Plight of higher education in India

We were struck by the fact that over the years we have followed policies of fragmenting our educational enterprise into cubicles. We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines. We have tended to imprison disciplinary studies in opaque walls. This has restricted flights of imagination and limited our creativity. This character of our education has restrained and restricted our young right from the school age and continues that  way into college and university stages. Most instrumentalities of our education harm the potential of human mind for constructing and creating new knowledge. We have emphasized delivery of information and rewarded capability of storing information. This does not help in creating a knowledge society. This is particularly vile at the university level because one of the requirements of a good university should be to engage in knowledge creation – not just for the learner but also for society as a whole.   [Yashpal Committee Report]

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with some doctors from Tata Memorial Center-Mumbai. The doc complained that you technology experts have ignored health sector so badly. Then he went on elaborating how we can build a device to do blood test without taking out a single drop of blood from patients body, how we can build a cheap device that can help patients communicate immediately after say throat surgery and so on.

I could see that there are several real business opportunities hidden in his ideas. And most importantly those ideas were about real  world, it wasnt a research to be conducted in 4 closed walls about which no one will hear for next 10 or perhaps 100 years. Here were the ideas that would help millions of Indians if they were to be realized.

But then what is preventing us from doing this? The main reason I feel is that the institutions who should be doing research are very few. In fact the abysmal quality of faculty and infrastructure prevents most of the institutions from contributing anything to the field of science and technology. Due this, these institutions focus only on maintaining status quo. They focus more on a rigid syllabi and consequently a similarly rigid examination structure. With time these institutions become averse to any change.

What about our elite institutions like IITs and IIMs? Both IITs and IIMs are underutilizing their resources. For example, Sanjay Mishra writes in Economic and political weekly:

Harvard University and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) have about 20,000 students each; in Asia the University of Tokyo and the National University of Singapore each have more than 30,000 students on their rolls. All these institutions have a much better academic ranking than the IITS and IIMs.

Interestingly, the top engineering institutions in the United States (US), for example, MIT and Georgia Tech have only 168 acres and 400 acres of campus respectively, which is less than the average campus size of an IIT/IIM.

What has happened to our examinations system? What it should be like in the first place? Isn’t examination a way to test that the student has acquired the required level of skills in the discipline he is studying and he has show both the urge and competence to learn more on his own? But our examination system is focusing more and more on swallowing information, memorizing it and then reproducing it on a piece of paper in the examination hall. Students tend to believe that whole purpose of studying is to reproduce this memorized content in the examination hall. Degree become the end of learning and not the starting point.

At present, the design of curriculum and syllabi is reflective of the entrenched examination system under which the student is asked to face a question paper at the end of the year, or in some
universities, at the end of the semester. This archaic examination system, ostensibly used as a means of certifying the ability of students, unfortunately does not really test the kind of skills they require to be successful in either the pursuit of pure theoretical knowledge or in practical real world situations. The examination system, even in the case of the relatively better equipped and less rigid institutions, has remained quite manifestly traditional and incapable of distinguishing between different talents of students in a reliable manner. Similar to what happens at the school level, university-level evaluation practices also simply broaden the scope of memory-based questioning, with the occasional rote-based ‘application’ question masquerading as real-world problem solving. In doing so, they entrench the student’s lack of ability to examine and understand the real world, as a result of which their engagement with people or issues remains scarce once they enter the world of work, with implications for their abilities as workers and citizens. [Yashpal Committee Report]

This observation by Dr. Yashpal is not exceptional but it is the trend. Most of the companies that hire freshers today need to train them extensively before putting them on work. I was listening to HR head of L&T Infotech who said for every 100 people his company scrutinizes for employment only 5 are qualified to be hired and put on job. next 15 require 1 year in the finishing school where they are taught basic skills and communication skills. Next 80 people arent employable at all he says.

Those 80 people form a market for fake institutions like IIPM. Just one look at the Mumbai city and it’s newspapers and you realize that educational institutions are probably the largest spenders on advertising. From 2 year coaching for IIT-JEE to English Speaking course a zillion institutes have sprung up like mushrooms. Poor quality education for an unaffordable price is what these institutions offer for the helpless future citizens of India.

While the situation at home is so depressing, we arent allowing foreign univerties here in India on pretext that they will be mediore instituions opening their shops here selling degrees. The proponents of such destructive mentality I suppose live in the Manoj Kumar era to think of India as a sone ki chidiya which the firangs want to steal from. [Phrase taken from Mr. Shourie’s speech at IIT Kanpur].

In education lies our future. In higher education lies the quality of that future. Higher education is essentially elitist. Meaning only few people will participate in it whil it will consumes maximum resources. But then we must udnerstand that its elites who lead the society. Its the elites who provide direction to growth. There is only one engine to the 40 wagons of the train, but we can not ridicule that engine for consuming maximum resources.

These are the testing times. With a minister like Kapil Sibbal in chair we can certain expect that the recomondations of the Yashpal committee will be taken with due care. Those recommendations may not be adequate to remove the rot in the system but hopeful it will make the situation better than what it is now.

One thought on “Plight of higher education in India

  1. Politicans are fully aware that education is indeed sone ki chidiya and thats why they dont want any foreign institutions to take the share of their pie. Arun Shourie has rightly put it in his speech.

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