A few days back New York-based Carnegie Corporation released the findings of a poll which stated that the majority of Americans unequivocally believe that access to higher education is a right. The findings are as important as the occasion. The former because of the current debate raging in that country about whether so many people should be going to college at all. But the backdrop to the survey is equally important. It marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act that established federal funding for establishing many of the best known US public colleges and universities. Despite a raging Civil War in the country, president Abraham Lincoln and the members of the Congress passed that crucial piece of legislation. Within months it led to the founding of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which became a guiding force in the evolution of American science and technology. In its wake, the country became a magnet for some of the brightest and best students from the world over, a trend that continues today.
Here in India, we continue to treat education as a plaything for politicians to pull out when they please and throw away when it no longer amuses them or worse still, stops serving their limited political objectives. The annual admissions tamasha at the various Indian universities is evidence enough of a system so rotten that it can’t, no shouldn’t, be fixed. But I am not even going there. There are many more manageable things that our parliamentarians in their wisdom prevaricate over. The bill to create a new independent regulator for higher education, The National Commission for Higher Education and Research, which will replace the discredited University Grants Commission and the All India Council on Technical Education, is still pending passage in Parliament two years after it was mooted. The regulatory apparatus is so wobbly that we expect a new scam to be unearthed with every passing semester now. Its passage is crucial to bring some stability to the system but try telling that to our esteemed MPs.
Is it any surprise then that our universities are rated so poorly? According to the authoritative QS World University rankings, the highest ranked Indian university outside of the IIT system is the University of Delhi whose overall global ranking of 398 is as depressing as its 75th rank in Asia. Nearly 50 years after the University Grants Commission awarded 6 of its 18 planned Centres of Advanced Studies to the university, there has been little by way of global recognition for the Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology and Sociology centres, the honourable exception being economics. The 154-year-old University of Calcutta, once a byword for excellence in scholarship, doesn’t even come within the top 600 universities in the world.
IIT Delhi campus
The demographics are also working against us here. China’s population in the 15-19 year age bracket is projected to decline by 17% between 2010 and 2015, translating into 18 million fewer college-going youths, according to US census data. By contrast, India’s college-going population is projected to increase by five million, or 5%, over the same period. That means in 2015, India will have nearly 20 million more college-going people in the 15-19 year age group than China. But while China continues to invest heavily in building new colleges and universities, we have little time or appetite to bother about such tasks. We are happy with making cosmetic changes, or worse needlessly interfering in the only working model of education in the country – the IIT system.
Already the consequences of the large scale mismatch between input and output in our higher education are upon us. According to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), India lags China in creation of higher value-added manufacturing and export-oriented jobs. Indeed, 41 per cent of India’s job creation in the past decade was in low-skill construction, compared to 16 per cent in China. This is the result of the many more options for quality education that Chinese students have had over the last 15 years as compared to an Indian child’s dilemma after school.
Part of the problem of course is that there just isn’t enough ongoing research related to the higher education system in India. So higher education in India continues to exist in a vacuum, with no feedback mechanism in place to make course corrections. Today, it would be unthinkable for any company worth its salt to launch new products or support existing ones without sufficient insights into the mind of its consumer. Our college education system however, defies all such scientific analyses and study. The content in most cases hasn’t been updated in decades while the teaching methodologies are downright arcane.
While our schooling system has received some attention in recent years, thanks to studies by various non-state bodies, the higher education system is a black hole. All we know is that 75% of technical graduates and more than 85% of general graduates are unemployable by India’s high-growth global industries, including information technology. Those are shocking numbers. In any other field of activity such alarming failure rate would call for an immediate suspension of the institution and the people responsible for such a mess. A throwback to the British period, Indian universities are geared to imparting education in the liberal arts and sciences to prepare people for careers in the civil service, the legal profession and little else.
A World Bank study some time back identified lack of autonomy and accountability, resource constraints and poor quality and relevance in many institutions among the various factors responsible for the poor quality of higher education in India. The single biggest factor may be the inability to see it as the most important development issue in the country. The success of our IITs and IIMs to produce corporate executives for multinational corporations hides the reality of our rotten college system beyond a few storied institutions.
Ironically, it will take so little to transform the system provided the will is there. The use of instructional software to reduce the workload of teachers, simple but well-thought-through online quizzes to gauge student progress, and complementing the current staffing system with imaginative additions like industry professionals and undergraduate mentors, are just some of the steps that can be taken without the need for massive funding. It will however require a culture shift in the way the administrative machinery functions.