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02 October, 2012

Challenges in education

BRP Bhaskar
University and college enrolment in India jumped to more than 26.6 million in the 2010-11 academic year from 20.7 million in the previous year, raising the gross enrolment rate (GER) to 18.8 per cent, Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal informed the nation last week.

He was talking on the basis of partial returns received from institutions of higher education. The GER will go up further as reports from more institutions pour in. Even on the basis of the incomplete data the 20 per cent target set for 2020 is already within easy reach.

The government’s ultimate target is a GER of 30 per cent which will mean three out of 10 persons in the 18-23 years age group are in colleges or universities. That will put India on par with the advanced countries of the world.

The data Sibal reeled out offers no room for euphoria. The overall figure masks the wide disparities among different sections within the country. Also, GER is only a quantitative measure. It is the quality of education that will determine the country’s place in the global context. Available qualitative indices are not satisfactory.

Dalits and Adivasis, who suffered severe social exclusion for centuries, continue to lag behind. Although they constitute a quarter of the population, they account for only 14.6 per cent of the enrolment in colleges and universities. The other backward classes fare better with an enrolment of 27.1 per cent.

Villagers are not benefiting from higher education to the same extent as city residents. Labour ministry statistics indicate that while the unemployment rate among graduates and post-graduates from urban areas is only 7.6 per cent it is 13.9 per cent among those from rural areas.

An easy explanation for the high unemployment rate among villagers is the disparity in the quality of the education to which the urban and rural populations have access. Apparently the rural educated are not able to acquire the skills that the job market demands.

None of the country’s institutions of higher education figures among the top 200 in the QS 2012 world university rankings, released last month. The list includes 31 institutions from other Asian countries — eight from China, seven from Japan, six from South Korea, five from Hong Kong, two each from Singapore and Taiwan and one from Malaysia.

The QS ranking is based on several parameters such as quality of teaching and research, infrastructure, internationalisation, employability of graduates and innovation and knowledge transfer.

Five Indian Institutes of Technology figure in the QS rankings between 200 and 350: IIT Delhi at 212, IIT Bombay at 227, IIT Kanpur at 278, IIT Madras at 312 and IIT Kharagpur at 349. In the list of science and technology institutions they rank between 49 and 96.

All the IITs came up after 1960. The real underachievers are the much older regular universities which figure nowhere in the rank list. The most common explanation for their poor performance is lack of funding, especially for research.

That the universities are cash-strapped is not in doubt. However, the example of C.V. Raman, the 1930 Nobel laureate in Physics, suggests that lack of funding may not be the complete answer.

Raman was a product of one of the three universities the British established in India in 1858 and he did his acclaimed research at another. All later Indian Nobel laureates in science did their research work abroad.

A large number of new colleges and universities have come up in the past few years following reforms initiated in tune with the economic liberalisation programme. Many of them are owned by politicians or their cronies. While a few of them have established good reputation under competent professionals, most are of indifferent standard.

A leading chamber of commerce has pointed out that India pays out Rs950 billion in foreign exchange each year for the education of about 600,000 students studying abroad. It claims the money can be saved if quality educational institutions are built on the basis of public-private partnership. The Planning Commission argues that substantial investment will flow into the education sector if institutions are allowed to make profits.

Already more than half of the educational institutions are in the private domain, and many of them have switched from service mode to profit mode. The government can meet the challenges in education effectively only if it puts a reliable regulatory mechanism in place before thinking of more privatisation.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 2, 2012.

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