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10 July, 2012

Lag in education

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

If India fails to realise the dream of becoming a global power by the middle of the century it may be due to educational shortfall, not to economic slowdown. Formulating schemes to improve the standards of education and pushing them through the complex political system are proving to be difficult tasks.

Education is on the Concurrent List of the Constitution, which means it is an area where both the central and state governments have authority. The states are under different political parties, and national interests suffer as each of them cynically pursues its narrow and selfish interests. Intervention by the courts has sometimes complicated matters.

Improvement of higher education, in both qualitative and quantitative terms, is high on the centre’s agenda. At present only 16 out of 100 students reach university level. The centre wants to raise the number to 40, which is the prevailing rate in the developed world, by 2020. This calls for raising college enrolment, which is now about 16 million, to 45 million.

To achieve this target, the higher education sector, which comprises a little over 600 universities and 30,000 colleges, has to be expanded considerably. The centre has drawn up schemes to set up some new institutions of higher learning, modelled after the acclaimed Indian Institutes of Technology. Lacking resources to do more, it is looking up to the private sector to fill the breach.

The results of early efforts at swift expansion have been uneven. While a few private universities and colleges have done well, the performance of many has been less than satisfactory and of some downright dismal.

Many rushed into the field lured by the prospect of quick money through illegal practices like levy of capitation fees. Political patronage protects the evildoers from the law’s arms. It also helps them to expand their activities even when the institutions’ record is poor.

A few years ago, with a view to improving the quality of education, the government permitted universities to run joint degree programmes with foreign institutions. Here, too, the record has not been uniformly good. Last month the University Grants Commission stipulated that only an institution given A grade by a national accreditation agency can enter into collaboration and that the foreign partner must be one of 500 institutions figuring in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings or Shanghai Rankings.

Phil Baty, Editor of THE Rankings, has cautioned India against relying too much on the rather crude global ranking tables which reduce universities and their diverse missions and strengths to a single composite score in view of its need for institutions of higher education with different missions and social roles.

At a bilateral meet on higher education, held recently, India sought US investment in this sector. Given current economic realities, a practical proposition may be to envision trilateral projects with a cash-rich third country joining as both financier and beneficiary.

Baty’s comment underscores the need for India to pay special attention to the needs of the people who bear the burden of centuries of social exclusion. A National Sample Survey conducted three years ago showed that while 27.7 per cent of those in the age group of 18-22 years attended institutions of higher education, some categories like villagers (18.7%), the Scheduled Castes (17.3%), Muslims (16.1%) and the Scheduled Tribes (14.1%) did not have equal access to them.

Analysts have pointed out that students belonging to the backward classes, who constitute 45 per cent of the population, would not have received more than 17 per cent of the seats if there were no reservation for them.

The judiciary’s narrow interpretation of the statute has blocked some measures taken by the government to help the socially and economically backward classes. Recently a high court struck down a government decision fixing a sub-quota for Muslims in the quota reserved for the backward classes. As the Supreme Court declined to stay the order the decision could not be implemented this year.

Social analyst Yogendra Yadav has pointed out that the national media’s biased coverage masks the harsh reality of inherited group inequalities.

Human resources remain grossly underdeveloped as large sections of people lack access to education and receive only poor quality of education when they manage to get to school. Determined efforts are needed to overcome this limitation and realise the nation’s full potential.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 10, 2012.

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