Friday, October 22, 2010

Higher Education: Problems & Perspectives

Before I proceed any further, let me spell out the focus of my presentation. Well, my paper is tentatively titled: Higher Education: Problems & Perspectives. To put it differently, my purpose here is mainly to elaborate on the nature of problems we face in our system of Higher Education today. While delineating some of these problems, I may also dwell upon some of the causative factors that have possibly triggered these problems off. In the process, I hope, I shall also be able to point towards some antidotes we need so desperately today. I’m aware of the fact that these palliatives alone can help sustain our vision or perspective of Higher Education in near or in distant future.       
When I say that I have chosen to focus on the Problems & Perspectives of Higher Education, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m taking the liberty to make departure from the main theme of the seminar outlined for me. Ordinarily, the person who delivers a key-note address is expected to follow the brief and simply elaborate on the theme of the seminar, and here I seem to be digressing from the main theme. A word of explanation is in order. I think the organizers had chosen an extremely provocative theme for this seminar. In fact, they deserve to be complimented for taking the bull straight by the horns. There couldn’t have been a better way of phrasing the problem. So, why have I chosen to digress? Why am I singing a different tune? Let me confess that it doesn’t have so much to do with the theme as my own inability to deal with it. When I started reflecting on Higher Education: Beyond Empty Promises, I found my presentation turning into a nasty blame game. Empty promises immediately put us in mind of the politicians and the mess they have created all around us. Quite simply, I didn’t want this essay to be recriminatory or accusatory in nature. After all, in case of education, as in any other case, the buck always stops with the politicians. And why mustn’t it? 
Hasn’t the ‘politics’ in our country degenerated to abysmal depths, especially because our politicians do nothing but offer ‘empty, hollow promises’ or trot off ‘empty rhetoric’ to tell us why they can’t fulfill these promises? Whether it is price rise or corruption, good governance or electoral reforms, development of infrastructure or education for all, the successive generations of politicians have habitually been long on promises and short on delivery and performance. Politics has bred so much of cynicism in the mind of an ordinary man that he prefers to trust his own limited intelligence or resources than the proverbial fake promises of the politicians. It is precisely this kind of cynicism that I wanted to avoid in my presentation. I simply didn’t want to get into the game of charges and counter-charges. I’m of this view that if at all we have to change our system, we have to consciously move away from this reactionary mode and adopt more positive and proactive approach to things.   
Friends, let us first reflect on some of the positives we need to recognize in our system of Higher Education. Ministry of Human Resources, in its official website, claims (and we have no reason to doubt this claim) that “India has one of largest Higher Education Systems in the world.” It should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, don’t we have one of the largest populations in the world, too? Jokes apart, this claim of the Ministry is seriously backed up by some statistics, too:      
              (i)    Universities: 224  
              (ii)   Colleges: 12, 885
              (iii) Students: 68. 47 lakhs  
             (iv)  Teachers: 4.57 lakhs  
These figures are, indeed, quite impressive, especially if we compare them with what the state of Higher Education was in India in 1947. At the time of Independence, these figures read somewhat like this:
   (i) Universities: 46 (five times) 
   (ii) Colleges: 4,258 (tripled) 
  (iii) Students: 3. 65 lakhs (23 times)
  (iv) Teachers: 0.70 lakhs (almost 6.5 times)
What do all these facts and figures point out? Clearly, they suggest that since Independence, India has made exponential progress in the field of Higher Education. We have, indeed, come a long way. Earlier our access ratio was as small as 5%, and now it has risen to 14-17%. It is another matter, that it is still pathetically low in comparison with the developed nations, where it is as high as 50%. (It is 72% for US, 56% for UK and France, 45% for Japan).   
Most of the officials in the Ministry of Human Resources or the mandarins of UGC would have us believe that this is perhaps the biggest, if not the only, challenge confronting our country today. No wonder, they are busy devising policies that might help them increase the access ratio, as though increasing it alone would put us in the bracket of the developed nations. Somehow, this is just one of the several false notions that afflict our plans and policies on Higher Education. We are keen on increasing this access ratio to 22-24% without actually ensuring that the drop-out rate decreases in the government schools and both the ‘base’ as well as the ‘quality’ of the secondary education expands and improves exponentially. Please tell me friends, if it is possible for us to think of the Higher Education or its problems in isolation of the state of primary, middle and secondary education in our country. And by doing so, aren’t we simply putting the cart before the horse? I think, we often hide behind this false logic, because either we don’t know what the real problem is or we simply don’t want to take the trouble to understand it.
Now, this has really put us in a bind, a classic Catch-22 situation. Our problem today is not to increase the access ratio or the number/quantity of the university graduates, but to improve the quality of our Higher Education. (I’m sure, the UGC experts would seriously disagree with me on this issue). In 1960s, we went in for massive expansion of colleges and universities, because our ‘socialist aim’ was to provide education to the masses, which was undoubtedly much needed then. Higher Education had to be provided to all and sundry and that too, at ludicrously low rates. It resulted, I dare say, in one of the worst experiments in quantification. All through the 1960s and 1970s, it was ‘quantity’ and not ‘quality’ that was our foremost concern. This was also the phase when the college/university teachers across the country also became highly politicized and unionized. The net result was that the ‘quality,’ quite simply, took a back seat in our scheme of things.
Now to be fair, this was certainly not the case with all the institutions of Higher Learning. If colleges and universities began to reel under the influence of proliferating numbers, other elite institutions like IITs, IIMs and premier research institutes like BARC, IIS Bangalore/.Kolkatta continued to consolidate their reputation as ‘centres of excellence.’ To a large extent, these institutions have been able to justify heavy investment the nation has made into them. On their part, our colleges/universities apparently failed to come anywhere near the standards set up by the IITs and the IIMs. So the first problem is that of numbers, which are becoming inordinately unmanageable. On the one hand, we are desperate to increase our access ratio, on the other we are finding it extremely difficult to manage the numbers we already have in our system.
Despite all the efforts of UGC and NAAC, if we have not been able to improve the ‘quality’ of higher education in our country (I’m not just making a cynical observation here, as none of our colleges/universities have made it to the Times’ list of top 200 universities in the world except, of course IITs and JNU), one of the reasons is this mismatch between the ‘quantity’ and the ‘quality.’ We seem to have forgotten the basic premise that there is an ‘inverse relationship’ between the two, and that ‘quantity’ can only be promoted at the expense of ‘quality’ or vice-versa and that both can not always be managed simultaneously as we have often tried to do, without much success. Today, we may pride ourselves on having created “one of the largest systems in the world,” but it is far from being “the best.” After all, where did we go wrong? Why have we failed to deliver on this front? What ails our system of Higher Education?
Let us not forget that the system of Higher Education, as it operates in our country today, was created largely through the efforts of our ‘colonial masters.’ British were the ones who laid the foundation of this system, first through Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835) and later by setting up four universities namely Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Panjab, across the length and breadth of the country. The main purpose behind setting up these universities was to promote Western ideals of modernity, progress and scientific thought among the educated elite of India and also prepare an army of babus, clerks and other petty officials for promoting establishment of the Raj. Significantly, this colonial intervention transformed our basic perceptions about the way in which we had either thought about or conceptualized the very objectives of higher education in Indian context. In the pre-colonial days, the teaching of Sanskrit and Arabic classics was often regarded as the hall-mark of Higher Education, while the official business was conducted in the Persian language. At that stage, education was certainly an elitist discourse, confined to a small minority, but there was a definite connect between the ‘self’ and ‘society.’ It was an individual’s responsibility to engage with his tradition; interpret, analyze and understand it, and also become, if possible, a vehicle for its transmission and dissemination. I’m neither eulogizing the pre-colonial framework of education nor proposing that we return to it, as either of these gestures would be both retrogressive and anti-history. But what I would like to impress upon you is that this colonial intervention has definitely affected us adversely, damaging not only our notions of ‘self’ and ‘society,’ but also that of polity and cultural identity.
If you ask me: In what way has Macaulay’s Minute affected us, I would say, it brought about a basic change in the way in which we have thought of ourselves and our society. In the pre-colonial Indian society, an organic relationship existed between ‘self’ and ‘society,’ which Macaulay changed into an artificial, mechanical one. If his emphasis on English education and science, on the one hand, ensured our march towards the ideals of progress and modernization, on the other, it also created a major ‘disconnect’ between ‘us,’ our tradition and our society. It threw us into a state of self-alienation, from which, I dare say, we have still not been able to recover, and shall probably never will. This is how we lulled ourselves into a state of “cultural inferiorization,” which continues to be the defining feature of our society in general, and our ‘intellectuals’ in particular, even today.
If you ask me, what have we gained in the process, I would say, we have neither been able to participate in the project of modernization (because education alone doesn’t help there; the society, too, has to undergo transformation, especially in terms of modes of production, which apparently hasn’t happened in our context) nor garner the benefits of modernization (because ‘self’ and ‘society’ have worked at variance with each other). This also explains why we have ‘crisis of self’ at the individual level, ‘crisis of relevance’ in our educational institutions and ‘crisis of character and credibility’ in our society. Corruption, obsessive pursuit of money and power or both, culture of crass, almost vulgar consumerism are only some of the manifest symptoms of the malaise that afflicts our society today. I have no hesitation in saying that to a large extent, our system of education also suffers from the very same ills that otherwise afflict our society today.
So far, I have restricted myself to a macro-picture of Higher Education in India, which could have been mediated by invoking the past or through an overarching historical perspective. Some of the paradoxes of our situation that have emerged out of our discussion may broadly be summarized as follows: (i) Colonial versus Post-colonial approach to Education (ii) Organic versus Mechanical relationship between Self and Society (iii) Quantity versus Quality.   
Now as we turn to the present state of Higher Education, I would like to map out a micro picture, too, which, I’m afraid, shall be part empirical and experiential and part sociological in nature. After the introduction of the market economy and liberalization in 1991, our focus on education (both school and college/university) has undergone a sudden, paradigm shift. We are now increasingly talking in terms of the knowledge-driven economy, high degree of quality consciousness, appraisals and evaluations, higher returns on human capital, teachers as service providers and the students as conscious and self-aware consumers. One of the major problems with globalization is that it has further accentuated the ‘disconnect’ between the self’ and ‘society,’ especially in the field of education. By offering attractive salaries, our government is proposing to attract some of the ‘best minds’ into the field of teaching, which has, over the years, become one of the last priorities among the educated youngsters.
Some time back, a survey was conducted across the country in which the youngsters were asked to list their priorities in terms of career options; teaching, for your information, dear friends, figured way down, somewhere close to number 7 or 8 in a list of ten options. Doesn’t this reflect a kind of cynicism, nay disillusionment, the youngsters often feel towards the process of Higher Education itself? If our government thinks that merely by offering fat salaries, they can hope to draw the ‘best minds’ into college or university teaching, they are sadly mistaken. Unless we strengthen our procedures and tone up our methods of recruitment, the ‘wrong’ kind of people shall continue to enter into our colleges/universities and continue to damage our institutions from within.
Can we hope to create a situation where the appointments are made strictly on merit and not on the recommendation of one political ‘bigwig’ or another? Can we hope to create a climate in our colleges and universities, where only talent (I mean real talent! If you understand what I mean) is patronized and nurtured, not mediocrity as is the case today? Where have all the committed teachers gone, for whom teaching used to be a way of life, who never sought any gratification outside their vocation and who never counted hours or money when it came to shaping the minds or lives of the youngsters. I’m not saying that such teachers have already become dinosaurs (an extinct species), but most certainly, such teachers are in a hopeless minority. And this trend can certainly not be reversed by simply offering attractive packages or salaries. More money doesn’t mean more commitment. Only those who don’t understand human nature offer such na├»ve prescriptions!
We all know that one of the major crises of Higher Education in India is the resource crunch. All our institutions are fund-starved. Over the years, though our government has been trying to convince us that it is constantly increasing its outlay on Education, but despite all its tall claims, this amount remains as low as 6-7% of the GDP. Physical expansion of the educational institutions, steep escalation in the salaries of the teachers and the growing need for infrastructure have only contributed to this financial mess. It is ironic, isn’t it, that this crisis has become more pronounced and grave in the times of globalization. Through the process of globalization, I strongly feel, we should have been able to look at the other models of funding available in the developing countries, where the State Funding only constitutes one small proportion of the total corpus, most of which comes either from the local community, the private sector and/or the individual benefactors/philanthropists. In the West, they have a long and established tradition of offering very generous and liberal donations/grants to the institutions of Higher Learning. Rather than do something of this nature, we Indians prefer to set up an institution of our own, thus promoting the cause of commercialization, not of education. Rather than sustain and nurture good colleges and universities, we prefer to create new institutions, thus reducing education to a marketable, profitable and commodified enterprise. Why can’t we borrow some of the healthy practices from the West and transform our ailing institutions into ‘centres of excellence’? Privatization of education is not the answer, but private or community funding of the government institutions certainly is.
In the last ten years or so, we have witnessed unprecedented growth of the private universities in our country. Our experience has, however, proved that these universities are no more than teaching shops, where degrees are bought and sold among those who have the necessary purchasing power to do so. No wonder, the UPA government has been forced to do a re-think on the status of ‘deemed university’ hurriedly granted to several such institutions of dubious variety. The main argument of those who favour privatization of Higher Education is that it would give rise to a state of healthy competition, thus raising the quality as well as the standards, both within and without the private universities. If you allow me, I’d say, this, again, is facetious, a typical case of circular logic. The private universities only stress on the state-of-the-art infrastructure, but are rarely ever ready to hire the best people available in the field. Under such circumstances, how can they ever hope to match the quality and standards of long-established universities and what is the guarantee that the money power will not play a vital role in undermining their standards and/or quality. As it is, the students pay exorbitant fees to get whatever they do get from such institutions in the name of education.
Of late, we have also been hearing of how the education sector shall be thrown open to the foreign universities, too. My understanding is that once they enter the Indian market, the scene would become, not less chaotic and disorderly, but more so. If nothing else, at least, the multiple inequities of our society, whether they are social or economic, class or caste-based, shall become more pronounced. To my mind, that’s a warning signal, not a welcome sign. As it is, we are living through a situation where there are huge gaps and fissures in our education system, in terms of rural, semi-urban, urban and metropolis. Do we want to further exacerbate them by throwing our doors open to the foreign universities? Then there is also this all-important question of what kind of foreign universities shall ultimately enter the Indian market? It is highly doubtful if Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale or Stanford would ever like to set up their campuses in India. If we are only going to invite second or third rate foreign universities to our land, aren’t we better off with our universities, regardless of their performance or grade?
If I have to sum up some of the paradoxes that define the micro picture of Higher Education in our country, I’d say these are  
(i) Global versus Local  
(ii) Rural versus Urban versus Foreign
(iii) High Salaries versus Low Performance
(iv) Low Fee Structures and Low Funding versus Growing Expenditure on Higher Education
Well, this was my way of sharing some of the ideas with all of you. Let me confess that in this presentation, I have not attempted to analyze all the problems of Higher Education threadbare, something which is not within my ken really. All I have tried to do here is to give you an outline of some of the problems, on which you may be able to reflect over the next two days. I’m sure you’ll go far beyond the limited range of questions I have managed to draw your attention to. After all, the success of a seminar depends not so much on the way the participants follow the several leads of the key-note speaker, but how and in what different ways they make a departure from the questions he may have raised. If this surcharged atmosphere in this room is anything to go by, I’d say that this seminar shall not only open up new vistas, but also offer new perspectives to our policy planners. With this confidence, I thank the organizers, once again, and wish them all a resounding success.   

This paper was presented as a Keynote address during a National Seminar held at Government College of Education, Bhiwani on February 17-18, 2010. 

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