When community leads nation

Tags: Op-ed
When community leads nation
NEED OF THE HOUR : Globalisation is driving changes in our economy and the need for an educated workforce has never been greater
The developed nations, particularly the US, for the last decade or so have been focusing on community colleges. In these nations, community colleges are vital parts of the postsecondary education system. They serve undergraduate students, providing open access to postsecondary education, preparing students for four-year institutions, providing workforce development and skills training, and offering noncredit programmes ranging from English as a second language to community enrichment programmes or cultural activities.

Community colleges serve close to half of the undergraduate students in the United States, which included more than 7 million credit students in the fall of 2010. The comprehensive mission of community colleges makes them attractive to a broad range of people who seek particular programmes or opportunities of special interest. Community colleges are the gateway to postsecondary education for many minority, low income, and first-generation postsecondary education students. Since 1985, more than half of all community college students have been women. In addition, the majority of black and hispanic undergraduate students in the US study at these colleges. Community colleges also provide access to education for many nontraditional students, such as adults who are working while enrolled. The average age of a community college student is 29, and two thirds of community college students attend part-time. At the same time, community colleges are not only providing access for adult students, but also serve an increasing number of high school students who take specific courses to get ahead in their studies. In fact, half of the students who receive a baccalaureate degree attend community college in the course of their undergraduate studies.

In the US, the costs for a postsecondary degree are on the rise. As a result, increasing numbers of students at community colleges (and four-year institutions) are looking to the federal financial aid programmes to help offset or finance the cost of their education. Almost half of the students attending community college receive some form of financial aid to help finance their studies. In 2010, more than 3 million community college students received Pell grant dollars. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in government policies away from grants toward student loans. Because of the low costs to attend community college, the amounts borrowed are lower for community college students than they are for their counterparts at four-year institutions (public and private). Community colleges are diverse institutions that serve a wide variety of needs. These include the students who attend to upgrade their skills for a particular job, students who are pursuing an associate degree to transfer to a four-year institution and students who attend to pursue a hobby (such as learning a language). The educational outcomes of community college students reflect this diversity and thus they have become sought after institutions in the US. Almost similar trends, under different titles, are happening in Europe, Australia and South Asian countries.

We in India have been blindly following the US approach as best to us, rather than doing critical analysis of the situation. Basically community colleges are nothing but institutions that give skills training in all the service domains that have become of critical importance in 21st century. Globalisation is driving changes in our economy and the need for an educated workforce has never been greater. The majority of new jobs that will be created by 2018 will require some postsecondary education. In addition, the demographics of the workforce are changing. As a result, employers increasingly rely on the students who currently are least likely to complete their education.

The government adopted different strategies under different ministries: HRD, commerce and industries, health, communication, IT, road and transport and even law are now active. However, in our country each ministry behaves like an independent entity and likes to publicise their contributors to public and governments. UGC also has jumped onto this bandwagon now that AICTEs task is being transferred to the UGC. It is continuously announcing new policies or asking educational institutions to promote community colleges.

The UGC either in a pre-planned manner or without doing systematic and detailed study of how much infrastructure there is with affiliated colleges as well as what contributions they can make in skills education have asked the colleges and universities to follow community college concept and create such institutions. They would most probably provide limited financial support. What is interesting is that universities and colleges are taking this new path that would give them some money.

UGC must understand India’s need and what could be done by using the existing infrastructure. UGC should have asked universities to check with their affiliated colleges (more than 32,000 colleges in our country use only 60 per cent of infrastructure) to go about this task of skill education in a more organised manner rather than following blindly the US concept.

These self-supporting affiliating colleges would do a better task because they have new challenges. Without such colleges, millions of students and adult learners would not be able to access the education they need to be prepared for the workplace. These colleges would become the access point for education in a town and a real catalyst for economic development.

(The writer is a former chairman of UGC and former VC of University of Pune)

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