The following article was first published on LinkedIn on July 26, 2106.
India’s higher education system is in crisis. It is disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the students and parents. It also fails to serve both industry and society and does a disservice to the nation. This is not news for anyone who has studied in India. Nor is it a surprise to politicians, bureaucrats, or corporate executives. Such is the extent of the crisis that reports and leading lights in the nation are deeply alarmed:
“There is a quiet crisis in higher education in India which runs deep.” — Sam Pitroda, Chairman, National Knowledge Commission, Report to the Nation (2006–2009).
“Just pumping money and resources into a fundamentally broken university system is a mistake.” — Boston College’s Philip G. Altbach and Tata Institute of Social Sciences N. Jayaram wrote in 2009.
More recently in 2014-15, when this author met tens of top corporate executives, the assessment was even more blunt — “There is tree rot.”, “Higher education has failed India.”, “Sick system that is not worried that it is sick."
Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy, which was chaired by Mr. T.S.R. Subramanian, and is the precursor to the National Education Policy (NEP) 2016, noted that, “It will not be an exaggeration to say that our education system is in disarray.”
The entire nation is paying a huge price for its dysfunctional system.
Is another NEP or commission the answer?
Far too many committees and commissions have studied India’s education system since independence. Before NEP 2016, there was the National Policy on Education (NPE) in 1968 and 1986. Just in the last decade, there have been several national level efforts such as the National Knowledge Commission (2006-2009), the Yash Pal Committee (2009), and the Kakodkar Committee (2011). All of them are unanimous about the importance of education and the deep crisis. It would not be surprising that all these well-meaning commission reports are gathering dust on some bookshelf.
In the same vein as the past reports, NEP 2016 has also done a remarkable job in acknowledging key issues facing India’s education landscape — none more important than the severe lack of access to excellent education at all levels. It also recognizes the diversity of needs across India’s vast economic, social, cultural, and demographic landscape. If one reads the draft NEP 2016, especially where it extols the virtues of education, it would appear that education is one of the top three priorities of the nation. It is not.
Alas, the “crisis” or “disarray” prove the point that education has not received the level of importance and attention it deserves.
How can NEP 2016 deliver to the nation and its people?
First, Prime Minister Modi and the Minister of Human Resources Development (HRD) Javadekar must acknowledge the severity and urgency of the crisis. Second, they must tackle it with the same fervor that made the Green Revolution a success. The nation needs a Gray Revolution for its higher education system. It must focus on three key dimensions — 1) scale and speed, 2) scope and structure, and 3) excellence and impact. This author’s book Building Golden India: How to unleash India's vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now. examines Indian higher education in great detail and proposes a comprehensive framework as a solution.
The prerequisites to transform the system are an inspirational vision and a capable team. It also needs to clear the stumbling blocks that are coming in the way to achieving success.
First the prime minister himself has to forge a vision of “excellent higher education for all”.
Second, the leader is only as good as his lieutenants. The prime minister needs fresh blood in his team. Those who have created the crisis cannot be trusted to solve it. New people with deep expertise and proven track record in leading world-class multidisciplinary research universities are exactly the minds the prime minister and HRD minister needs. This team also needs important stakeholders such as talented and dedicated students, committed parents, young professionals, and leading entrepreneurs and industry executives.
Third, the license, control, and inspector raj has not worked. Regulations are stifling. They lead to corruption and mediocrity. Thus, it is time to eliminate archaic regulations. Under British rule, jobs were available for Indian students who passed the British-approved matriculation examinations or graduated from colleges recognized by the British government. University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and regulatory bodies have perpetuated this discriminatory practice that has only led to rampant corruption to get approvals and licenses. This imperial-era practice must be immediately stopped.
Similarly, the regulatory bodies must not be involved in licensing, controlling, or inspecting roles. Also, they must not be involved in directing curriculum, the number of seats, or fees. These decisions belong to each college and university. Thus, the role and existence of regulatory bodies such as UGC, AICTE, Medical Council of India, and the Bar Council must also be reexamined. Any future role on their part must also be conducted in a single-window mode for those who may still need their services.
Tsunami-scale waves of young men and women are arriving at the rate of 20-26 million per year. They will require education and jobs. The clock is ticking. The time for seizing the opportunity is now. It is time for India and its leaders to start with a bold vision. It must empower a team of capable, dedicated, and driven people to bring that vision to reality. India deserves better. Now.
Author, Building Golden India: How to unleash India's vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now. (www.shailkumar.com)
Former administrator, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego
Past-President, IIT Foundation