Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for progress, for adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives.”
Cleary, a knowledge society cannot be built and an IT revolution cannot be sustained without strengthening institutions of higher learning. Let us examine where we stand at this moment and what must urgently be done.
The race we have forgotten to run – a number diagnosis
Though the contribution of higher education to development, whether private or public returns is well established and quite significant, India, like many other developing countries, has not paid adequate attention to it. Allocations for higher education have reduced from 25% in the 4th Five-year plan (1969-74) period to hardly 7-8% in the Ninth Five year plan(1997-2002).
India and China had the same gross tertiary enrollment ratio around 10% in the late 2000’s. While China has managed to break away and grow at 15% every year, we have fallen behind by growing at 7%. The gross tertiary enrollment ratio has reached 15%, according to MHRD’s statistics on Higher and Technical education (2009-10).
International evidence shows that economically advanced countries with universalized secondary education that provide a fair degree of access to higher education have a gross enrolment ratio ranging from 40% to 90%. The converse is also true. No country with a low enrolment ratio of 10% to 15% can be an advanced country – economically, politically or socially.
In summary, higher education is clearly a race we have forgotten to run or chosen not to run.
The leap we never make in India – reports, committees and commissions to policy action
The Yashpal committee report (2009) on the topic of ‘Renovation and rejuvenation of Higher education in India’ is very instructive in understanding the challenges of the higher education sector. It also provides a logical agenda for action to recover the lost distance and the grand idea of a University.
To summarize the report in a few hundred words would be gross injustice to the rigor of the analysis and to the complexity of the problem. The challenges of social relevance of our Universities, architecture of learning to promote academic excellence and revamping current administrative and regulatory structures to deliver the public good of higher education are deep and multifold.
The agenda for action outlined is equally complex and challenging to carry out even for the most capable administration. Take for example, creating the all-encompassing National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), a constitutional body to replace the existing regulatory bodies including the UGC, AICTE, NCTE and DCE and appropriate law for the commission’s functioning.
Instead of getting into the details of the report, I will instead focus on the political follow up of the report. India’s problem of policy action has never been ignorance. We have had significant thought leadership and intellectual capital working on the problem at the macro level, be it through National Knowledge Commission and this report to cite a few examples.
However, it is disheartening to note that India does not have a dedicated Minister for Human Resource Development. It highlights the urgency and focus with which our government has tackled the problem. Our past governments on both sides of the political divide have been equally lax in their vision.
In all debates which ‘3 idiots’ movie prompted on our higher education system, none of the focus was on the big gap in enrollment numbers we have chosen to neglect or on the course of political and administrative action we have taken for the last six decades. Instead, in narrowing the discourse just to culture of learning in IITs and IIMs, we have showed an elitist bias in our understanding of the problem.
To truly start to move towards delivering the ideals of higher education, a system based on core values of academic excellence, social relevance and spiritual vitality, we first urgently need to inject accountability into our political discourse. A simple demand of a dedicated Central Minister to start with, to represent the 85% children of our country who cannot crash the barriers of higher education.