The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled. (PLUTARCH)
Plutarch’s observation about education is relevant to all times.For a country of over a billion people, there isn’t a greater transformative force than education. Education transforms societies by promoting social mobility, fostering values encouraging cohesiveness, empowering the hitherto suppressed and marginalized and prepares citizenry for an empowered role in participatory governance.
Post-independence, our forefathers set eyes on developing our nation through instrument of education. Planned growth in a socialist democratic republic could not have taken place in absence of skilled manpower. Thus, technical institutes, often in foreign collaboration, like IITs and IISC were set up. Space and nuclear research was taken up. Agricultural universities and research centers were setup, keeping in mind our largely agrarian economy. Liberal education was promoted by exploring new subjects like sociology, which threw data useful for policy making.
However, over the year several lacunae have crept in our education system, especially higher education. Higher education today is conspicuous by the low Gross enrollment rations, lack of research output, poor soft skills of graduates, poor teaching pedagogy. Gross enrollment ratio in higher education is a pressing concern. Powered by article 21A of constitution, Right to education act has made primary education compulsory for children in between eight to fourteen years.This has increased enrollment in primary school and reduced out of school education. However, less GER at higher level indicate that benefits of RTE act has not trickled up to higher education.
Teaching pedagogy has been poor in higher institutes due to lack of quality teaching inputs and materials. Huge divide between the qualities of institutions at higher and lower level.Research output has been, as a result, causality. Professors and teachers are often tied down with administrative burden which leaves them with little time to pursue research endeavors. Student research output has also been abysmal as the emphasis is on rote learning and passing the exams.
Remedial steps in higher education are mostly a prerogative of Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India. It has been taking a slew of measures to address the dismal higher education state in the country.Teacher training has been taken up in a bigger way. National programme for teacher training is in place to augment the skills and improve the teaching pedagogy. Teacher remuneration is also being looked after keeping in mid the increase in the cost of living. Pecuniary benefits are likely to enhance the morale and motivate teachers to work extra hard.Information and communication technology (ICT) is a game changer in promoting higher education.
NME-ICT is in place to address the issue of equity in access to quality education material and promote equity in between various technical institutions inter-se. Digitization of content is taking place at rapid pace. E-Gyankosh, an IGNOU initiative, providing a vast repository of quality education material has been setup. NPTEL programme, in collaboration with IITs are bringing quality education material to students across the country. Aakash tablet, with its linkages to Bharat Broadband program, is expected to change the learning landscape in the country.
This brings us to the question of role of higher education in changing the socio -political-economic-technological landscape.
Demographic divided, a once in a life time opportunity for a nation, is slowly going to taper off. There is nothing automatic about demographic dividend in terms of benefit. It can be harnessed only through skilling people and creating suitable opportunities for them. Promoting higher education is the only way to harness demographic dividend and transforming India into a knowledge economy.
For a nation endowed with population disproportionate with its natural resources, skill development through higher education can be the only step to transform human resource to assets. As the population grows, the relevance of higher education in Indian context is likely to accentuate. Our nation, a nation comprising of multiple races, religion and culture, is marked by diversity. Fissiparous forces are at work, both within and without our country, to break it into parts. National cohesion and unity and integrity can only be promoted through emphasis on higher education.
High proportion of population is historically disadvantaged.Despite affirmative actions,scheduled caste, scheduled tribes, other backward classes, minorities and differently abled people – a vast majority of them – are still lagging behind. Endeavour of higher education should be to promote their interest and integrate them in national mainstream.
The clear need for an emphasis on higher education has compelled our policy makers to take remedial steps to stem the slide of higher education. However, further policy steps can be taken up. Universalization of primary education is being implemented as per fundamental rights directive of Article 21A through Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. However, aim should be to universalize higher education as well. Linking vocational courses to higher education can also promote the poor sections to participate in higher education while learning skills which provide immediate monetization.
Given the poor purchasing power of people, lack of finances shouldn’t come in way of students to pursue courses of their choice. Educational loans, up to a high threshold amount should be made available at subsidized rates, without any collateral requirements. Branding education as a social sector obligation for Banks would go a long way in removing obstacles of finance while pursuing studying professional courses.
Foreign universities should be allowed to set up campuses in our country. Amendment should be made in statute book to allow foreign universities to repatriate profits, while also directing them to fulfill social obligations of promoting equity. This will increase competition between universities and foster research culture. The step is in line with public choice paradigm which envisages greater voice and exit choice for citizens. Public private partnership should be used in social sector like education to bring a synthesis between public oriented nature of government with economy, efficiency and expertise of private sector. National skill development programme (NSDC) is a step in right direction which envisages sill development in a big way through vocational courses by targeting hitherto excluded.
Temples of modern India, as envisaged by Late Pundit Nehru, will not be built in absence of supporting infrastructure. Though, we have made significant progress in agriculture, space and nuclear domains, we seem to have reached an impasse in higher education due to access, quality and pedagogy concerns. However, remedial policy steps are being taken through improving teaching pedagogy, addressing quality concerns through ICT interventions and addressing equity concerns. Further steps like enhanced role of private sector, smooth credit flow to higher education and removing barriers for foreign university will improve the situation further.
India as envisaged by our forefathers cannot be a reality without an emphasis on higher education. Goals of inclusive growth, as envisaged in 11th and 12th five year plans, would remain a pipe dream in absence of quality education. Neither the dream of establishing secular democratic republic- as laid down in preamble of our constitution, nor the goal of promoting scientific temper and respect for our nation ideals – as suggested in fundamental duties would be a reality in the absence of impetus on higher education.