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The slide in Indian universities

March 17, 2010 17:01 IST

By any measure, the nod to a new law permitting foreign universities to start campuses in India is a big step. Not surprisingly, it has set off a discussion, the key elements of the pros and cons – the list not being exhaustive, but only illustrative – are:

  • It would benchmark education in India for other universities to follow.
  • It would make it easier for Indians, who anyhow are the world's second largest seekers of education overseas, to find it without crossing the shores.
  • It could, because of lower costs of living in Indian locales compared to the overseas destinations, make it cheaper for Indians, but only relatively so.

Those were the pros.

Now, the cons:

  • Being more expensive that education in Indian universities, if they are state universities, it would bring in educational apartheid -- the better-offs gaining and the poorer left in the lurch with the local scheme of things.
  • It could bring in a rush of the foreign institutions which are not top class but ones in the lower quartiles in the quality league.
  • Since profits cannot be repatriated, where would the investment come in, especially for courses in sciences which need huge capital outlays? For example, Princeton built is laboratories over decades and more, cannot hit the ground running. Courses could be limited to liberal streams like arts, literature, law, etc. alone but even that is not something to frown at.

UGC failure

Over time, by when the bill cleared by the Union Cabinet arrives at Parliament, the arguments would get more pixels on either side of the divide take on a meaningful dimension compared to the initial rant that has already started. At the core of all issues is the possibility that the registration authority would be the University Grants Commission which has failed the country in monitoring and promoting excellence in higher education.

Look at the Indian universities. They are in a shambles, the trend was noticed decades ago, and little has been done to arrest the decline in standards. Often, S Ramadorai, formerly Tata Consultancy Services' hunter of talent for his business had said that India produced any number of graduates but few were employable. By that measure, the failure is evident. All the products have to show is the few years in college and a degree in hand worth hardly anything.

Quality concerns

What ought to concern us is the quality of what we already have and the levels between us and those who are likely to come from overseas is so wide that the benchmarking by the latter would hardly happen. The sloth of the slumberous UGC has pushed higher education in India into a crisis. We just stopped expanding knowledge and what is available on the shelf has not been imparted to the consumers -- the students.

Four kinds of students

But reverting to the foreign universities as an expensive promoter of educational apartheid, it has to be said that India there are three kinds of students -- one, which can afford to go overseas; two, which would like to but cannot afford despite being qualified; third, which just is happy with their lot in Indian universities. Of course, there is the fourth which does well by better Indian brands like the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management which are trying to foray overseas themselves because of their sheer quality.

When international schools have arrived and flourishing, which caters to a class of people, foreign universities are a natural corollary we should have expected. It has, however, failed to benchmark the school education standards and to expect the foreign universities to catalyse that would be far-fetched. The question is: would the best and the abysmal coexist forever in India, from schools to higher learning?

Save a few institutions, IIMs and IITs and a handful of deemed universities, the rot is widespread. Walk into an unaided college and you would know what I am talking about. Being unaided -- often permissions are granted on the conditions that the colleges should never ask for aid -- they admit students only on donations, pay teachers poorly which in turn secures poorer talent and we have those 'unemployable' graduates.

To what use?

Even any amount of monitoring by the university and the UGC is unlikely to make a difference because the arrangement is skewed to start with. Simply because the government has no resources to spend on education, the country has to suffer poor quality education. Its implications to the country's aspirations to compete globally, advance human development etc. are far too serious than we assume in our somnolence.

Therefore, for education to become meaningful for the large mass of Indians -- the foreign ones are unlikely to touch enough to make a numerical difference. New Delhi needs to crack the whip to make the our universities conscious of the need to improve quality of education -- content as well delivery so the intellectual quotient of the country improves. Ramadorai's lament has to be taken seriously because what he meant was universities are mass-producing muck.

Incapacity

The sheer incapacity of the State to provide adequate higher education in terms of numbers of institutions, content and the products they send out is a matter of shame. The presence of unaided colleges where teachers are starved of right wages and the students of their rightful education apart from an ordinary degree not worth a job is another slur on the system. Unaided colleges, despite the universities' supposed monitoring, are a tragedy -- all shape, no content.

No doubt the recent efforts at weeding out the deemed universities was a positive time and was indeed long in coming. No doubt, it vindicated public opinion that most private deemed universities were for-profit business enterprise set up. Some had politicians as self-appointed chancellors with politicians' involvement. Education there was both notional and incidental.

It has come to light of late that many universities have had their accreditation from the National Academic Accreditation Council lapsed for some years by now. So-called premier universities like Mumbai, Pune and SNDT for instance are living well past the certificate's expiry and with no public expression of regret. These universities, if you please, are to monitor the colleges and their quality.

Starve talent?

What could happen is that the new university campuses that could come here, with the academic eminence they have there -- provided permissions are given not to the ones in the lower quartiles alone -- would attract the best faculty from all the universities. There are, no doubt, some of that calibre among teachers in India. They compare with the best elsewhere but have lacked opportunities; I know some of that kind. I would not be surprised if they leave for the fresh pastures.

It would be incorrect to generalise all the time but one thing that stares us in the face is the disconnect of the teaching community with the real world. It can be argued that the UGC mandated refresher courses are conducted routinely periodically but most teachers, I would wager, hardly read beyond the syllabus and few may not have graduated from the text books they read as students. This forces the students to evolve, which they cannot, in a vacuum.

Let me put it this way. The universities -- that includes the deemed ones of the kind which are under scanner now, not the illustrious ones -- are like a factory churning out students. The Vice Chancellor is the Vice-Chairman and Managing Director with the Governor, as the chancellor is the non-executive chairman. The Registrar is the executive director. The lecturers are shop floor supervisors. The various colleges are outsourced plants. These produce poor products which have not much of worth in the market, the country's economy suffers them, and makes do.

Blank stare

I remember a conversation with a vice-chancellor of a university a few months ago and suggested that the academic content can be improved by not only motivating the teachers but also broadening their horizons. That would be possible by prescribing a rule that each teacher should read atleast three books in their relevant field and submit for peer evaluation a synopsis and a comment on it every term. All I got was a blank stare and left me wondering if I had wasted my breath.

That is why it would make sense to have a re-look at the Indian universities and evolve ways and means to arrest the slide and then refurbish it in every which way. Or else in a global village, we could be left out and offer the world only code-writers for computers and agents for business process outsourced arrangements. The magnitude of the impending crisis has not been realised yet. Any time, energy and money spent on this would be worth the while in the long run. Or we could well have a de-intellectualised India.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based senior journalist and commentator.

Mahesh Vijapurkar