Will Increased Spending Improve India’s Higher Education Sector?

Will a substantial increase in higher education spending revive India’s higher education sector? Other than the need to spend in competing priority areas, given that corruption in higher education is as pervasive as in other areas, there are predictable widespread doubts over how much money will actually be used to fix classrooms, laboratories or toilets, whether new faculty and staff will be hired on the basis of merit and whether libraries will actually buy books or subscribe to journals. In a broad sense, there appears to be a consensus  among journalists, educationists, public policy experts, and lay people  that politics is the cause of the degraded state of higher education…


higher-education-sectorThe 1980s and the 1990s qualify as the lost decades in India’s higher education. The Central Government not only neglected higher education in terms of funding but nudged it on a path of decline. Since the 2000s, however, the Government has devoted greater attention to the much-needed expansion of the higher education sector and improving its quality. Higher education spending increased substantially during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) and this has continued for the 12th Plan (2012-2017).
This year, even though the country is in the middle of an economic slowdown, the 2013-2014 budget increased spending by 17 per cent in higher education and by 20 per cent in science and technology, as well as setting aside generous sums for innovations that benefit common people. Even for the humanities and social sciences, which were literally buried for an even longer period, there have been positive developments. For example, the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) is inviting research proposals for grants in the range of US$30,000-150,000 under the 12th Five Year Plan.
Other than substantially increase spending on higher education, the Government has over the past few months unveiled a series of new initiatives and reforms. Under the framework of the Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (National Higher Education Campaign – RUSA), the Government plans to change the process by which it funds State Universities. Unlike the past, new guidelines will require State Governments to fulfill specific prerequisites which are designed to reward well-performing institutions.
The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), an autonomous body responsible for grading higher education institutions, has been given more teeth. The central Government has decided to make accreditation mandatory from February 2013 and only those institutions which receive at least a B grade will be permitted to avail funds under the “Colleges with Potential Excellence” scheme. Interestingly, a legislation to approve the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill has languished in Parliament since 2010.
The larger goal of these measures is to revive higher education in the country and improve its overall quality. According to a study conducted by the NAAC in 2010, over 90 per cent of colleges and 62 per cent of Universities were average or below average. The bigger question of course is: Will these initiatives work? How effective will they be in improving the overall quality of higher education, especially at the State level? Can the Government succeed in pushing the higher education sector in a direction that will allow it to overcome what some critics label as “a culture of mediocrity”?

A majority of India’s students are registered with Universities and colleges run by State Governments. Given the country’s federal system, the national Government has limited control over these institutions. Most States give little priority to education at any level. Not surprisingly, the quality of education at State colleges and Universities tends to be poor. A visit to most of them only confirms the worst  spider webs in classrooms, broken furniture, empty laboratories, and stinking toilets.

The revival of higher education in India will depend as much on the content and direction of new reform initiatives as on the ability and willingness of State Governments to implement them. Further, the exigencies of coalition politics  with no political party being able to secure a majority at the national level for more than a decade  have meant that the central Government is unwilling to push the buttons in States where its coalition allies are in power. It is also pertinent to point out that more than a dozen higher education Bills are pending in Parliament for at least a couple of years.
Given the widely-acknowledged importance of higher education to a nation’s prosperity and future prospects, there is surprisingly little academic research onIndia’s higher education. Do policy-makers really know all that they need to know in order to not make the same mistakes again so that they could be least bothered? Do they have access to sufficient number of studies on why India’s higher education institutions have failed at teaching and/or research or are the answers far too obvious? However, spending more money alone will not bring about anything more than moderate gains. Higher education experts like Pawan Agarwal, Adviser (Education), Planning Commission, who has also written extensively on the subject, recognise that higher spending can hardly be a magic pill.
Other than the need to spend in competing priority areas, given that corruption in higher education is as pervasive as in other areas, there are predictable widespread doubts over how much money will actually be used to fix classrooms, laboratories or toilets, whether new faculty and staff will be hired on the basis of merit and whether libraries will actually buy books or subscribe to journals. In a broad sense, there appears to be a consensus – among journalists, educationists, public policy experts, and lay people – that politics is the cause of the degraded state of higher education. The roots of higher education failures are as much political and administrative as financial in nature. Many of the ongoing and planned higher education reforms are steps in the right direction. While not all of them are well-conceived or planned, there are still some signs of hope. However, the outcome of these reforms will remain uncertain unless the Government is able to overcome the political obstacles that it faces.
– Excerpted from the AsianScientist
(Pushkar is with the Department of Humanities and Management at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS Pilani)-Goa. He has a PhD in political science (McGill University) and previously taught at the University of Goa, Concordia University, McGill University, and the University of Ottawa.)

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