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The Need for Radical Surgery

The education system, which produces a huge number of unemployed graduates every year, must be made more relevant to the demands of the job market

By Raj Chengappa

Instead of traditional science courses, colleges need to offer programmes like electronic sciences, biochemistry, genetics and biotechnology

1 Dissuade all and sundry from getting into colleges by raising fees steeply to the levels of private schools.

2 Instead of meaningless liberal arts, science and commerce programmes, get colleges to offer courses linked to job opportunities. Colleges could offer diplomas in vocational courses to complement degrees.

3 To improve quality, cut government funding to bad colleges, sack non-performing lecturers and bring greater accountability.

4 Eliminate the centralised examination system and introduce continuous internal evaluation in colleges to grade students. Better institutions should be given more autonomy-as in the case of the IITs and IIMs.

5 Make school curriculum vocationally oriented in classes XI and XII to enable students to seek advanced courses in areas that could get them straight into jobs and also bring down the numbers going to college.

In an exclusive reader's poll in this issue, INDIA TODAY gives you an opportunity to decide the most appropriate course of action for India. And alongside, win prizes for your participation. So make a choice—and make a difference.

I once went to school, Mark Twain said, but it didn't affect my education. He could well be speaking for students attending the 12,000-odd Indian colleges. With close to nine million students, the country now produces one of the largest number of graduates in the world every year. But it is not a figure that other nations envy or that Indians should be proud of.

The problems are known. Today, the Indian university system has a debilitating emphasis on quantity instead of quality. It has an unfocused approach to nation-building. So you end up with postgraduates being employed as peons. It has a dinosaurial examination system where merit becomes the first casualty. Its outdated teaching methods and lack of accountability of professors make learning a nightmare for students. And an incomprehensible financing policy has seen college fees hover around Rs 20 a month-a fraction of what it costs to send your child to a private school. If all this sounds harsh, listen to what some of the country's reputed educationists have to say about Indian universities:

"We have killed creativity in teaching by imposing industrial schedules of six hours instead of a flexible approach."
-Anil Wilson, principal, St Stephen's College, Delhi.

"The syllabi often fail to catch up with the latest. This is detrimental, especially in the fields of science and technology where developments happen at a rapid pace."
-Fr S. Ignacimuthu, vice-chancellor, University of Madras.

"Education has degenerated into a ready-made question-answer-oriented system."
-Amal Mukhopadhyay, former principal, Presidency College, Kolkata.

"Our present education system fails to respond to the changing needs of society. By the time it does respond, the issue in question has become outdated."
-Professor K.E. Radhakrishna, member, Academic Council, Bangalore University.

All these are a far cry from the noble role that universities are expected to perform. Colleges were meant to be abodes of ideas and idealism that made the thirst for knowledge an exciting voyage of discovery. Benjamin Disraeli wanted a college to be "a place of light, of liberty, and of learning." Rabindranath Tagore talked of universities being the "nucleus of a living cell, the centre of creative life of the national mind".

Colleges are also expected to be the chrysalis in which the students develop wings needed to fly out into the big, wide world. "The essence of our effort must be to ensure each child has an equal opportunity, not to become equal, but to become different-to realise whatever unique potential of body, mind and spirit he or she possesses," is the way Columbia University, one of America's respected centres of higher learning, described its task.

At a more pragmatic level, the purpose of higher education was to perform an important social role. "A college education is a tool for gainful employment and thus better lives for individuals and their families," says Professor Arun Nigavekar, chairman, University Grants Commission (UGC). Of late, colleges have acquired a new role: building economic assets. In the age of technology, where the knowledge-base of a nation is critical to its prosperity, the role of colleges has assumed a vital importance.


Two models of education have fought for favour in urban India: the knowledge-based British system and the skill-oriented American one
College fees hover around Rs 20 a month-a fraction of what it costs to send a child to a private school.

Yet the attitudes of both the Centre and state governments have been lackadaisical, even destructive to higher education in India. "Governments do not regard higher education as a prime concern since the focus is now on primary education," says Fr Ignacimuthu. That has seen funds for colleges being cut drastically. In the Ninth Plan, the UGC wanted a hefty Rs 829 crore to fund higher education. The Centre mercilessly cut down the grant to Rs 351 crore or a third of the commission's original request.

Even as funding becomes scarce, there continues to be an explosion of students entering colleges. And, since Independence, the Indian higher education system too has grown relentlessly-if only in numbers. Nationally, the next five years would see the annual intake increase by two million students to make it a staggering 11 million in 2007. To cater to the new entrants, another 2,000 colleges have to be added, apart from 75,000 teachers.

Yet there is no serious attempt to check the indiscriminate rise in the number of students wanting to attend college. Dr Alexander Mantramurti, principal, Madras Christian College, says, "There are thousands of colleges offering costly educational inputs for jobs. It has become a rat race." Nor is there ever going to be enough money around. A senior official in the Union Human Resource Development Ministry points out: "There is a lack of resources because there is such a high demand. If you take into account everything that the Central and state governments pump into education in the country, it works out to some Rs 60,000 crore, which is not little."

Due to the Indian university system's crippling emphasis on quantity over quality, academic facilities like libraries and laboratories have shrunk
The unfocused approach to higher education makes merit the first casualty-and postgraduates end up as peons.

The main problem, according to educationists, is to find the golden mean between quality and quantity. There is also hardly any thinking as to which model of higher education is the most suitable for India. The knowledge-based model of education the country inherited from the British sat uncomfortably with India's ancient value-based, guru-shishya approach. The totally skill-oriented American formula was then added on in bits. "This has led to enormous confusion and lack of clear purpose," says Radhakrishna.

In its Tenth Plan proposal, the UGC has outlined some major ways of coping with the demand. Among the suggestions that Nigavekar has made to the Planning Commission is the use of existing physical infrastructure in double shifts so that the need to build more colleges does not arise. Retired teachers could be given contracts to fill in for the shortfall. To provide more capacity, the open university system and distance education were to be promoted in a big way. And the advances in information technology were to be harnessed to create a virtual highway of learning that would dispense with costly brick-and-mortar set-ups. The UGC's approach, unfortunately, does nothing to address the key problems that confront higher education. It seeks to take the path of least resistance when radical surgery and reconstruction are needed.

Arun Kapur, director, Vasant Valley School, Delhi, asks a fundamental question: "Is it necessary for a student to get a college education at all?" Given the rut that India's higher education has fallen into, Kapur answers his own question with a resounding no. Before parents and teachers-and there will be plenty-let out a combined howl of protest, it's good to understand why an educationist would dare to attack the very foundations of higher education. There is in India, especially in urban areas, a blind need to send students to colleges for a generalised education. It was a problem that faced British education in the first half of the 20th century and led an expert to remark then: "University degrees are a bit like adultery: you may not want to get involved with that sort of thing, but you don't want to be thought incapable."

Much of the problem of exploding numbers could be linked to the inability of schools to provide a more complete education. "There is pressure on higher education because there is a massive failure of the 10+2 system," says Kapur. "Class X was to be the point where students would bifurcate into academics or the pursuit of vocational specialisations. Now +2 has just become a meaningless continuation of school education." One way to bring down the numbers going to college is to introduce courses that would develop professional skills in school itself, in classes XI and XII. This would enable students to seek advanced courses in areas that could get them straight into jobs and not crowd colleges.

There is also the need to do fresh thinking about whether to continue to add colleges that provide generalised arts, science and commerce education. Most students from such institutions join the ranks of the unemployed when they finish their course. There is very little specialisation or orientation towards the new jobs that have cropped up after India saw healthy economic growth rates in the 1990s. So there has to be a clear connection between the world of work and what colleges are offering-while setting aside a percentage of such institutions for pursuing higher knowledge and pure research.


There are plenty of ways of achieving this and getting rid of the boring old label of "vocational courses". Instead of the usual science course, colleges could have in-depth programmes that could be offered as majors, such as electronic sciences, computer systems, biochemistry, communicative engineering, genetics and biotechnology. In arts and commerce, there could be an emphasis on fashion technology and design, hotel management and the media. The UGC now suggests a dual degree mode-where colleges offer both a degree and a diploma for specialised courses-as a way out. That would make education more relevant to the needs of the job market and get rid of the "BAkar" (useless) types as they are now derisively known.

Among the major hurdles in bringing about radical change is the stranglehold of bureaucracy and the high degree of centralisation in decision-making. Delhi University, for instance, has 80 colleges under it. Result: a stifling, some say crippling, uniformity in curriculum and methods of teaching that kills innovation. Says Wilson: "There has to be a release of a lot of controls so there is more space for institutions to function in. There has to be a mechanism for quick mobility in a variety of ways, including changing the curriculum and upgrading the staff." Fr Ignacimuthu wants the process of syllabi change to be so flexible that even midway through the academic year these could be altered to adopt the latest in the subject. Calcutta University Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Suranjan Das agrees and says, "Better governance of a university calls for decentralisation and more autonomy to the better colleges."


Educationists call this a privatisation-without-strings approach. Decentralisation would also lead to a far better evaluation of students' performance than the current outdated procedure of a common examination system which leaves no room for internal evaluation. Fr T. Sebastian, principal, Christ College, Bangalore, points out, "Now we have to follow what the university prescribes, even if it is outdated." His solution: eradicate centralised evaluation. Get colleges to evaluate their own students and introduce a grading and credit system. This, he points out, will also give an enhanced sense of responsibility to teachers.

There are other areas that need radical reforms, none so urgently as the financing of higher education. The system of the UGC providing grants to colleges has seen fees remain stagnant at ridiculously low levels. Those who can afford to pay are just not doing so. O.P. Chopra, dean, Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, says, "The subsidy is not reaching the desired section and mainly benefits children whose parents have high incomes." Leave alone upgradation, with funds being cut back in the Ninth Plan, there has been a steep deterioration even in the maintenance and upkeep of colleges. Academic facilities such as libraries and laboratories have shrunk. With no accountability, the quality of teachers and teaching has fallen to abysmal levels in many colleges.

Neither the states nor the Centre is willing to take the drastic step of closing down non-performing colleges or sacking teachers who are not up to the mark. Nor are they willing to grant greater autonomy because it would rob politicians of the chance to control education. Right now, appointments of vice-chancellors, principals and professors in many states are highly politicised, with the government of the day making partisan choices. Merit is again a major casualty here. "Why are our IITs and IIMs a success? Because they have been allowed to function without any interference and treat education with respect," points out Professor S. Sadagopan, director, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. "Our universities should also be allowed to bloom like them." They can if they learn their lessons quickly.

-with Arun Ram in Chennai, Malini Goyal in Delhi, Stephen David in Bangalore and Labonita Ghosh in Kolkata


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