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Ramjas College fracas: Why our higher education model is in dire need of complete revamp

The recent fracas at Delhi University's Ramjas College reflects the increasingly disturbing trend of Indian Universities and colleges turning into political battlegrounds. It is nobody's case that free airing of views and jousting of competing ideas and ideologies are discouraged and banished from the campus. Now, more than ever before, we need to engage with rival ideologies and make sense of a world that is large in scale but narrow in mindset.

Delhi University protests. PTI

Delhi University protests. PTI

But there is a clear distinction to be drawn between free jousting of ideas and cynical campus violence instigated by competing forces to maintain or establish hegemonic political control over academia. Without going into the binaries of Left or Right and who is holier in comparison, it is fair to say that most of our premier public educational institutions have become laboratories for political indoctrination — not seats of learning tailored towards broadening the scope of young minds or imparting skill-based, employable education.

The seriousness of this problem cannot be overstated. If a country of 1.27 billion has over half of its population under the age of 25, and is projected to exceed China by the next decade into having the world's highest number of students, it stands to reason that our education system and infrastructure must be ready to cope with the challenge. How are we doing in that respect?

ICEF Monitor, a market intelligence resource for the international education industry, finds that the Indian system "is pressed by widespread quality challenges" where "the vast majority of graduates — as many as 75 percent by some estimates — are not considered employable."

Let's go deeper into the problem.

If India becomes the world's third largest economy by 2030 as projected, there will be a huge demand for skilled workers in various sectors. The problem is, while India has a huge student pool who are getting enrolled en masse in colleges and universities — the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education stands at 23.6 percent in 2014-15 and is expected to reach 30 percent by 2020 — most of these degree holders are unemployable youth who are not fit for any industry.

Why so?

Citing various data, the ICEF Monitor report reaches a conclusion that "most of the graduates from Indian higher education are not receiving an education that sufficiently prepares them for the demands and opportunities of the country’s rapidly changing economy."

This view is supplemented by the findings of a British Council report, which points at "low quality of teaching and learning; outdated and rigid curricula and pedagogy, lack of accountability and quality assurance and separation of research and teaching…" as some of the major systemic shortfalls plaguing higher education in India.

The gravity of the situation is complete when we observe that almost 80 percent of Indian engineering students, too, are unemployable, according to a Aspiring Minds National Employability Report which is based on a study of more than 1,50,000 engineering students who graduated in 2015 from over 650 colleges.

With jobs vanishing in the midst of this youth bulge, we see the repercussions of this failed education policy in the increasing number of youth unrest movements that variously manifests itself around quotas, demands for preservation of culture or campus turf wars. Adding to the problem is the primary and secondary education system that is skewed towards rote learning rather than encouraging independent thinking or developing risk-taking abilities among students. This creates a tertiary problem that further cripples Indian economy which is grappling with jobless growth.

We see problems like the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) where a batch takes seven and a half years to complete a three-year course with the government spending a massive Rs 11.08 lakh per head for its 342 students — a figure that is nearly double the amount that the government spends on a medical student and almost triple the amount spent on an IIT learner.

This number has been challenged by the students through an RTI which seems to show that the amount has been spread across infrastructural spending but an Indian Express report also quotes the FTII Chief Accounts Officer as saying that "FTII is a fully granted institute and every expenditure incurred on the campus is paid for by the Ministry. All the expenditures mentioned are for running the institute and every activity in the institute is ultimately for the benefit of students. Hence, the expenditure, although a rough estimate, is not incorrect."

Without going into more hair-splitting over FTII or the much-publicized JNU row last year or the present Ramjas College incident, it seems plausible to suggest that the massive amount of government subsidy that goes into funding higher education is regrettably producing more and more unemployable youths and political activists than students ready to step into the future.

As Professor Pushkar, assistant professor of BITS Pilani-Goa, writes in his article for The Wire, "if the employability numbers do not improve fast enough, the country will have to deal with hundreds of thousands of degreed-but-unemployed young women and men who will do more than just shout anti-national slogans…"

What's the way out?

Worldwide, there is a move towards more private participation in higher education — even in countries where historically the government has taken the lion's share of the burden. There is a global move towards the American model of "mixed funding" where government spending is targeted towards a more merit-based system through loans and grants. This is happening because governments worldwide are finding it more and more difficult to direct resources towards higher education faced with more pressing demands of health or primary education sectors.

The Economist says that though private enterprise through non-profits are trying to bridge the gap between mediocrity and quality in India, "these new non-profits are too few and far between to transform India’s system, but they may well create a wider choice of high-quality islands."

Given the diversity and complexity of India's socio-economic model compared to America's, we need a more rationalized and local approach. Co-founder of the India Enterprise Council Rajeev Mantri proposes in his article for Livemint that throwing open the education market to competition will ensure the implementation of industry standards into a sector that badly needs accountability and professionalism.

This would, he writes, "require institutions to raise funds on their own, push them to create and manage their own endowments, enable institutions to define their own academic curriculum and personnel compensation strategies." He also advocates "allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India, permitting for-profit schools and universities, and reallocating government funding to individuals rather than institutions in the form of scholarships and student vouchers."

Inevitably, market competition will have adjoining benefits like greater competition. It may lower the fees for students and simultaneously push up the emoluments for teaching staff who will be judged according to the market instead of the current complex system that lends itself towards patronage. With increased private participation in urban areas, a resource-strapped government may target its subsidy more towards ensuring quality education in rural areas, thereby bringing in greater social equitability.

Such a move will obviously generate huge amount of sound and fury from beneficiaries of the present system. But as Mantri says, "…taking on the pushback has both short-term and long-term payoffs—the neo-middle class… is a far bigger group that would benefit from competition in the education sector."

Also, it is not a given that private participation will take education away from the reach of the poor and the marginalized. As mentioned above, not only will the government be able to target its subsidy better, it may "even be true" — as author and historian Benjamin Zachariah of University of Trier, Germany, points out in his article for Daily O, "the private sector in higher education that will prove, in current circumstances, to be more independent, more conducive to independent thinking, and even more accessible to underprivileged and underrepresented sections of society."

It is now incumbent upon the Narendra Modi government to address urgently the demographic time bomb that India is sitting on.

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2017 16:36 PM

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