The gloomy state of higher education

Tags: Opinion
The gloomy state of higher education
Bloomberg
LOST FOCUS: A corrupt selection process generates students with substandard knowledge, who are absorbed by the industry because it always needs a pool of fresh graduates that can be train as per their requirement
Time and again we have talked about the crucial need for reforms in higher education. These discussions take different approaches each time. Such debates become more prominent when admission processes are triggered. And something similar is happening since the past two months across the country.

Today, many bright students — and their annoyed but silent spectator parents — are under tremendous pressure regarding admissions in colleges at undergraduate and postgraduate level. They are aware of the major issues with the system but since their child’s career is directly related with admission processes, they keep running helplessly from one institution to the other, worried how much this process is going to cost them and if there is an end to this chaos. Since last year, their children, who put in enormous efforts in multiple admission tests, are being adversely affected both physically and mentally. At first, they were locked up with class 12 examinations, and then got caught up in several other entrance examinations that follow.

However, despite all the hard work put in and good scores fetched, students are still not sure if they would get admission in a college of their choice. This is also due to the fact that hundreds of students lie in the same range of marks as them. And the worst stress factor is the expenditure that their parents have borne all this while — which they may have been assimilating for years — especially those belonging to lower and upper middle class families.

Meanwhile, some parents are willing to flow in ample money into the two-layered, hollow process of admission; first, where the managements of institutions come in picture, and secondly, getting their child pushed up in the merit list of the same organisation. Such parents are well aware of the power and flexibility in the hands of the top management. Here, I am talking of only the 15 per cent of families that go through such a non-controlled procedure. But we have never thought of the other 85 per cent that are simply on the border of circles. They are familiar with India’s education ‘chemistry’ that includes the corruption and negligence of the intelligence of their children. This is specially true for socially backward and economically depressed families. Their plight is heightened as they candidly know that professional education is run and controlled by ‘education barons’ whose sole focus is to strengthen their political or social identity. They do provide huge seven-star infrastructure, wonderful support facilities and world class activities at sprawling campuses where they make sure those who can afford all these amenities are invited for various, and mostly, non-academic activities.

Moreover, a majority of the faculty at such campuses is a floating faculty who run from institution to institution, while the limited permanent faculty whose main task is to see that students are kept busy for the entire day.

Such a corrupt selection process generates graduates with substandard knowledge and application experience. What is interesting is that even these raw graduates are absorbed by the industry because it always needs fresh graduates whom they can further train as per their requirement. However, today, the scenario is somewhat changing. A few decades ago, training freshly employed employees was a focused approach for industry. But in the present day and age of cutting-edge competition, companies realise the need to adopt new strategies. They must interact with educational institutions and change the entire process of delivery of education at graduate level itself. Unfortunately, a few institutes that are ever focused on admissions are not too disturbed about this.

Several other aspects in the higher education sector need to be considered with utmost care. The larger hitch has been for the past six decades, especially as higher education lies in a bilateral domain — state and centre. The centre gives larger financial support to all central universities that educate just 2 per cent of higher education students, but state universities, which cater to students from low social and economic background are not heavily funded by either the state or central governments. The state government simply pays salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff and no funds are given for the overall development of the institute.

The irony in India is that it substitutes ‘subsidy’ with ‘reservation’ and vice versa. Socially backward students need to be provided with reservation and talented students in other communities also need to be given subsidy in fees. Indeed, the government should create a policy where social identity, aptitude of students and financial strength of the families are taken into consideration with well-defined weightage to each of these elements for supporting students financially. If the nation’s top talents are faced with huge fees and low quality delivery methods, quality education will remain a dream. The government should focus on tier II public institutions and upgrade them instead of opening new colleges under the old brands (IIMs and IITs). Indians have realised that privatisation cannot be the only medicine for all its problems, and that the answer is accountability at all levels. Therefore, we need critical reforms with a hard action plan.

arun.nigavekar@mydigitalfc.com

(The writer is former chairman of UGC, former vice-chancellor of University of Pune and founder director of NAAC)

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