If the decisive mandate to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rule the country without any hassles of forming coalition had surprised many pollsters, the choice of Ms. SmirtiIrani to the coveted post of Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry was the biggest surprise in the post-election times. In the past, HRD ministry has been in the eye of the storm due to various reasons including the dismal performance of the Minister in charge to introducing the provocative and incalcitrant syllabi. The decision to appoint Ms. SmritiIraniraised many eye brows trading on the traditions of the party in the power. MsIrani of course comes from a different genre of politicians of the present generation and her life and work so faris quite impressive for fighting against the odds to come to this position leaving behind the critics at the bay for the time being. But the surprise does not end with this. It is quite astonishing that reform oriented Prime MinisterNaredraModi did not try to restructure the Ministry by giving it a makeover as the ‘Ministry of Education’ thus putting an end to the debate on roles and responsibilities of wider connotations of Human Resource Development.
HRD ministry plays a pivotal role in country’s economic growth as it controls, regulates and facilitates the education avenues as well as the employability of the man power which are crucial for the growth and inclusive development. Having listed in the concurrent list, education is a powerful tool and medium for any Government to leverage on the demographic dividend and the increasing opportunities coming to India.
The status quo of the higher education sector is not so rosy and encouraging for MsIrani to take over. Let us have a quick glance at what are the most crucial issues requiring immediate attention and action from her.
Indian higher education system is largest in the world in terms of number of institutes (646 universities and 33,023 colleges) and 3rd largest in terms of enrolment (17 million), just behind China and the USA[i]. But the higher education sector has failed toincrease the General Enrollment ratio. As of now, 16 % of the college going age group enrolls in higher education in India whereas the world average is around 25%. Further, the higher education sector in India has failed toincrease the number of seats for the aspiring candidates of the post liberalized age in different branches of the study. It is still a failure inproviding quality education avenues. None of the Indian universities are listed in the first 200 of the World university ranking. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the wider and diverse challenges in the sector.
The other main challenges are inherent with the structure of the higher education sector. The existence of multiple agencies in the business of affiliation, approval and regulation of the Higher Education sector has not done any good for the sector. Government’s efforts to meet the challenges by raising the resources to invest in higher education sector has two stumbling blocks; 1) lack of competency and management practices in Government institutions and the difficulties to scale up the existing Centers of Excellence in higher learning 2) disproportionate rise in the demands vsthe resources available. This has led to the mushrooming of private educational intuitions in the last two decades. While the reformists and educationists argue for the crucial role of private institutions to harness the blossoming potential of the present and future generations, both the Central and State Governments has so far adopted a half minded and half-baked attitude, approach and solutions while dealing with this emerging situation. It ingrained unaccountability and transparency compounded by unethical investors in the sector.
Another handicap of the higher education sector in Indiais the lack of industry linkage.There are more reasons than one for this. Steps taken for providing industry linkage met with bureaucratic delays and red tapism, as is the case with most of the initiatives. Autonomy has been widely debated but the political masters find excuses all the time to purgeit. 100% FDI is allowed in education sector, but riders to the entry of foreign universities to India decimated the reciprocity in the offing.The course structures and the syllabus in the Indian Universities are often unrevised for many years especially in many of the Government institutions and mostly out of sync with industry and market expectations. Above allour universities miserably lack research and innovation facilities and the ecosystem encouraging it.
The estimated value of the higher education sector is $ 11 Billion[ii] and the Government’s spending is around 3.2%. About 94 % of the students enrolled in government funded (48 % of total enrolments) or government controlled private institutions come under the state higher education system. This shows that the federal states have a major role in lifting the education standards in India. HRD ministry’s role shall be confined to facilitation and not over regulation.
What can be the debugging options for the erratic ‘higher education’ sector in India? An education fund could be created to improve the access, equity and quality of the education institutions.This fund could also be used for the improvement of the State of art infrastructure facilitates required for high quality outcome.RashtriyaUcchatarShikshaAbhiyan (RUSA) is a welcome step in this direction.
Instead of multiple agencies like UGC, AICTE, State education departments, a National Regulator to oversee the sector can solve multiple issues. A Single regulatory body to govern both the government and private institutions is the need of the hour. Such a framework would act as a cohesive and integrated planning body between the federal states and the union.
Skill and quality are two quintessential attributes of education. Increase in Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) supplemented by quality education avenues would help to bridge the gaps in employment market. To increase GER, the Government has to increase the spending in the sector while robust policies are to be framed to attract the private players to establish competent world class ‘centres of education’. Steps to encourage private investment in the sector shall be taken to smoothen ‘the cost of Eduprenurship in India’. The ‘unholy’ nexus between unethical education entrepreneurs and corrupt government officials and politicians is the result of the license permit raj prevailing in the sector. Instead of these unscrupulous elements finding their means in education sector for stashing their black money burrows, open and transparent policies would invite genuine Private Equity investors and serial entrepreneurs to engage the domain. As a result, quality of the institutions they promote will improve over the time.
All these suggestions are nothing new in the education policy domain and MsIrani would be quite aware of these. The paradigm shift happens when she decisively plans the vision document of the higher education sector and what role is perceived for both the State and the private players. More autonomy and freedom should be granted to both the government and private universities in administration, admission policy, and faculty recruitment and in deciding the fee structure. Regulations should be rationalized for reducing input based constraints that hinder the operational autonomy of the universities. The cost of education and establishment varies from region to region. Most of the troubles brew at the cost of education and the affordability of the poor to enroll the higher education systems. Unfortunately, there has not been any sincere attempt to estimate the cost of different streams of education so far since there are elements like subsidies, exemptions to the land, building etc given by the Government rule the roost in most of the cases. So the priority of the new HRD Minister should be to value and estimate the budget of each and every course offered in the country in an unbiased and independent way. Otherwise, the reforms suggested earlier would be difficult to get implemented.