Is loss of autonomy trapping higher education?

Ritu Bhandari Words of Freedom 3 Comments

In our last weekly your view, we asked you whether higher education institutions not enjoying autonomy in matters of policy is an important reason for poor quality graduates in our country. Out of 18 poll takers, 94 % of you agreed with the above statement while the remaining 6 % of you disagreed.

Today, when India has achieved almost universal enrollment of elementary education, there is a huge population of first generation learners accompanied by parents with aspirations and awareness about what education can do. A large percentage of our country’s poor parents are aware and want to send their children to college. They expect it will allow their children to make a better life unlike themselves.

At the macro level, higher education is supposed to have a worthwhile impact on the economy as it leads to skill development and maximizes the potential use of human resource. But, despite debates, discussions, arguments, protests and policies from government, academicians, universities and students, one thing that seems to remain constant is the poor quality of higher education. In the last few years, the higher education sector in India has grown tremendously in terms of quantity. It is the third largest higher education system in the world. In fact, in India, the number of universities has increased by 29 times and colleges by 71 times since Independence.

The higher education system in India has evolved for decades and so has the need for it to be regulated. The system of affiliation in India dates back to 1857 when the first three universities in India (Bombay, Madras and Calcutta) were modeled on the University of London.

Ironically, the same model of University of London from where our affiliation system was inspired was abandoned in 1858. In India, a higher education institution is subjected to several restrictions and regulations at various levels. This starts much before the college is established. Depending on its stream, a college has to obtain several approvals before establishment and has to follow several norms after it is established. The University Grants Commission (UGC) is the main regulatory body controlling both the government as well as private universities in India, also recognising these universities. UGC is also responsible for awarding the autonomous stature to institutions. In the recent tussle between the UGC and the University of Delhi, UGC’s dominance over autonomy of a University’s ability to take decisions became clear. An issue which could have been debated and decided upon was resolved in UGC’s favour without any discussion.

This process of affiliation in India has another side to it.

In India, there is no bar to the number of colleges that can be affiliated to a university. Presently, Osmania university has 901 colleges affiliated to it whereas 811 colleges are affiliated to Pune University. Average number of colleges affiliated to a university is 300. The aim of this system of affiliation was to achieve a standardised quality of higher education. However, when we look deeply into the matter, it has only taken us a step backward. India has come to known for over regulation, which has been followed by several disastrous outcomes. One, it curtails innovation and experimentation. It is common in India for the best of universities to follow same outdated syllabus for years. For instance, in some of the foremost universities of the country, it is common for students to complete graduation by only reading the last ten year papers. Colleges are also unable to match their curriculum with the industry needs. Second, regulation has given rise to a prejudice for a few with connections and political contacts to run higher education institutions. In fact, China’s higher education system is much more decentralised and democratic than India. Also, often, there is a lack of cooperation and coordination between the individual colleges and respective universities to which these colleges are affiliated due to lack of consensus.

No doubt, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of higher education institutions regardless of over regulations. But has there been even a one fold increase in the quality of the graduates these institutes produce?

In India, one in three graduates up to the age of 29 is unemployed. Universities and colleges turn out five million graduates each year. There, in fact, seems to be no regulation on the increasing number of poor quality colleges as those with political connections seem to be getting all the approvals and licences easily. It is time to look deep into the tragic situation. This over-regulation has only led to corruption, favouritism and as a result there is this large number of educated youth in the country bewildered at its own state of increasing aspirations but decreasing results. In fact, as this realization is spreading, a large number of our youth especially who can afford has started going abroad for higher education. Further, it not just leaves students helpless but the colleges are left without options to innovate, improve and grow. College principals are unable to follow leadership models suitable for their contexts. The Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems 2014 which ranks 50 countries overall based on four areas: Resources, Environment, Connectivity and output ranked India last i.e. on the 50th position this year. There has to be some justification for this and for our universities never being able to make it to top ranks globally.
It is important to understand the seriousness of this trap our universities and colleges are in. A situation where colleges compete for quality will automatically regulate and eliminate poor quality institutions. Secondly, if the colleges are allowed to decide their curriculum, teaching patterns and other methodologies, students will automatically choose those which give them best quality and result and thus, eliminate the poor ones. For, many of us can afford not to let this situation make a difference in our lives by going abroad but there are millions in our country who do not have a choice.

-Ritu Bhandari

Research Assistant – Education @ India Institute

The poll referred to in the first paragraph is our Weekly Your View that was posted on our social media on 26th June 2014.