On the occasion of Patna University’s centenary celebrations last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a corpus of Rs 10,000 crore for 20 institutions of excellence in higher education — 10 each in the public and private space — over the next five years. Such institutions will be given greater autonomy to decide on their affairs, as has been done in the case of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Mr Modi said measures like granting central status to universities were a thing of the past. While this may have disappointed the Patna University students who were expecting such a status, the prime minister’s focus on “a step forward” to improve the higher education standards is commendable.
But the problem is much deeper and it’s debatable whether throwing money at a select few is the answer to solve it. While the country has the largest number of higher education institutions in the world — an astounding 33,723 — and very high levels of enrolments in higher education (at almost 27 million, India is second only to China’s 33 million), the situation is just the reverse in terms of actual outcomes. A large number of educational institutes has little credibility in terms of the quality of education they impart and churn out degrees that have little value. Not surprisingly then, a vast majority of the students who come out of these institutes is unemployable. This applies not just to humanities but also to technical education institutes. According to a survey conducted last year by Aspiring Minds, 80 per cent of the more than 100,000 engineering students that graduate each year are unemployable. This story is reflected in the poor standing of Indian higher education institutes in any established global ranking. For example, Indian institutes — even the best ones such as the IIMs and the IITs — are falling further in such rankings.
India’s universities, of course, need better infrastructure in terms of lecture rooms, hostel facilities, etc. But what they need the most is better faculty. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education found that the total vacancies in Central universities were 53 per cent of the sanctioned positions of professors. Many of the state universities do not hire regular faculty and make do with poorly paid part-time teachers for lack of funds. After all, the quality of a higher education degree is only as good as its curriculum and the quality of the teachers.
Universities also need to be sanctuaries of free speech and thinking. But the government’s record in dealing with internal university matters could have been much better. Take, for instance, its heavy-handed treatment of Jawaharlal Nehru University, arguably the best institute in the humanities space. There are other concerns with Mr Modi’s proposal. There is no logic in spending the taxpayer's money on promoting private institutes, especially when there is no dearth of public universities in need of funds. Similarly, with just about 17 per cent students studying in the English medium, would such institutes further accentuate the educational inequality in the country? Clearly, the government has to think through its proposal to achieve its goal. Despite his best intentions, Mr Modi’s proposal will remain just a token measure until the higher education system undergoes a tectonic shift in its governance structure and thought process.