Ideas and Action for a Better India
by Radha Viswanathan
A hundred years ago lived the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose language skills were so poor that he could only pass – in his own words – “an ordinary school course” and not clear his university examination. So it was providential that Ramanujan wrote his letter of self-introduction, speaking of his mathematical abilities, to Prof G. H. Hardy, lecturer at the prestigious Trinity College at Cambridge University, UK, a man who could aptly be described as a “gentlemanly rebel” and an “intellectual reformer”. For, in 1913, as a clerk at the Madras Port Trust, on an annual salary of £20, Ramanujan could have been easily dismissed “as an insignificant [and impoverished] clerk in some backwater of an office five thousand miles away”. The rest is history; on Hardy’s recommendation, the university rules were waived and Ramanujan, without even a Bachelor’s degree was offered scholarship to pursue mathematics research at Presidency College, Madras. In 1916, at Prof Hardy’s behest, Ramanujan travelled to England and enjoyed two professionally enriching years that were only cut short by war and ill-health. If such a person were to write to a senior professor in an Indian university today, would the professor be empowered to entertain such a person without employing the compulsory filters (degree, cut-offs, qualifying exams) imposed by the system?
Speaking to a college audience on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the University Grants Commission (UGC), renowned Indian astrophysicist Dr. J.V. Narlikar recounted an event from a bygone era in pre-independence India when higher education was managed by visionary leaders. “My father (Vishnu Vasudeva Narlikar) was motivated to take up higher mathematics at Cambridge. Hearing of his achievements, Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviyaji, the founder of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), while on a visit to the UK for the Round Table Conference personally contacted him in Cambridge and invited him to join the BHU after completion of his studies. And he followed it up with the offer of professorship and the headship of the Mathematics department on his return to India. My father accepted the offer in preference to visiting Caltech under an international fellowship, and he stayed in this capacity at the BHU for twenty eight years during which his teaching inspired countless students.” Dr Narlikar ended this anecdote with a question to his audience, “Can a Vice Chancellor today exercise the same initiative in attracting a highly talented young man to a senior post in his university?”
Indeed if the aim of higher education is the untrammeled pursuit of knowledge and acquiring of skills to create a world class and diverse talent pool with interdisciplinary strengths, surely the task of those providing the policy support in education would be to create an enabling ecosystem for academic experts to flourish? Not so in India where the overriding decision-making powers rest with bureaucrats who have scant understanding or respect for the manner in which institutions of learning ought to be governed.
The ultimatum from the UGC to the University of Delhi over the continuation of the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP), with the former arbitrarily demanding the scrapping of the programme, is but a recent example of Indian higher education being in the crosshairs of a highly rule-bound environment that under-values visionary leadership and bold thinking. The FYUP was introduced as a progressive move by the vice chancellor Dr. Dinesh Singh in 2013, to make the undergraduate curriculum more broad-based, to enhance students’ career preparedness as well preparedness for higher academic pursuits such as research. The grounds for doing away with the course are specious and have little to do with the flaws, whatever they may be.
In keeping with the overall vision, a landmark MoU was signed by the University of Delhi and National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) in early 2014, which for the first time integrates skill-based training with the under-graduate curriculum in the Indian higher education space. This MoU has the potential to benefit 60,000 students in 67 affiliated colleges of the University of Delhi and will offer skill-based training as a part of applied courses in the regular curriculum to under-graduate students of the FYUP. The UGC’s haste in seeking to scrap the FYUP programme no doubt places a question mark over the future of this MoU.
In the snowballing controversy that threatens to hamper the admissions process and the academic calendar, it remains to be seen whether the new HRD minister will step in to ensure autonomy and dignity is restored to Delhi University and a creative and progressive solution is sought from experts about an issue over which the student community is deeply divided.
In recognition of the criticality of vocational education for jobs creation, poverty reduction and economic growth, the National Skill Development Mission was set up in 2008 under the direct watch of the Prime Minister. In an official communiqué on the website in March 2014, the NSDC has outlined its task of skilling 52,000 people every day for the next 8 years to achieve the big number – skilling 150 million by 2022. According to the AICTE, among the most the serious flaws that impede progress in the vocational sector is that of the 12.8 million entrants into higher education market every year, the vocational training capacity caters only to 3.1 million students per annum (as on October 2011). And, till 2011, vocationalisation of secondary education had created a capacity to train only one million students at the 12th standard level.
Apart from the supply side constraints is the fact of the social preference for conventional education over skill education, despite the weak linkages between conventional education and employment. The lack of standardization of course offerings, lack of flexibility of earn-while-you-learn programmes, poor student funding through banks, the poor quality of courses and the dearth of suitable job opportunities has also served as deterrents to students opting for vocational education. Is it any wonder that India is facing a situation where on the one hand many sunrise sectors are facing shortage of skilled workers and on the other hand, to quote Manish Sabharwal, chairman of staffing company TeamLease Services Private Limited, 58% of India`s youth suffer some degree of skill deficit and are not employable? The tables (from Ernst &Young’s Knowledge Paper on Skill Development in India: Learner First, 2012) show the percentage of workforce receiving skill training and the percentage of employers having difficulty in filling jobs.
For addressing some of these problems, there is an imperative for creation of a National Qualification Framework for integrating vocational education stream with mainstream education. At present each sector works in isolation, has tight entry and exit rules and, lateral and vertical mobility is virtually impossible. This artificial division has deterred the youth from opting for the vocational sector for which the social non-acceptance is also significant. Lack of an integrated framework and a “qualifications corridor” scuttles the chances of vocational trainees aspiring for further qualifications — diplomas, certificates or degrees, leading to over-qualification, skills mismatch and the predicament discussed above. The introduction of the national qualification framework will incorporate qualifications from every education and training sector (school, vocational and mainstream) into a single comprehensive framework.
In Australia and Canada, for example, which have well developed technical and vocational training systems, the qualification framework supports national standards in education and training. The registered education and training providers and accredited courses provide assurance to the employers that both courses and training providers are approved by government. For students, the qualification framework encourages lifelong learning and re-skilling. Students have the flexibility to plan their careers and learning at whatever stage they are within their lives. For educational institutions, the qualification framework comes with clear policies and guidelines for credit transfer, articulation and recognition of prior learning, ensuring consistency and standard of qualification titles.
For vocational education to find greater acceptance in society, and for the nation to successfully ride the skilling challenge, the artificial segregation of different streams of education must be done away with, first and foremost.
The passing of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 was undeniably a landmark achievement of the government of the United Progressive Alliance. All children between 6 and 14 years of age in the country became entitled to school education with freedom from direct costs including school fees, books, uniforms and midday meals. Over the next five years the government set itself the task of training over one million as teachers and providing schooling for 190 million children in the relevant age group (http://www.unicef.org/india/education_6144.htm). Six years later, as the school sector is plagued by budgetary cuts and statistics point to the fact that India is home to half of the world’s out-of-school children, clearly all is not well in the sector. As the clamour for quality education grows, there is a need to focus on reforms that can ensure better learning outcomes.
Like in other sectors, the HRD Minister too has inherited a department characterized by inaction. The decade from 2004 to 2014 saw a succession of three capable HRD ministers: Shri Arjun Singh (2004-2009), Shri Kapil Sibal (2009-2012) and Dr Pallam Raju (2012-2014). Yet, other than the RTE Act of 2009, each of these ministers grossly underperformed at the helm of the ministry, leaving behind a trail of wish lists, pending and lapsed Bills that the country’s beleaguered education sector is in dire need of.
Of the pending and lapsed bills, the following need immediate attention:
The National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill, 2010: this Bill seeks to make it mandatory for every higher educational institution to be accredited by an independent accreditation agency and is crucial for imparting quality to higher educational institutions.
The Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical Educational Institutions, Medical Educational Institutions and University Bill, 2010: This Bill seeks to check the rampant malpractices that have crept into technical and medical educational institutions – capitation fees and donations and other devices of racketeering institutions – that are detrimental to students’ interests.
The Educational Tribunals Bill, 2010: This Bill provides for educational tribunals at the national and state levels to expedite adjudication of disputes involving teachers and other employees of higher education and other stakeholders such as students, universities (including foreign education providers) and statutory regulatory authorities in the education sector.
The Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011: The Bill is envisaged as a solution to the crisis in higher education today that is held ransom by a plethora of regulatory bodies with overlapping jurisdiction, each often working at cross purposes. It seeks to replace these bodies by establishing an umbrella body the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). It seeks to repeal the UGC Act, 1956, the AICTE Act, 1987, and the National Council for Teacher Education Act, 1993.
The Paramedical and Physiotherapy Central Councils Bill, 2007: The health sector and indeed several other high growth services sectors are witnessing a severe supply crunch of well trained professionals. Councils such as the Paramedical and Physiotherapy Central Councils need to be created to regulate the training of professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, medical laboratory technicians and radiology technicians to ensure standard of care and service of acceptable quality. In the absence of such regulatory bodies, the training and employment prospects are hard hit, causing a big loss to the economy, the employers as well as the individual job seekers.
A problem that seriously threatens to paralyse India’s higher education is the faculty shortage that is supposed to be as high as 32% even in the IITs. Can rules be tweaked to make conditions favourable for Indians in academic positions in universities abroad to take up teaching assignments for two-three year periods?
As against these urgent issues, the proposal for opening up the Indian higher education sector to foreign educational institutions, though a welcome move seems to be a misplaced priority. Critics of the move demand among other things a level playing field if the sector is to be opened up to foreign universities. Among other things, the UPA government’s idea behind opening the sector to foreign universities was to reduce the burden of overseas remittance of $10 billion that around two lakh Indian students studying abroad incurred annually. Experts aver that any substantial reduction in this figure is highly unlikely.
The decision to set up IITs and IIMs in every state of the Indian union is a welcome initiative. However, one needs to take into account the costs involved and remember that the IIT as a brand has taken over fifty years to create. In fact, several new IITs, even after five years of commencement of operations, are reported to be facing infrastructure shortages and faculty crunch.
Voted to power on the promise of economic growth, jobs and good governance, the unenviable task for the new government and specifically for the new HRD minister is to bring in a new approach and de-politicized initiatives that can change the face of education in India – be it school education, vocational education or higher education.
Radha Viswanathan, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation Mumbai