. Many leading universities have signed memorandums of understanding with universities in the United States, Europe and with Commonwealth countries.

One disturbing development has been the influx of foreign universities that prefer to team up with professional organisations and little-known institutes that are not part of the higher education system.

The programmes offered by the foreign universities are mainly in the professional area, especially management. They attract rich students of less merit, who are unable to secure admission to the more reputed institutions in India. They are also possibly unaware that their degrees are unlikely to be recognised.

K. B. Powar is secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities.

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