In any government formation in India at the centre, usually there is too much focus on key ministries like finance, home, defence and external affairs. Media will always speculate about these ministries. Every senior leader of the ruling alliance also would aspire for any of these four key ministries. The new union government will naturally follow the past trends and will try to focus on streamlining the functioning of key ministries in finance, home, defence and external affairs as these portfolios constitute the Core Cabinet Committee formation.

Along with health, power, railway, environment, rural development and transport, education is also as significant as the key ministries of finance, home, defence and external affairs which are currently being given extra attention by the media and Indian politicians.

Ministry of HRD, if given due importance, can be a game changer for the future of the Indian economy as well as the society. Even the future success of the new Union Government will also largely depend upon how does the Indian economy grow in the medium and long term and how the aspiration of the young generations are fulfilled by creating enough jobs, say, 100 million jobs, within the next 10 years.

The current scenario in our schools, colleges and universities does not hold out much hope in attaining the twin objectives of making education, particularly higher education, an engine of economic growth and also improving the overall quality of education. Poor employability of millions of graduates coming out from our campuses has been a major concern voiced by the experts. As a nation, we have been facing this dichotomy that millions of degree holders are sitting idle as unemployed and at the same time industry has always been complaining about lack of trained manpower.

Indian Higher Education Today

Indian Higher Education is one of the largest higher education system in the world. At least in quantitative terms it comes after China and ahead of USA. The total number of college and university students in India is currently around 31 million. Our Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is 22.5%, which means that 22.5% of our youth in the age of 18-24 years are enrolled in our colleges and universities. But still several states belonging to the erstwhile BIMARU grouping and even Gujarat have a lower GER than the national average. Only the Southern states have achieved robust GER (equal or more than the national average) due to the exponential growth of technical and professional colleges’ during 1980’s and 1990’s.

The quantitative growth of higher education may be satisfactory but from the point of view of quality, employability and global rankings, still our universities and colleges are not moving ahead. Employability of our graduates and post-graduates is very poor. According to various estimates, only 10% graduates and 25% of engineers and MBAs are employable. If we search names of Indian universities in the global list of top universities, we will be disappointed. Only four Indian universities are included in the list of top 400 universities of the world. And in the top 200 universities of the world, names of an Indian university does not find a mention. Similarly, if we assume that the development of the higher education is a major contributor in the overall human development index, India’s 136th rank among 186 countries is a matter of very great concern.

What can be The Vision – 2030 for Indian Higher Education ?

Late Prof C K Prahlad talked about a Vision for India in the year 2022 while addressing Indians in New York in September 2007. His famous speech ‘India @ 75’ became well known later because it was adopted by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to develop separate visions for all the Indian states. In his speech at New York, Prof Prahlad said:-

“I believe there is nothing more powerful than Indians taking responsibility for their own future. If India @ 75 fails to become a global leader, the only reason for that failure will be Indians themselves. Nobody from outside is stopping us from succeeding. Imagination and belief in India’s true destiny is what we need”.

Can we develop a Vision-2030 for Indian Higher Education? Can we achieve G.E.R. of 50% by 2030 which will mean gross enrollment of about 71 million. Can we reach the HDI rank of 90th among the 200 countries by improving education, health, gender equality, life expectancy and opportunities for overall human development? By 2030 if we reach 90% employability, we will then be also making India the single largest provider of global talent.

By 2030, reputed Indian universities and Ivy League institutions can aspire to attain global level by improving their overall standards. Can we think about 5-6 Indian researchers from our university system getting Nobel Prize across categories? Can India aspire to be one of the top five countries in terms of research papers, citations and number of Ph.Ds? If we are able to achieve these targets by the year 2030, then can we take our rightful claim as one of the top destinations for higher education? If Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia can become regional hubs for higher education, why can’t India also be one?

What went wrong with The Reform Agenda of UPA – II

When Mr Kapil Sibal took over as the Minister of HRD in 2009, he made a statement that he will reform the Indian education in the same fashion as Dr Manmolhan Singh reformed the Indian economy during 90’s as the Finance Minister. Being a high profile media-savvy minister, Mr Kapil Sibal was able to bring various educational issues to the fore and created lot of hope among the middle classes. During the XI Five Year Plan (2007-12), the MHRD has tried to create several new centres of excellence by establishing 16 new central universities, 14 world class central universities, 8 new IITs and 7 new IIMs with a total outlay of Rs.7,460 crores.

Reforming the higher education was chosen a top agenda by UPA-III. During 2010-11, MHRD prepared six bills relating to establishment of the National Commission for Higher Education & Research (NCHR), health education, entry of foreign institutions, compulsory accreditation, prohibition of unfair practices and professional universities and also for setting up of education tribunals. These bills were prepared by the MHRD in a hasty manner and without seeking the opinion of academic community in the country. Even senior leaders of the Congress Party were apprehensive about the implications of some of these bills. The Parliamentary Standing Committee (HRD) under the Chairmanship of Mr Oscar Fernandes also found several short comings in these bills including lack of nationwide consultation prior to presenting these bills in the Parliament.

Due to stiff opposition from all quarters, none of these bills could be passed by the Parliament. We can take a lesson from this episode that reforms in higher education cannot be successful if it is based a ‘top-down’ and hasty approach. There is a need to develop a national consensus and particularly, the need of taking along state governments, since in a federal structure the union government cannot impose its views on them.

Reforming the Governance and Regulatory Regimes

Indian higher education has been handicapped by a surfeit of regulations and too little accountability. There have been numerous instances when autonomy of higher education institutions have been trampled upon. It was restored only when the judiciary intervened. Following reforms in the governance of higher education can be considered by the new government.

1) Less Regulation & more Autonomy:- The current rigid and bureaucratic control in higher education can be replaced by an indirect form of control based largely on accreditation and performance – linked funding. Regulatory bodies should redefine and reinvent their roles as ‘nurturing the quality’ and ‘ promoting autonomy and accountability’ which will ultimately lead to ‘self-regulation’ and ‘introspection’ among the higher education institutions.

2) Blurring the Boundaries between Private & Public Universities
As suggested by the Narayan Murthy Committee, both private and public universities should learn from each other and collaborate in a healthy spirit. It means that private universities should pay attention to their responsibility towards ‘public’ (society) and public university should manage ‘resource generation’ as if they are ‘private university’.

3) Regulating Outcomes Instead of Monitoring Inputs:- Regulatory bodies should regulate the broad outcomes of an institution or a university rather than monitoring inputs like number of teachers, books, computers etc. Each institution should be allowed to frame its Vision and Missions under the broad national vision of higher education.

4) Encouragement to Accreditation: Instead of making the accreditation compulsory, there should be visible and concrete incentives to those institutions which opt for accreditation. Making it compulsory will create worst kind of bureaucratic problems. Secondly, there should be multiple independent accreditation agencies rather than a few controlled by the government (i.e. NAAC & NBA). Can we engage industry bodies like CII, FICCI, NASSCOM, AIMA, NHRDN, EPSI, AIMS in accreditation by assigning them specific responsibility for accreditation?

5) Level Playing Field Between Indian & Foreign Universities:- Foreign universities should be allowing without any preferential treatment viz.-a-viz the Indian institutions. There are some fears about entry of the foreign universities among certain quarters. But by applying principle of ‘level playing field’, these fears can be allayed. If MNCs have been allowed in past to compete with Indian companies, where is the harm in allowing foreign universities without giving them any special treatment. Improving competition in the market for higher education and providing more choices to the students will always be good for the health of Indian higher education.

6) Thrusting Internationalization to Top Institutions:- All the top universities and institutions, both public and private should be encouraged to internationalize their working by recruiting more and more foreign students and faculty. They should also send their students and faculty to join partner universities abroad. Leadership of these top institutions need to be encouraged to join global networks of higher education so as to be connected with global trends.

Expectations from the New Government

The new Union Government headed by the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, has generated lot of expectations in all spheres, including education. Reforming the MHRD will mean several big initiatives in primary education, school education and in tertiary or higher education. For reforming the education sector, the policy makers sitting at the Shastri Bhawan will have to leave their ‘we know all’ attitude and look towards garnering wisdom available among academicians of the country. Aiming for radical improvements in higher education will require setting up some higher goals which may be achievable in next 2-3 Five Year Plans. As a nation, we cannot dream to become 3rd largest world economy by 2025 or 2030, unless we ensure that our manpower will be comparable with the available human talent in China, USA or any other developed nations. It will require that education is given top priority by the new Union Government. The private sector is now a big stakeholder in education, especially in higher education. Let us not distrust them as was done by the UPA-III.