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August 05, 2019 Monday 12:14:15 PM IST

Reforming Higher Education

Rajagiri Round Table

Amidst the euphoria generated by the new Draft NEP compiled by a committee headed by renowned scientist Dr. K.Kasturirangan, there are apprehensions and concerns as well heard in the academic circles. In this backdrop, the 50th Rajagiri Round Table conference held on 17th July at Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology (RSET)examined some of the important provisions in the document and discussed what changes may be required before it is enacted into law.

The subject experts who initiated the discussion were Dr. N. Ajith Kumar, Director of Centre for Socio Economic and Environmental Studies, Kochi;Dr. V. Raman Nair, Advisor, Global Institute of Integrated Management Studies, Kochi; and Dr. Aneesh V Pillai, Asst. Professor of Legal Studies at CUSAT. Mr. R.Ramabhadran Pillai, Editor of RajagiriPallikkutam, made the introductory remarks, introduced the speakers and moderated the session. Dr. Nagaraj Neerchal, Vice Chancellor of Chinmaya Deemed to be University, delivered a special address and Mr. M.P. Joseph, IAS (Retd) released a book 'A Vision for Higher Education Reform' compiled by Dr. D.Dhanuraj and Rahul Kumar of Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) based on articles published in RajagiriPallikkutam magazine. 

Major concerns were raised by the panelists regarding the three types of universities to be set up under the policy. Type-1: Research Universities, Type 2: Teaching Universities and Type 3: Colleges. This seems to be a copy of the US system where they have research universities such as Harvard, comprehensive universities and four-year colleges. That apart they also have a two- year college. Even research universities have undergraduate courses. Now when it comes to applying it in Indian context, concerns have been raised as to how to classify a University as Research university and who will be the accrediting agency.

Research is integral to Education

Some of the well-known universities in India were research universities at one point of time- eg. Madras University and Kerala University. But later, it was felt that a university can exist or survive only if there is a regular, structured programme and research is not an ongoing affair.Teaching is a continuous affair. Expansion possibilities are also more when there are students and courses. Government could also consider the German model where Universities do fundamental research that covers basic sciences that will be applicable or useful for entire humanity while teaching universities focus on applied science research which is useful for industry to solve their problems. Hence, demarcation of universities into research and teaching may not be suitable in the modern context.

Dr Varghese PanthalookaranTeaching will not be complete without research. Education devoid of research is not education. Research skill has to be there in every system of education. I doubt whether there is a serious lack of understanding on the part of policy-makers about what modern education is which is reflected in the new classification of universities.

Dr Nagaraj Neerchal: The three-category university system envisaged in the policy looks so familiar as a similar system is in vogue in USA. There it is categorised into Research universities, comprehensive universities and four-year colleges. Research universities such as Harvard University should have 24 or 25 disciplines in which they award PhDs and $50 million in research grants. The second type gives bachelors and masters degree. The research universities have undergraduate and master’s programmes too. The four-year colleges offer undergraduate courses.  

Utilisation of NRF Grants

The National Research Foundation (NRF) will be set up with an annual allocation of Rs 20,000 crore. However, panelists felt that there have been cases in the past where government had attempted to dictate topics and provide funds to only those approved by the party in power. In humanities, for eg. government is having a say on the topics to be researched. Therefore, there should be adequate checks on how these funds are utilised. In the present scenario, projects are approved and funded on the basis of quality of proposals and not on the evaluation of the final project report and there should be a mechanism to evaluate the quality of the output.

Migration of Universities to New System

The migration of existing universities to the new 3-category system will entail huge costs which disproportionately the state governments may have to bear a huge burden.The reconstitution means that number of colleges in rural areas will not be able to survive on its own. It will have to merge with larger colleges or universities. This means that access to higher education will be denied to large number of people in rural and semi urban areas.

The central government budget expenditure on education as a percentage of total public expenditure is to be raised from 10.9% at present to 20.9% in ten years. There is also a one-time expenditure of 3% for the higher educational institutions to be raised to the new levels. Totally 5% extra expenditure is to be earmarked for universities of which 1% will be given to research universities, 3.5% to teaching universities and 0.5% to colleges. However, the estimations are not based on cost analysis and it remains doubtful whether the 20.9% of budgetary expenses will be sufficient to finance all the restructuring of universities as stated in the policy. The policy says 20% of State Government finances should be earmarked for education. At present many States are already doing it and this won't be sufficient to meet the new infrastructure expenses.
The state governments will be overburdened with the task of funding the restructuring of universities; therefore, a clear road map for sharing the responsibilities of funding between central and State governments has to be made as revenue from educational cess is not available to States.The question of funding the private universities with scarce public funds should also be subject to debate.

Dr N Ajith Kumar: The policy aims to set up a Rashtriya Shiksha Yojana or National Education Commission headed by Prime Minister. But I think politicians will have an upper hand and lack of representation of academicians are likely in this highest law- making body. The previous two national education commissions- The Mudaliar Commission (1952-53) and Kothari Commission (1966) were headed by academicians. In this present commission, the chances of being influenced by party in power is more likely.

Focus on Interdisciplinary studies

The new policy does away with silos and verticals and intends to take education to an interdisciplinary level. There will be interdisciplinary courses in arts, sciences and technology. Instead of mathematics being allied with only physics or chemistry at present, it could be applied to history and arts too. Even all the institutions of excellence such as IITs, IIMs, ISI and IIMs will not look the same. We may have large multidisciplinary campuses like Rajagiri where it has social sciences, management and engineering functioning together.

Dr Aneesh V Pillai: It is not clear as tohow the new policy will define inter-disciplinary research. Under RashtriyaUchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), a centrally sponsored scheme, we were told to come up with projects that should involve all five departments- Economics, Management, Law, Hindi, English and foreign languages. How this can be made possible is a vexing question.

Dr V Raman Nair: The present BEd system is totally outdated and obsolete and it will not help in producing good quality teachers. The new policy envisages a four-year BEd programme which should significantly increase the quality of teachers. There is also lack of teachers who can properly communicate in English.

MP Joseph: The draft NEP is a clean document that looks at education exclusively and it is forward looking. If it is implemented, within 15 years, our system would look radically different including our institutions of excellence such as IITs and IIMs. The smaller colleges find it tough to survive and will have to integrate with large autonomous colleges or universities.

Elevation of Vocational Training

The positive aspect of the policy is the integration of vocational training into higher education. At present vocational education is outside of universities and confined to ITI which are meant to cater to blue collar jobs. However, under the new three tier system vocational education will become part of the university environment.

Deemphasising English

Some panelists were of the view that there was an apparent irony in the policy talking about internationalisation of education and de-emphasising of English in favour of Hindi and vernacular  languages. This can erode our competitiveness especially when China is trying hard to catch up with English skills which their population is lacking. Some expressed the concern that there is a likelihood of imposition of Hindi. The document says English has lost its importance as an international language.

However, some others were of the view that with modern apps and multilingual keyboards the issue of language will be a non-issue. With higher internet penetration and mobile penetration, translation of content to any language is available with the user. Hence, language will not be barrier for the creative, innovative minds as technology is bridging the gap with translation services. However, certain languages cannot be translated especially law and technical subjects.

Concurrent List

Education being in the Concurrent List, both the State Government and the Centre can legislate on various reforms. However, there is a concern that the new policy will vest more powers with the Centre and thus erode the federal structure of our Constitution and thereby cause unrest in some parts of the country as education is dear to all the States. Some panellists were of the view that the policy may face serious implementational issues if there is no proper legislation specifying the roles of the Centre and the State.  Some reforms such as four-year degree may face road block as in the case of Delhi University where there was intense student resistance.

Dr PR Poduval, Former Director of School of Management Studies, CUSAT:

The problem with education is that its objectives are diverse. There are too many stakeholders and each of them is looking at it from his/her point of view. Politicians look at it from State-Centre control perspective; for parents, it is a route to employment for children; industry sees it as getting required human resources for their services. So, unless we come to a consensus on objectives, the present controversies will continue.

Enrolment Ratio of 50%
Whether we should look at raising the Gross Enrolment Ratio to 50% for higher education by 2035 or focus on quality also came up for debate. Even if 6% of GDP is spent on education, 50% looks unattainable. Students should be enrolled on the basis of talent and quality and not just to attain a certain percentage of enrolment as laid out in the policy.

Dr Job Kuruvila: The 50% Gross Enrolment ratio for higher education is quite utopian. Not much funding is expected to come into education whereas several thousand crores of rupees are spent on bullet trains and making statues.  In India, education is primarily to get employment which is quite scarce and therefore, there will be every effort by people to manufacture degrees.  In many institutions, the quality of teaching is also declining and not to speak of the quality of research.

Prof. K.E.Abraham: I don’t agree with the view that our quality of education is bad when India has become a nuclear power and space power. However, in the new policy there is a hypocritical contradiction between Indian traditionalism and Western modernism. They are trying to include Indian culture, civilisation and epics in Law syllabus and there is an effort to influence research in social sciences and humanities to impact future generations.

Major Recommendations

  • Let universities fund fundamental research and teaching universities undertake applied science research relevant to industry and funded by them.
  • Research should become an integral part of education.
  • English should serve as link language and promotion of regional languages and Hindi at the expense of English may erode our international competitiveness.
  • Education being in the concurrent list, enough legislative safeguards should be taken so that the policy doesn’t face any implementation issues.
  • The criteria for admission to higher education should be based on aptitude and quality and not to meet any enrolment goals.
  • There should be clear guidelines as to how inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research will be conducted and what criteria will be followed for selection of projects for funding.
  • States have to shoulder huge financial burden to change over to new university system. The Union Government should find ways to support States in this regard.
  • Projects chosen for National Research Fund grants should be judged not on the basis of project proposals alone but on the final product or outcome also
  • How can universities remain just research universities without teaching or undergraduate courses is something government needs to look into.
  • More academic representation is required in educational policy making bodies including Rashtriya Shiksha Yojana.

(Reported by Sreekumar Raghavan)