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A guide to reforms

Print edition : Aug 28, 2009 T+T-

IN the context of the ongoing discussions in the country about expanding and restructuring higher education, Pawan Agarwals book on the subject is a timely contribution. The author was Director in the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development when he started work on the book, and much of the writing was done during his tenure as a Fulbright New Century Scholar of Higher Education in India. He is currently with the Government of West Bengal.

First the context itself (for a discussion of some aspects of the context, see Frontline, July 17, 2009). Many of the contextual discussions on higher education are rooted in the Eleventh Five-Year Plans (2007-12) proposals, summed up as expansion, inclusion and excellence. Immediately prior to the Eleventh Plan was the Report of the National Knowledge Commission, which also asked for substantial expansion of higher education and suggested ways of achieving it without compromising excellence. More recently, there has been the report of the committee headed by Professor Yash Pal, with accent on regulatory framework.

Agarwal makes important contributions to this contextual discussion by providing the international dimension and a great deal of factual material gathered from different sources official material, other agencies concerned with higher education, studies by other scholars, publications of international agencies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and a wide variety of websites.

Consider the following. In terms of enrolment of close to 12 million students, India is the third largest in the world in the sphere of higher education, next to China (21 million) and the United States (17 million). But India tops the world in terms of its 18,500 institutions. Growth of enrolment and institutions has been phenomenal since Independence, the former from one million in 1947 to 12 million in 2005, the latter from 2,000 to 18,500 during the same period. Of the 18,500 institutions, the bulk over 18,000 are colleges. The rest consists (as of 2007) of 252 State universities, 114 deemed universities, 24 Central universities, 11 private universities, 13 institutes of national importance and five institutions set up by State legislatures. These are all degree-awarding institutions. There are also a large number of vocational training institutions which do not give degrees, polytechnics, industrial training institutes (ITIs) and so on.

Of the 18,000-plus colleges, around 6,000 are arts, commerce and science colleges offering primarily undergraduate courses. Only fewer than 10 per cent of the students are at the postgraduate level, while those pursuing doctoral programmes are fewer than 1 per cent. From another angle, only a little over 16 per cent of the students are in professional courses, with engineering and medicine leading, not surprisingly.

Agarwal provides a great deal of factual information: on financing higher education, for instance, including shares of governments, households and other agencies; the growth of private agencies in higher education; the progress of the recently introduced accreditation process; and much more. I shall draw attention to some of them later. But let me turn now to the substantive issues dealt with in the book.

Granted that higher education will and should expand in the years ahead, the substantive issues are: Will the expansion dilute quality? How is it to be ensured that the expansion indeed is socially inclusive? And what role can the private sector play towards the expansion of higher education?

An understanding of the essential nature of higher education is necessary to enter into these aspects. One point of view put forward is that unlike lower levels of education, particularly primary education, where universalisation should be aimed at as a social objective, higher education is essentially a matter of individual preference and competence. Clarification of this issue is necessary to enter into a detailed discussion of the questions posed above.

Is there a difference between an individual going in for an ice cream and a course in higher education, let us say, a course in medical education? There are, of course, similarities: in both, the individual must have an inclination or preference. The individual would expect to get some benefit, and he/she in turn should have the willingness and ability to pay. But there is a crucial difference. Going in for an ice cream may be thought of as a purely personal matter of an individual. On the other hand, there is a social dimension to an individual going in for a course in medicine: at the end of the course he/she will be practising as a doctor and society has a right to expect that he/she has the required competence to do so. The degree that the medical student gets after completing the course is the certificate of that competence.

But note that unlike in the ice cream purchase, which can be thought of as a transaction between a buyer and a seller, in the medical education there is a third party with the authority to decide matters beyond the purview of the trainee and the course giver: it is the third party which does the final certification, as also the course content and the qualifications of the provider. This unnamed third party is society. The role of society is quite palpable in the case of a course in medicine, engineering, architecture and professional courses in general. But even in the case of disciplines such as philosophy and history, the social benefit is an important component: philosophers tell society what society is and historians tell society how it has evolved.

Hence let us note that higher education benefits not only those who are directly involved in it, but society at large. Or higher education has a significant component of externality and unlike ice cream and things like that, it is a social good or public good.

With this background, let us see how Agarwal deals with the substantive matters relating to Indian higher education. He points out that against a global average of 4.2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education, India spends 3.8 per cent. Public (social) expenditure on higher education in India is 1 per cent of GDP which is not a low figure considering that the highest corresponding figures are 1.7 per cent in Finland (the highest in the world), 1.3 per cent in the U.S., and 0.8 per cent in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

However, in terms of U.S. dollars adjusted for domestic purchasing power, Indias spending of 400 per student is very low; the highest is Swedens 13,000 while the U.S. figure of 10,000 is the second. Chinas public expenditure per student in higher education is 2,700 and Indonesias 460. But India tops the list when public expenditure per student is related to per capita GDP a high of 95 per cent while in China (the second highest) it is 53 per cent, and in the U.S. and the U.K. it is around 28 per cent.

Public expenditure on higher education, therefore, is quite high if the last set of figures given above can be treated as a proxy for ability to pay. Equally important, the total spending of households on higher education by way of fees alone is almost as much as public spending. Households spending on higher education has been rising sharply since the 1980s, indicating the growth of fee-charging institutions and the increase in self-financing courses practically everywhere.

What the Eleventh Plan indicates is that higher education has miles to go. Student enrolment of 12 million may appear to be massive, but the fact is that as a proportion of the relevant age group (18 to 23), the general enrolment ratio (GER) is pathetically low, just around 11 per cent, compared with Indonesias 17, Chinas 20, Brazils 24, not to speak of Japans 55, the U.Ks 60 and the U.S 83. (South Korea tops with a GER of 91.) It is therefore suggested that by the end of the Eleventh Plan, the Indian GER should go up to 15 and to 21 by the end of the Twelfth Plan. There is a ninefold increase in outlay in the Eleventh Plan for higher education and skill development for which 16 new Central universities, 14 world-class universities, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology and seven new Indian Institutes of Management are to be established. There will certainly be a proliferation of colleges and other institutions dealing with higher education.

Agarwal notes with some concern that this situation will lead to entrepreneurialism and academic capitalism which will shift higher education from a social institution to an industry. He gives detailed accounts of the growth of private enterprise in Indian higher education, especially from the 1980s onwards, and points out some specific weaknesses of this growth.

By way of conclusion, he makes two points. First, private higher education has come to stay and is destined to grow. It will bring competitive merit and force periodical changes in curriculum, pedagogy, examination and governance across the entire educational sector. However, the state will have to negotiate equality and equity through a fair, transparent, participatory regulatory system. Second, private initiatives need to be encouraged to enhance capacity since they bring in upfront investments. Public funds are also required to set up new institutions in areas or for subjects where the private sector may not be interested, listing research and promoting excellence as examples.

This uncritical endorsement of the public-private partnership (PPP) is not only misleading but also not conducive to the healthy expansion of higher education. True, the Indian higher education scene has been dominated by private institutions the vast majority of the colleges, that is. But before Independence they were indeed centres of higher education, particularly teaching. After Independence too, by and large, the private colleges considered teaching as their raison detre, though they might have been motivated by religious imperatives or community considerations. Above all, they were all institutions receiving grants from the government.

Private educational institutions that came into being in the past three decades, on the other hand, have been promoted by private agencies, often families, who perceived in the growing demand for higher education an excellent opportunity to get high returns through high fees, special fees, capitation fees, and donations for teaching positions for their upfront investments.

There certainly is a need to tap private resources for the expansion and modernisation of higher education. But a distinction must be made between not-for-profit institutions that are committed to education and use their profits, if any, only for educational purposes, on the one hand, and the rest motivated by profit-making and accumulation. The former should be encouraged and the latter should be allowed only with strict conditions. Any resort to the PPP model in higher education without making this distinction is a sort of sell-out to undesirable private enterprise. The failure to appreciate this distinction arising from inadequate appreciation of the inherent social dimension of higher education is a drawback of Agarwals essentially descriptive account.

A similar problem is seen in the authors treatment of equity in the context of expansion of higher education. The second chapter on Access and Equity is admittedly a prelude to the third chapter on Private Higher Education. As on other topics dealt with in the book, on equity too Agarwal has marshalled a great deal of useful information on rural-urban disparities, inter-State variations, gender differentials, income disparities and so on. Inter-caste and inter-religious differences are also listed. There is a separate section on affirmative action as well. But though there is considerable descriptive material on the socially more contested and crucial issue of reservation for sections of the population grossly under-represented in higher education, the author has no clearly articulated position. There is a neutral statement: Numerical quotas in institutions of higher education, particularly the more reputed institutions that provide access to high status and best paid jobs, have been an inflammatory issue and contested consistently. It remains and will continue to be a divisive and emotive issue in India unless all political parties decide not to use caste, creed and religion in electoral politics (page 58).

A third major theme dealt with in the book is regulatory framework. At present, the University Grants Commission is the largest regulatory body and the All India Council for Technical Education is the second. There are also over a dozen professional councils (such as the Medical Council of India). The higher education departments of State governments also perform regulatory roles, especially in relation to colleges. Recently, a process of accreditation under the National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC) has been added to make regulation more meaningful. The plethora of overlapping regulatory bodies can cause tensions and problems, but what is the alternative?

Regulation (which unfortunately tends to deteriorate into control) of higher education by duly constituted external authorities is required because higher education (unlike ice creams and other things) is a social good and its quality must be periodically examined and certified by third parties. But more than that statement is necessary. It is important to recognise that different aspects of higher education have to be assessed such as adequacy of the courses, competence of the teachers, and finances.

Agarwal has some pertinent observations and suggestions regarding the regulatory architecture. First, if different aspects of higher education have to be assessed, the variety and diversity of the institutions have to be taken into account and hence a one-size-fitsall approach is not only inadequate but counterproductive as well. Second, different roles of regulation must be recognised assessing the content to check on quality, ensuring financial support for the deserving without intrusion into academic affairs, auditing of financial matters, and so on.

In view of these different roles, a plurality of agencies will be more appropriate than a single body, and these agencies could be at different levels. An all-India agency of academic experts may be useful to ensure standards and quality while local bodies may be more effective for auditing. Hence it is doubtful whether the proposal made by the National Knowledge Commission to set up an all-India Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) and the more recent variants of the same idea (such as the Yash Pal Committees recommendation to set up an apex statutory body, the National Commission for Higher Education and Research, which will subsume the academic functions of all existing regulatory bodies) are in the right direction.

Attempts to solve the problems of higher education at the national level are, of course, necessary and Agarwals book is one of the most comprehensive available. It is essentially a good bureaucratic compilation, rich in factual material and international comparisons and with some analysis. My assessment is that the book serves as a carefully prepared and annotated agenda note that draws attention to decisions to be taken and actions to be initiated. But surely, higher education in India cannot be reformed and reoriented by concentrating exclusively and abstractly at the national level.

Change must come about where the action actually takes place, the multitude of institutions. My recommendation to decision-makers at that level (as also to readers) is to use the book without relying too much on it.