By Professor Amitabh Mattoo : Are we on the cusp of a real renaissance in higher education in India? Rarely in recent history has the correlation of forces been so conducive to real reform. Prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s vision of transforming India into a knowledge hub is backed by the energetic Union human resources development minister, Kapil Sibal. Both seem to genuinely want to implement a radical reform agenda, and fortunately the reports of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) and, more recently, the Yash Pal Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (YCR) provide excellent blueprints to translate their vision into reality.
No less important, there is a discernible desire within the academic community countrywide to witness real change in higher education. Inevitably, there will be spoilers, vested interests and other obscurantist forces within the bureaucracy, regulatory bodies and in the political domain. But they are much weaker today than they were before the recent general election. Thus, if Manmohan Singh and Sibal demonstrate determination, we could experience the most dramatic transformation in higher education since the Nehru era.
It is clear that any plan to transform higher education must focus on both quantity and quality. In the words of the NKC, “expansion, equity and excellence” is required. Massive expansion of instit-utions of higher learning (including universities, community colleges and vocational training institutes) which are well-endowed and don’t compromise on quality, is urgently required. To ensure that the “demographic dividend” of our youthful population doesn’t become a demographic nightmare, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education must increase from the existing 8-9 percent to at least 15-20 percent during the next decade. Equally important, most existing institutions of higher learning need to be restructured and reformed. A majority are badly governed, over-regulated, poorly funded, lacking even basic infrastructure. Of the 251 state universities, and 119 deemed universities, less than 10 percent would be classified as ‘average’ according to international benchmarks.
Stemming from these objectives are three issues on which government (and academia) must act speedily: regulation, funding (including infrastructure), and governance. It’s clear that the existing system of regulation, currently within the ambit of UGC (University Grants Commission) and as many as 13 professional councils, has not worked for numerous reasons. Therefore both the NKC and YCR recommend creation of a new independent regulator, an authority which would not be in the business of disbursing grants. The NKC has recommended an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education which would be established by an Act of Parliament, and YCR has suggested setting up a Commission for Higher Education. What we need to guard against is that the new regulator doesn’t become an instrument for patronage, but works to end licence-permit raj in higher education.
The Eleventh Plan accords the highest priority to education as central to achieving “rapid and inclusive growth”. At Rs.270,000 crore, its allocation for education constitutes 20 percent of the plan, and a fourfold increase in resource allocation. However, even this huge allocation is not enough. State universities require massive infusion of funds as will new universities. Therefore private-public partnerships, including participation of top foreign institu-tions, are essential, as is the need for granting universities more autonomy and incentives for innovative fund raising.
The single most important factor behind the decline of India’s universities, especially state varsities, is the almost day-to-day political interference and unfortunate, petty, political and bureaucratic intervention in appointing heads of institutions. Again, in the NKC and YCR reports, there are practical recommendations for ensuring better governance and greater autonomy. Within these reports there are also valuable suggestions to ensure that vice chancellors and other university leaders are selected after due deliberation and assessment of the integrity, administrative skills and academic standing of candidates. Equally essential is the need to devise imaginative strategies to attract and retain top-grade faculty. The challenge is not just to offer better financial incentives, or streamline the selection process, but to create research environments which can generate academic excellence in India’s universities.
Finally, of course, we must think in terms of launching a few grand projects which can become models for emulation in years to come. The possibility of creating five knowledge cities across the country in the next five years must be seriously examined. While this initiative requires private-public partnerships, perhaps even the creation of an SPV (special purpose vehicle), the HRD ministry would do well to invite state governments to become partners through� provision of real incentives. Expansion of education and skills development, as the PM has repeatedly said, can transform into India’s global opportunity. The time has come now to translate opportunity into reality — within the term of the new UPA-2 government.
(Amitabh Mattoo is a member of the National Knowledge Commission and Professor of international politics at JNU, Delhi)