On May 30, the Narendra Modi government embarked on its 100-day education agenda. The agenda comprises a new education policy, a Higher Education Commission of India, a new accreditation system and a special drive to fill five lakh faculty positions in institutions of higher education. The urgency of the government shows the higher education system could be in for an overhaul.
Especially over the past decade India’s professional colleges have been ailing due to several reasons such as a sudden spike in the number of these institutions, unaffordable fees, poor quality and lack of jobs. The malaise goes beyond India’s favourite streams—engineering, medicine, law and management—but data for engineering and medicine is all that is readily available.
Last July, then MoS in the Union HRD ministry, Satya Pal Singh, said the total number of sanctioned seats in institutions approved by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) went down from 16,94,030 in 2014-15 to 14,66,713 in 2017-18—a decline of 13.41 per cent. Moreover, the engineering education regulator received 239 applications from engineering and technical institutes for approval to close down, which was granted to 51 of them.
The situation in medical education was not very different. In January this year, then MoS for health and family welfare Ashwini Kumar Choubey said 68 medical colleges in India, including 13 in Uttar Pradesh, nine in Kerala and seven in Karnataka were not allowed renewal of permissions on the recommendation of Medical Council of India (MCI), which found them not conforming to MCI’s minimum standards , and deficient in faculty, residents and clinical material.
“This has been a common story for the past few years,” says a senior official of the HRD ministry. “It seems India’s obsession with engineering, medical and management is over, and kids are making forays into new fields like biotechnology, bioinformatics, media studies, fashion, interior design and architecture.”
On stagnation and poor quality in most colleges and streams, the official says, “It’s a collective failure. While regulators like AICTE, MCI, the Bar Council of India and the Architecture Council of India are victims of ‘INStitution capture’ by the governing bodies, the state governments and private INStitutions had a field day with distribution of licences for higher education.
The official says that interference from the various courts didn’t allow higher education reforms to kick off in India. “The judiciary failed to debar itself from issues of higher education, failing to understand that it was about the whole education system and not the interest of a particular college or institution,” he adds. People and institutions go to court seeking orders that bar the regulators from taking action.
Shekhar Bhattacharjee, CEO of education research firm Great Place to Study, lists the other factors. “Choice of education is co-related to the rise and growth of the economy,” he says. “The demand for engineers and managers peaked during industrialisation, making engineering colleges mushroom everywhere. We are still chasing engineering and technical education even though the hiring culture in India has been changing. The preference for generalists over specialists has gone up.”
Bhattacharjee also says there was a cultural and intellectual shift among students as well. “These professional colleges failed to tap the potential of the changing landscape of India’s education system. They only promoted skills-led courses whereas today’s students want to be more generic, want to have broader perspective and want to try a minimum of three different careers before they make the final choice,” he says, adding that there has been a phenomenal shift towards liberal arts and media studies, especially in the past few years.
Public vs Private Institutes
A recent research on household expenditure on higher education by S. Chandrasekhar, P. Geetha Rani and Soham Sahoo revealed that state government policies influenced where clusters of educational institutions were established in India. They found that households participating in higher education spent 15.3 per cent of their total expenditure on an average in rural areas and 18.4 per cent in urban areas on the field. Also, 50 per cent of individuals migrate for education to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. The research also showed that students from the southern states are more likely to enroll in technical and vocational education, and in private, unaided institutions.
Since fees are substantially higher in private, unaided institutions, and for technical and vocational courses, the average expenditure on education is higher in the southern states compared to other regions of India.
The study also found that urban people prefer private colleges. The figures also revealed that most people have been trying to pay the high fees demanded by these professional colleges by straining their resources or by taking loans.
Former secretary for higher education Ashok Thakur says both private and government colleges have their own problems. People and institutions with a lot of money encouraged commercialisation of education, leading to substantial increase in the number of private colleges, while paucity of funds and bureaucratic hurdles prevented the governments from keping up by building more institutions. As students with more money get admission in better private colleges, while others have a tough time, this has affected the entire education system.
Thakur says there is a need for Indian education regulators to move away from micro-management and focus on outcomes. They should judge institutions not on the basis of minimum standards, but by its admission process, fee structures, results in pan-India ranking and so on. “This should be supplemented with autonomy to best performing institutions so that they can outperform themselves and imbibe the competitive spirit,” says the former secretary for higher education.
Bhattarcharjee adds that private universities in India should move from the family-ownership mode to corporate-endorsement and donation mode. Another suggestion is integration of technical education with basic humanities, which are essential for students to develop a fine grasp of human life in all its socio-cultural complexities. Without such well-rounded awareness of reality, mere technical education may not be adequate for empowering students with the ability to solve human problems.
Changing Faculty and Teaching Habits
Rishi Bharadwaj (name changed), who has twin children, went through a peculiar problem during admission season last year. One son got admission in an IIT and the other joined an engineering institute affiliated to a state university. When the parents compared the quality of education, they noticed what makes the IITs stand out.
“The son who went to IIT had a teacher to student ratio of 1:20, while for the other it was 1:40 at one of Punjab’s top engineering institutes,” he says. “The faculty at IIT was up to date with the latest trends in computer science, while the faculty in the Punjab institute failed to address my son’s queries. As a result, my son decided to drop a year and re-appear for the IIT entrance.” Admitting that eduacting two sons put a huge strain on the family’s finances, Bharadwaj adds: . “We had to get a paid seat, a concept which wasn’t there when I did my engineering in the 1970s.”
According to the HRD ministry, an ideal faculty to student ratio is between 1:8 and 1:10. But due to shortage of faculty, the average ratio is almost double.
The Indian education market is expected to almost double—$180 billion—by 2020, buoyed by the world’s largest population in the 6-17 age bracket and the rapid expansion of the digital-learning market, even as the sector continues to be plagued by poor infrastructure and a shortage of trained teachers.
“Universities at both the central and state levels have a problem of inbreeding, which means you are appointed in the same university as soon as you get a post-graduate or doctorate degree,” says Thakur. “This breeds mediocrity. The IITs desist from this system and have tried to maintain their standards so far.”
Thakur adds that the faculty to student ratio is just one of the factors failing India’s institutions. There are many other challenges related to the quality of teachers. He suggests that faculty should be selected on a merit basis and one should also see there is no inbreeding. “There needs to be a cooling-off period for at least two years, when you prove yourself elsewhere. Only then can you be taken back into your parent institution,” he says.
However, a senior IIT faculty member, who didn’t wish to be identified, begs to differ. “All higher education institutions in th country evaluate teachers on the basis of degrees and research papers,” she says. “We have forgotten that teaching is not a job, but an art. Sometimes a teacher might have all the knowledge, but in absence of the art to nurture students, she could still fail the system. The need is to inculcate the art so that students can apply their knowledge to solve human problems, and not keep it confined to paper degrees. A lot of new-age successful entrepreneurs and startup founders in India are dropouts from institutes of higher education, which shows that we are lacking in the art of higher education.”
With the higher education system confronting scores of challenges, Modi 2.0 will have his hands full.
Percentage of vacant seats in undergraduate courses in AICTE-approved engineering colleges
- 48.79 2014-15
- 47.68 2015-16
- 49.70 2016-17
- 49.30 2017-18