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Higher Education: Autonomy is Need of Hour

Education also needs to be set free in the country to excel globally. Autonomy in true sense is the need of the hour, when the country has to embark on the path of excellence.  Prof. Bhagwati Prakash Sharma &  Dr. Jaya Sharma


Quality education is key to enhance economic prosperity, employability and expand country’s foothold in global economy. The sunrise technologies emerging in the wake of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) are poised to offer serious challenge to sustain manufacturing as well as employment, at a time when India has already been experiencing high unemployment rate, unprecedented in last 45 years. Moreover, the level of employment in the country’s population of employable age has already come down to 37 % in from 41.8 percent in November 2017. Low share of less than 3% of India in the world manufacturing is largely responsible for Low employment and low labour participation rates. We have 17.8% share in the global population, but contribute less than 3% in world manufacturing. China, with the same size of population as that of India has 28.4% share in world manufacturing. United States is at number two, with 18% share in world manufacturing. Japan contributes 10% in the world manufacturing with just 1.6% share in the world population. Indeed, we rank very low, at 48th place in the global innovations index (GII) owing to a poor rank of 37th in the quality of education, as per the World Economic Forum, and that leads to such a poor level of contribution in the world manufacturing. The Legatum Prosperity Index ranks quality of India’s education below 100 in the world. Poor quality and low innovativeness of education pushes down India to a very low rank of 22nd place in the global high technology exports as well. Singapore holds 5th place with 7 times higher high-tech exports than India. China has almost 30 times higher high-tech exports than India. 

China could overtake India only after mid 1980’s by enhancing quality of education. They could achieve it inter alia by increasing the number of researchers to 5 times than that of India and raising science and engineering related research papers to 4 times. Highly cited research papers of Chinese scholars are 8 times of India and the number of patent filings are 300 times of India. Consequently, the capital raised by its tech-startups is also 4.5 times of India. China today has more than 4.5 times of our nominal GDP and 4 times of our nominal per capita income, whereas in 1986 our nominal per capita income and the per capita income on PPP basis respectively, were 15 and 20% more. 

Quality and innovativeness of education and research is key to turnaround the industry manufacturing, commerce, agriculture and services in the country. Education in India appears to be increasingly falling behind the international benchmarks of quality and innovativeness. 

India needs to develop a world class higher education system. UGC has promulgated a policy to raise 6 world class institutions via, “the UGC “(Declaration of Government Educational Institutions as World Class Institutions) Guidelines, 2016.” But, within 2 years of this declaration, may be on realising that achieving the target of raising world class institutions is difficult. So, by 2018, when the first six institutions were named under this initiative, they were redesignated as “Institutions of Eminence” as opposed to “world class institutions”. But, merely enhancing the competence of just 6, out of 44,000 HEIs (920 Universities and 43,000 Colleges including autonomous colleges) cannot help much. Moreover, one of the six was to set up its campus at that time. Indeed, India needs a world class higher education system and not merely 6 HEIs. The emphasis on a select group of institutions and individuals too is not right approach. Rather addressing the needs of the whole system is more important in a vast country like India. The system as a whole can take care of individual institutions. It is also extremely worrisome that inspite of having one of the world’s largest higher education network, the high-powered “Empowered Expert Committee (EEC)” appointed by the MHRD could not find even 20 institutes, depicting potential to find place in among the top 500 institutes of global ranking 10 years. Almost after two years of the centre announcing that it would grant the ‘Institute of Eminence’ status to 20 institutions it had to bring down the number to less than half. As many as 114 institutes had applied for the status. They included 11 central universities, 27 institutes of national importance (so declared by an Act of the Parliament) including top IITs and NITs, 27 state universities, 10 private universities and 4 Greenfield institutes. The Greenfield institute including among the 6 institutes of excellence, the Jio, promoted by the Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has already been hauled up by the EEC for inordinate delays in taking off. At the review meeting, the Jio Institute team almost after the lapse of 9 months has even extended its target of first academics session from 2020-21 to 2021-22. They could not even adhere to their agreed time lines for commitment of setting up a campus etc. 

Another question that arose at that time was that can only these 6 institutes, being given complete freedom or fullest possible autonomy is enough? The country needs a world class ‘education system’. Mere blessing of six institutes, for enabling to find place among top 500 institutes of the world in 10 years cannot turnaround the state of education in the country. Moreover, one of these six HEIs, the Jio Institute is yet to set up its campus and is slated to commence its first session in 2021-22. Decision of offering full autonomy to the 6 or 60 or even 100 institutes cannot lead us to world class Educational System. Education is highly “over-regulated and over-governed in India.” Inspections based licensing to open HEIS regulators wherein inspection raj is turning to be a cottage industry for certain inspectors and decelerator for quality.  

Rigorous inspections and highly-structured accreditations for the award of approvals, grades & ranks, coupled with slapping of very stringent and overlapping inspections by a plethora of regulators have failed to place the Higher Education Institutes of India (HEIs), at a respectable place in world rankings. Our higher education system comprises 1000 universities and 43,000 colleges, enrolling a total of 3.66 crore students (equal to the population of Canada), fare no where in the world rankings. Out of a vast number of elite HEIs, comprising 103 institutes of national importance like the IITs, NITs, IIITs, AIIMS etc, 47 central universities  plus  205 ‘A’ grade accredited universities along with  1653 ‘A’ grade accredited colleges, none of them could  find a place in top 150 HEIs of world. China had no place anywhere near us in quality higher education has now its 6 universities among the world’s top 100, whereas we have Zero and often have none even among top 200 excepting some occasional years and none among top 100 or ever 150. 

The affiliated colleges are most neglected, not only with respect to any academic freedom (except the autonomous colleges), but in according their faculty any berths in the Boards of Studies or Academic Councils, barring some exceptions. There are no uniformity or any benchmarks for this in the Acts of the affiliating universities. In all Bharat has more than 40,000 colleges, the highest in the world. These colleges should get permanent affiliation with reasonable autonomy. The affiliating university should stop treating as affiliated colleges golden egg laying geese. Their faculty needs to be given place in the BOS and AC of the Universities and career advancement up to the position of a professor. The colleges should not be discriminated in allowing their faculty to supervise research as well. Many affiliating universities avoid to give permanent affiliation, because the renewal fee is golden egg laying goose. 

For any higher education system to be world class, it has to focus upon the quality and innovativeness in teaching-learning as well as in research, besides being students-centric and output-based or to say outcome oriented in its focus. To the contrary, our physical infrastructure-centered inspections. Coupled with headcounts of faculty constituting the core of the accreditation grading and rankings are. India could power the IT revolution by the outcome-oriented computer training institutes, falling out of the domain of any regulatory mechanism of UGC, NAAC and AICTE etc. The Indian IT Sector could outshine, wherein India has been hitherto the world’s software capital and much ahead of China in software development, largely because the computer education and training was provided by the output oriented institutes, falling out of the ambit of statutory regulatory authorities. The software industry has now rather begun loose its sheen, when the regulatory authorities have stepped into for regularising it. Now when AI and other digital products are replacing software products from the product portfolios of the IT and ITES, Indian IT sector has to do re-skilling and relocation of 30% of its manpower, turning redundant with change of winds. India has just 0.7% share in the world’s software product market and totally blunt to make any headway for the AI products. In the era of artificial intelligence and other sunrise technologies, the regulators in India could not sense and have not been able to identify the emerging needs of the market, incorporate them in time in the curricula.

Even the premium institutes, declared as institutes of national importance by an Act of Parliament, numbering 103, too find difficult to fill their seats, as the cream of the applicants, able to afford higher costs abroad prefer to find a berth in the technical institutes abroad. The IITs, NITs, IIITs, AIIMS etc have all been adorned with the states as institutes of national importance by the Parliament. Such a trust deficit among the students and parents towards the public funded premier institutes must be taken as a serious cause of concern by the policy makers, including the government. What can be thought of attracting international students, if the cream of the indigenous students too has such a trust deficit in the quality of teaching-learning and ability to impart employability of country’s premier institutions? Large number of students, inspite of getting admission in the top ranking premium institutes of the country, opt to seek admission abroad, even when they do not fall among the top most institutes in the host countries at manifold higher cost outgo. 

In the area of quality of research, India ranks 8th with respect to the quality of private and public research institutions across 112 countries, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index 2018, whereby India does find a place among the top 10 countries with high quality of research institutes, but there is also a catch. It scores just 0.42 out of 5 in the quality of research institutions index. While the USA tops the list with a score of 3.88. Even China’s score is above 3 against a paltry score of 0.42 of ours. The quality of India’s research institutes is largely considered below-par, with the country contributing the highest number of low-quality research and bogus journals. Nearly 88 percent of the University Grants Commission (UGC) approved list of journals have been found to be of ‘low quality’, according to study on Critical Analysis of the UGC- approved list of journals published in Current Science. It is none of UGC mandate, capability or the expertise to assess Journals. It could simply specify criteria like, it being indexed with certain impact factor etc. Lot of irregularities have been alleged to have been committed in their listing, delisting and relisting of journals. Nearly 88% of the UGC approved list of journals have been found to be of low quality according to study on Critical Analysis of the UGC–approved list of journals published in “current Science”. Rather this flawed listing of journals have led to the decline of many quality journals, as the scholars have stopped submitting research papers, for the want of API score, in several quality journals, indexed and enjoying high impact factor. It is none of the business of the UGC to issue licenses to journals. Nor do they have expertise, well defined criteria to judge the journals or the requisite objectivity. There are indexing agencies of repute and objectivity. UGC should have announced merely the agency-specific impact factor up to which the papers would be counted.

Expressing concern at the poor quality of education in India, even Shri NR Narayan Murthy, the Chairman Emeritus, Infosys Ltd., while delivering his convocation address at the Indian Institute of Science in 2015 out of grave disdain at the plight of education quipped, “is there any one invention, idea, or technological contribution of Indian Institutions of higher learning that could make the world a better place, like their western counterparts, which have hundreds of such contributions, transforming the  productivity of global corporations from their inventions, as the breakthroughs made by the later are leading to several earth shaking inventions for the delight of people across the globe. Referring to a book of Massachchusetts Institute of Technology of the US, entitled “101 gifts from MIT” he asserts that there are several of such institutes from west and worldwide, but outside India that have been adding ever-newer inventions and breakthroughs at an accelerating pace. Murthy has categorically stated in his speech that there is no single such contribution from the institutions of higher learning from India. 

The institution centric, ongoing machinistic ranking of institutes on the basis of static inputs in terms of number of class-rooms, number of labs, number of books in library or the pupil-teacher ratio to aimed at depriving the institutes falling low in these institution-centered indices, altogether ignore the student-centered teaching-learning approaches as well as the teaching inputs. Mere institution-centered assessment, mostly dependent upon the personal judgment or discretion of inspectors, without assessing the real teaching inputs and learning outcomes, without regard to the quality of actual teaching-learning, including the learning and research outcomes fail to sensitise the education providers towards the education seekers. The attitude of inspectors should not be of regulating elites’ with a regimental attitude. Instead of mere writing a stereotype report, of lapses and deficiencies very often those beyond the control of the teachers & students and down grading the institute, the inspectors be given the responsibility of mentoring the institute, inspected by them for its time-bound turn around, with short-term and medium term targets of turning-around the institute inspected. The spate of inspections, being  bestowed upon the inspectors should not be like an intermittent occupation at short term intervals, wherein the stereotype reports of theirs, having no tangible contribution for the higher education to embark upon the path to quality and innovativeness. 

There have been public funded universities with as low as signal digit faculty strength, including the Vice Chancellor, or with 16 to 24 faculty members even when the number of departs exceed over the number of regulars faculty members with 100-500 students into their constituent departments. Whereas they affiliate hundreds of colleges. They prescribe stringent norms of faculty head counts, cadre ratio, physical infrastructure for affiliated colleges, but many of such affiliating universities lack most of these. Poor head count of faculty in relation to students being admitted and the bane of one-man departments in public funded universities in quite worrisome. The affiliating universities insist for headcount as above and a cadre ratio of 1:2:5 for renewal of affiliation of affiliated institutes. They do grading of affiliated colleges, but never care to comply with the grading criteria themselves. Cases are legion, where the same affiliating universities do never hire the requisite faculty members in their constituent departments(s). Instances are legion, where the affiliating universities with several one man department, run multiple post-graduate programmes, solely through guest faculties. The self-financed institutions mostly have much better head count ratio of faculty to pupils but, many of them often underpay their faculty and staff. But, a better ration of full time teachers vis a vis the number of pupils invariably helps to maintain better teaching-learning environment. Normally, the private universities or other self financed hEIs are set up with a better head count and infrastructure, as they have to attract students with much higher fees and are also subjected to pre-enactment inspections. But, UGC insists to have inspection under section 2(f). Whereas creation of a university is a prerogative of State Legislative Assembly parliament. Who this second license under 2(f) become imperative. The students and their parents spend a considerable time in comparing and contrasting institutions in terms of numerous parameters such as infrastructure, curriculum, learning outcomes and placements to judge an HEI. Today more than half the students have been pursuing studies in self financed institutes or self financed Programmes. The best universities of the world such as Harvard and Stanford could reach and sustain at the top of the pyramid because of the absolute autonomy vested in them by their governments and society.

In 2018 alone the Medical Council of India had denied to conduct second inspection for 73 self financed medical colleges and arbitrarily refused to renew permission for admissions in 2018-19, whereas the Medical Council of India Act of 1956 clearly provides that the college should be given reasonable opportunity to rectify the deficiencies. This right was denied by incorporating a flimsy rule in March, 2016. In all MCI killed 20,800 seats by denying fresh permission to 73 new colleges and denying renewal to 82 pre-existing colleges. It was done solely by complete lack of requisite transparency in inspections and inspection reports. Due to inadequate medical education facilities there is an exodus of students seeking medical education to Bangladesh and Nepal which fall in the category of least developed counties (LDCs), besides several other counties like China, Georgia, Ukraine and so on. But the MCI had killed 20,800 seats, for which the infrastructure was created at an outlay of not less than Rs 50,000 crores. On an apple to apple comparision one finds that majority of the colleges denied approvals had better infra than several running medical colleges. The bill to replace was placed as early as on December 2017 in Lok Sabha with the promise of transparency and curb corruption in medical education could be notified only by August 8, 2019 due to pulls and pressures of that time. “The National Medical Commission Act, 2019” was passed after much delay. So, transparency and reasonable autonomy is need of the hour.   

One should not forget that the erstwhile restrictions and regulations of the sociallisfic era had kept Indian manufacturing volumes and its quality at its lowest ebb. There were rampant scarcities, industry was even not free to fulfill domestic demand due to licesing, quota, permit and bias for the public sectors to the extent of the monopolies of the public sector. The Industries Regulations and Development Regulation-1948, the Controller of Capital Issues, The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission etc. kept the manufacturing highly restricted. Even for capital issues above Rs.10 Lac, prior approval of the controller was mandatory. With the dismantling of all these tainted clearances economy is now free from shackles. Likewise, education also needs to be set free in the country to excel globally. Autonomy in true sense is the need of the hour, when the country has to embark on the path of excellence.         

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