HIGHER EDUCATION: OPENING THE PANDORA’S BOX

Private schools are preferred over government schools in a country, where most schools are owned by the government, and government colleges are preferred over private colleges in the same country, where most colleges are owned privately. Welcome to the paradox of the Indian education system!

The Indian Higher Education system is one of the largest in the world not by the number enrolments but by the sheer number of institutions. For a nation less than 80-year-old to have around a thousand universities and forty thousand colleges is incredible. For the same nation not to have a single university amongst the top hundred universities across any international ranking framework is surprising. India proudly has some of the largest number of engineering and medical graduates in the world, but doesn’t garner the same kind of reputation from a research and innovation perspective. The University of Oxford is one the leading institutions of the world conducting cutting edge research with promising results on developing a suitable vaccine for the pandemic. This could have easily been one of ours. Make no mistake, Indian students have always demonstrated exceedingly high IQs and should not be blamed for the poor performance of the universities. It is the same Indian or Indian origin student community which eventually heads some of the leading technology companies of the world like Google and even bags a Nobel or two. One should also always remember, there are exceptions to the rule. There are universities and colleges in India which are exceptional in many ways, churning and honing some of the brightest minds of our generations.

The most fundamental question is that of regulation. India not only is one of the largest higher education systems of the world but is also one of the most complex ones. As a federal nation with two layers of government, Education was originally in the State List where the federal/state governments had exclusive jurisdiction but it was moved to being in the Concurrent List via the 42 nd Constitutional Amendment, 1976. This might seem like a cooperative arrangement based on dialogue and common interests but the makers of the Constitution always kept regulation of Higher Education in the Union List giving exclusive powers to the Central Government to make laws governing higher education. Understandably, this was done to ensure uniformity in that stage of education closest to employment and other outcomes out of higher education. Ironically, for a nation proudly interventionist in its policies, the same uniformity envisaged by the placement of regulation of Higher Education in the Union List is currently battling massive inconsistencies across the ecosystem.

Multiplicity and rigidity are the twin problems plaguing the regulation of the higher education system in the country. With the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Bar Council Of India (BCI), National Medical Commission (NMC), Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), et cetera being parallel regulatory bodies governing conventional forms of educational discourses and them being accused of being ineffective and dysfunctional, there was truly a pressing need to nip the issue in the bud. A simple yet frustrating example would be how a Management Course technically is placed under the AICTE while a Commerce/Economics Course is placed under the purview of the UGC. Similarly, Pure Sciences are regulated by the UGC while Engineering Courses are regulated by the AICTE.
Quality control and assurance are cornerstones of any sector including, but not limited to, education. Interestingly, more than half of the colleges in India are not even accredited by the country’s apex accreditation agency — National Assessment and Accreditation Council in the case of UGC or professional courses or National Board of Accreditation in the case of technical education. In India, accreditation is surprisingly not a part of the basic minimum compliance for any institution but is like an upgradation module.
The National Education Policy 2020 does lay out some very ambitious ideas such as that of a Higher Education Commission of India which would serve as a single regulator for all of higher education except Medicine and Law. It is pertinent to note that prior versions of the same have already been floated on the floors of the Parliament and have met with their fate of being lapsed or stalled. Legislative proposals which are not rolled out without a sense of background consultations with state governments and other important stakeholders are bound to face legislative delay. The true need of the hour is to empower our institutions with the right amount of autonomy while ensuring the highest possible standards of education are met. For what we do today, defines our future for tomorrow.

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