World view: Expansion without funding

October 5, 2001

India looks at privatisation, industry links and higher fees as a way out of its crisis.

The problems of India's higher education sector seem to defy solutions. The system remains entrenched in an outdated tradition established by the colonial rulers in the 19th and early part of the past century for a specific purpose suited to them.

Conditions are deteriorating as a result of expansion and are made even worse by shrinking resources. Declining quality, inadequate facilities and a mismatch between education and skills requirements have become crucial themes in social and political debate.

The rate of expansion has been phenomenal. Today there are 200 universities, 8,000 colleges, 5 million students and ,000 teachers in higher education. The figures are impressive, but the first casualty of the expansion phenomenon is quality. This could not be maintained in the absence of proper planning, adequate facilities and, above all, clarity of purpose. It may be worthwhile to note that India needs more expansion in higher education because, out of 1 billion people in the country, only 6 per cent of the relevant age group studies in colleges and universities.

Except for a couple of private institutions, India's universities are financed by the national or a state government. The colleges are also largely funded by government. Students pay a nominal fee that constitutes less than 10 per cent of the budget of the institution. Thus, higher education is heavily subsidised. Faced with a severe resource crunch, the government and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are encouraging colleges and universities to generate their own funds and ultimately become self-reliant, a truly utopian objective.

Developments during the past two or three years indicate that the government is seriously considering privatising higher education. It is rumoured that prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will soon announce a privately funded university in memory of the late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

The concept of privatising higher education is being advocated in view of the changing economic policy of liberalisation and globalisation, launched three years ago. The latest issue in the debate on financing higher education is that norms of funding are being revised and institutions may receive reduced grants. The academics and the educational administrators, on the other hand, have expressed a strong feeling that government must not abandon its responsibility for liberal funding of higher education. However, there is consensus in favour of upward revision of fee structures and the creation, through donations and other sources, of a fund for the development of the institutions.

Lately, the resource crunch and the funding of higher education in general have brought into focus the vital issue of university-industry interaction. At present, there are hardly any dealings between the two, except for the half-a-dozen universities with management faculties.

Changed economic policies have thrown the country open to influences of globalisation and have opened India's markets, increasing demand for more trained employees and calls for more research and development expenditure. India invests only 1 per cent of what Japan devotes to research and development. Many multinationals and joint ventures have already launched projects that demand employment in a particular sector. University-industry interaction, therefore, has become a very important aspect of higher education. We must not miss the opportunity this delivers.

Another recent development is the reiteration of the need for vocational education at the higher education level. There is a feeling that general undergraduate education in India imparts perfunctory knowledge of a few subjects, with the result that students neither develop employable skills nor become fit for self-employment.

To enhance employability, in 1994-95 the UGC launched a scheme of vocationalisation of first-degree education as recommended by the 1993 Dhar Committee. Until then, the formation of vocational skills had been a neglected area and the present scheme offers a better opportunity for employment without undermining the existing undergraduate academic programmes.

The policy-makers have realised that any disruption in the existing structure will be resisted. They hope that the scheme of vocational education will not become another example of well-intentioned but badly managed and poorly implemented programmes. The most important aspect of this programme is the training of students at industrial plants. This, so far, has been a weak link in the Indian system.

India's universities have not yet occupied a central position, so they are unable to give direction either to society or to government. Rather, the sector is at the receiving end.

The latest proof of this was the formation in September 1994 of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council on the initiative of the UGC. It functions as a body for grading institutions of higher education and their programmes, helping universities to realise their objectives, encourage self-evaluation, helping them to improve teaching and research, and introduce other reforms.

Its establishment was a laudable step toward quality assurance and makes the system more transparent and accountable. Let us hope it works.

Prasenjit Maiti lectures in political science at Burdwan University, West Bengal.

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