Tottering Tertiary Education


Higher or tertiary education has been in thick of news over last few weeks, albeit for wrong reasons. There  is tussle between Delhi University teachers and University Grants Commission (UGC) over leaching load of college teachers, promotion policy for college teachers is in turmoil, education policy is in news for mostly wrong reasons and IIM Bill is again stuck in tracks. The silver lining is that for the first time an Indian institution, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, broke into the top 30 in the UK’s Times Higher Education’s Asian Universities ranking. It jumped 10 places to no 27.

For a country of its size, history, tradition, culture and contribution to global body of knowledge, India’s current status in global higher education is unsatisfactory to say the least. It is indeed a shame that educational system of a society whose most fundamental tenets are based on deductive argument, has lost the element of questioning and argumentative analysis. We don’t educate our youth enough, we don’t attract best of talent in teaching, we don’t spend enough on creating state of the art infrastructure for research and we constantly lose our top minds to foreign universities which offer high quality learning and conducive environment for advancement of knowledge. If India seriously wants to realize its oft repeated ambition of becoming a world leader, its educational system, especially its tertiary education system has to improve, radically and comprehensively.

Unfavorable numbers

Indian higher education is among the top three in the world, along with the United States and China. According to All India Survey of Higher Education 2014-15 (AISHE) (Provisional data), there are 757 Universities, 38,056 Colleges and 11,922 Stand Alone Institutions in the country. As per the survey, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for higher or tertiary education in India is a little over 23 per cent. This is quite low compared with the global average of around 30 per cent. China has a GER close to 30 per cent; Brazil (35 per cent), US (34 per cent), Japan (55 per cent) and UK (58 per cent) are much higher placed. It is generally assumed that higher the GER at tertiary level, better is the country placed on research, innovation and economic rankings.

Even more distressful is the fact that the enrolment ratio for PhD is as low as 0.34 per cent. This is when the world is witnessing a boom in PhD graduates. China has already overtaken the US as the largest PhD producing country. Surely, the quality of a Chinese PhD is not close to that of the US, and it takes fewer years to complete a PhD in China than in the US, but the bottom line is that countries that India intends to compete in global marketplace are churning out lot more researchers than us. It is ironical that even though a larger fraction of students enroll in science in India than in the US, the EU, Germany and the UK, India produces just about 4,500 PhDs in science and engineering each year, compared to 25,000 in the US and 30,000 in China. This lack of focus on research has prevented spillover effects of innovation on the economy, which could ratchet up country’s overall productivity.

Also our pupil to teacher ratio for tertiary education is a low 24 which is worse than even Pakistan. According to a UNESCO study, China had a Pupil to teacher ratio of 19.5 in 2011; Brazil (20.5, 2013), US (12.5, 2013) and Singapore (13.5, 2013) were much ahead of India. Another worrisome aspect is the massively skewed gender ratio in teaching. At all-India level there are merely 64 female teachers per 100 male teachers, as per AISHE.

ratcheting-upThese indicators underscore the  poor quality of education reflected in the poor global rankings. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016, there was no Indian university in top 250. In the top 400 universities, India has only two institutions, namely IISc Bangalore (in 251-300 Category) and IIT Bombay (in 351400  category). Compared to this, China had two universities in top 50 and eight in top 400. To be fair, though, India’s performance has started to improve on Asian level as stated earlier. Also, it should be noted that Indian institutions also tend to score lower because of very low internationalization level, which is a crucial parameter for rankings.

But ranking are not the only indicators of the poor state of affairs in education. The knowledge creation is another aspect where India lags far behind. Indian academic institutions are not hot for research and except for IITs and IISc, not many institutions are devoting enough resources for basic research which could result in patent filing. As for writing research papers, an average IIT faculty publishes one paper per year compared to six that an average MIT faculty publishes and an average IIM Ahmedabad faculty’s teaching workload is over 50 percent more than the international average. All of these reflect a substandard educational superstructure with islands of quality institutes followed by a large number of poor quality institutions.

What ails the system?

Broadly, we are facing three fundamental problems as far as higher or tertiary education is concerned. First and foremost, we are staring at a severe shortage of adequately trained manpower at virtually every level of workforce. What this means is there is a huge mismatch in demand and supply of tertiary education. Second, the quality of teaching and learning is quite poor and is not commensurate with our national aspirations. Third, there is very low expenditure on knowledge creation which could foster innovation.

workforceAccording to an Ernst & Young study, by 2020 India would require 40 million university seats, which is 14 million seats more than present, if it has to reach the GER of 30 percent as mandated by the 12th five year plan. Further, by this time, the country would need 500 million skilled workers. This can be made good only by setting up 800 more universities and roughly 40,000 colleges, the study said. And we have not even uttered the word quality yet. By any yardstick, it would be a tall order for the government, alone or aided by the private sector. Needless to say, innovative methods are required to expand the higher educational infrastructure rapidly.

Over next couple of decades,  India is expected to emerge as one of the largest economies of the world. This massive growth would result in swelling of middle class which could reach around 500 million mark by 2025, according to a report by McKinsey. Further, in about a decade, the country would have the youngest population in the world with average age less of than 30 years. As India would slowly overtake China as the largest population in the age group requiring tertiary education, there would be a huge demand for colleges and universities. It is therefore not without reason that the 12th five year plan of the Govt. of India has marked expansion as one of the three central pillars of education.

But just churning out graduates with degree is not enough. Quality is a prerequisite for employment. And increasingly, quality is not a static factor. It is a dynamic concept wherein employees need to be smart enough to learn new things and adopt to new, shifting job requirements in accordance with the changing market realities. Such workforce is by attitude flexible and adaptable. Unfortunately, current system does not prepare students for this paradigm. And direct fallout of a poor educational system is unemployable, inflexible workforce. According to former NASSCOM Chairman Kiran Karnik, companies are able to take less than ten per cent of applicants which is a very low selection ratio. Level of employable graduates in healthcare, manufacturing and financial sectors is around 50 percent; the same for IT and BPO sectors is over 70 percent. Naturally, we are not churning out graduates who could take up jobs straightaway. This forces most companies to put additional resources in training of new recruits which adds up on cost. While it is true that unemployability is a byproduct of poor academic background of students entering the tertiary education, the culpability of educational system in not improving them sufficiently can also not be questioned.

Quality of education is an outcome of investment in resources. And no resource is harder to procure, deploy and nurture as the human resource. For long, the poor quality of faculties in colleges and universities has remained a completely unaddressed issue, brushed under the carpet, the result of which is visible today. Furthermore, there is a chronic shortage of college and university teachers; different estimates show Indian colleges and universities are facing a faculty shortage of 30-40 percent. This translates into overburdened teachers which is clearly unsustainable if even basic quality has to be delivered. Result of such stretched workforce is that teachers, even when interested, cannot put extra effort in improving the quality of education they impart. Further complicating the matter is that most faculty members start teaching with no training in teaching which limits their ability to engage students and encourage original thinking. Next, the rigid, outdated curricula do not allow much scope for innovative teaching. The revision of curricula is mostly a non event kind of exercise with very little input from either subject experts or industry.

prof-yash-palFinal cog in understanding the poor quality of imparted education is the remuneration of faculties. Barring some top universities, most universities and colleges pay their teachers poorly, thus failing to attract good talent into teaching. Even our premier institutions don’t pay enough to bring high end faculty from either industry or foreign universities. Shail Kumar, an alumnus of IIT and author who has also been associated with University of California (UC) at Berkley and UC, San Diego, says, “We are not attracting the best and the brightest talent to become faculty members in our colleges and universities. Unless we change this reality we will continue to fall short on our needs and aspirations and any transformation will be on thin ice.” (Full interview in later pages).

Knowledge creation through research has been the Achilles heel of Indian higher education system for long. And the reason for the lack of focus on research is that after Independence, emphasis was primarily laid on putting in place an educational infrastructure that can churn out enough decently educated manpower to staff the nascent industrialization. Research and creation of knowledge was not on the agenda as it was considered highly resource intensive and needed a long gestation period to show the result. Because of this reason, research institutions were segregated from teaching institutions, cutting teaching faculties and students from contemporary research. This has hurt all segments of education, but most harshly impacted were technical and basic research which needs sustained investment of resource and time.

The promotion of faculties is a major area of discussion today. Recently, the UGC came out with a new system of university teachers’ evaluation which focuses on quantifiable parameters that makes evaluation more authentic. It included parameters such as number of publication in prescribed journals, attendance in seminars, research guidance etc. However, to ensure fairness towards teachers from socially and economically backward areas, UGC later shifted a bit of focus from research to the quality of teaching. Additionally, students have also got a say in evaluating teachers for the first time. Such measures would ensure that faculty focuses on quality of teaching as well as on knowledge creation.

Another big problem, according to former UGC Chairman and noted educationist Prof. Yash Pal is that there is too much focus on marks and grades, which does not give students the freedom to think beyond boundaries. The recent move to allow students to create their own curriculum has also not progressed well, primarily because of lack of capacity of universities to offer choices. On their part, most universities and colleges are short of funds to start new courses and programs, even if they are sure they will get regulatory approvals for the same.

Government on job

To be sure, the government is taking well intentioned steps in the right direction. Most basic aspect is finance and the government is willing to put in money, thus obviating the perennial resource crunch that has been the hallmark of educational planning. It is putting more money for research and has made it easier to tap this funding for any worthwhile research project. Besides, it has now become possible for small innovation centers to get funding from government. The Universities for Research and Innovations Bill (2012) allows universities to act as educational and research hubs, and be open to all, including foreign institutions, and allows them total autonomy. Institutions such as Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER) have been created which foster research at undergraduate and higher education levels. Also, it is making all efforts to bring in capabilities from outside government to allow public academic institutions to innovate and evolve. The move to increase industry representation on boards of IIMs and reduce scope for political interference in making rules and regulations are laudable steps.

key-innovation-scoresSimilarly, the efforts to provide 10 public and 10 private institutions with all regulatory help so they could emerge world class education and research centers is commendable. In this aspect, India has taken a cue from China which focused, in stages, to develop selected institutions as world class learning centers. Only recently, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) advised the human resource development ministry that these should be given full autonomy. The PMO wants these institutions to be given complete freedom from UGC regulations. They can fix course duration, decide their curricula, charge fees as they deem fit and pay their faculty competitive salaries. This is the template that government can be expected to replicate if proven successful in these 20 institutions.

However, the overall quality improvement is not possible unless the affiliated college system, which enrolls over 80 per cent of undergraduate and over two third of post graduate (masters) students is reformed. These colleges do not have their own degree awarding powers; they just deliver the courses, curricula and examinations specified and are regulated by their parent state universities. With this level of coverage, it is necessary to beef up their capacity and ensure strict compliance with the prescribed teaching standards. As such, government should strengthen the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) to run periodic quality audit to these affiliated colleges. Because education is primarily a state subject, states should be roped in to participate in ensuring quality.

indian-education-institutionsAccording to L.S. Shashidhara of IISER, Pune, the first round of unlocking of India’s economic potential since 1991 was made possible because of the works of some of the excellent engineering schools, agriculture/medical colleges and universities founded right after independence. However, the contemporary socio economic realities of the country demand creation of an educational architecture that is geared up to take up the twin challenge of creating knowledge and churning out a huge number of trained manpower that is able to pick up skills periodically.

Even with best of efforts, government institutions can’t do it alone. They can simply not supply the required number of skilled workforce that India needs over the coming decade. As such, the private sector, which currently accounts for nearly 60 percent of all tertiary enrolment, has to be tapped into. According to experts, many private sector players want o get into education sector, but are dithering because of some crucial reasons. First of all, there is no freedom allowed to private universities to create their own curricula which leaves little scope for the emergence of differentiated core competence. Secondly, the imposition of no-profit condition forces them to adopt dubious ways like capitation fees to make money. This leaves little benefit from creating a brand and leveraging the same to deliver value to students and make money for the investor. Needless to say, these impediments must be removed in order to attract serious private players to set up universities. Further, there should not be any strings attached on either the tuition fee or the faculty salaries. With the passage of time, some of these private universities would emerge in world class institutions.

rosy-pictureThe government has focused on three overarching challenges, namely excellence, expansion and equity for higher education during twelfth five-year plan. The moves like IIM Bill, The Universities for Research and Innovations Bill, granting autonomy to institutions, and providing financial incentive to pursue research and monetizing the same are surely steps to ensure excellence. But these would come only through radical improvement in institutional infrastructure, faculty development and greater interaction with foreign universities and industry.

The expansion remains a challenge as scaling up of existing structure may still not be able to make good the human resource gap. By leveraging the Internet and latest communication technologies, massive open online course (MOOC) should be used as an alternative education delivery mechanism. However, MOOC must not be taken as the alternative to the formal campus based education. It needs to be strategically fit into the formal structure so as to ensure maximum value to students.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is to reform the educational paradigm which focuses too much on structured learning instead of encouraging students to develop critical thinking, fostering interdisciplinary research and promoting the creation of intellectual property at universities. There is a virtual absence of research in university campuses and there is no platform for interaction between researchers, college faculty and students. This needs to be reversed. A commendable step in correcting this anomaly has been the setting up of IISERs which blends research as an integral part of curricula. Such institutions must be replicated at large number and in multiple streams of education.

The focus of education has shifted from knowing facts to understanding logic and applying them to gain incremental knowledge. Simultaneously, educational institutions’ role in advancing knowledge has become very important. It is, therefore, necessary to deploy enlightened minds as faculty who could ignite the passion for excellence in students. Second, it is necessary that faculty and students who want to spread wings are allowed space to fly. Regulations must not be restrictive; they should facilitate the creation and nourishment of intellect. At no point in history, intellectual capital was more precious. We have contributed immensely to the prosperity of west by providing brain power. It is time we employ this power to make India prosperous.