One of the first things the new government will take a call on when Parliament convenes for the monsoon session is the Yash Pal committees final report — part of the unfinished agenda of the last UPA regime — on the renovation and rejuvenation of higher education in the country. The stress on reforms comes at a time when the rampant proliferation of universities can be matched only by a widespread lack of employability skills among graduates.
If we go by numbers, India has the third largest higher education system in the world — after China and the US — with 413 universities and 20,667 colleges as of 2008. The countrys pool of university graduates is 1.5 times the size of Chinas and twice that of the US, writes Infosys chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy in his recently released book A Better India, A Better World. In his book he also mentions that despite its vast network of universities and colleges, India has failed to create a world-class higher education system. More importantly, according to a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) report, only 25 per cent of technical graduates and 15 per cent of other graduates can be readily employed in the telecommunications, banking, retail, healthcare and information technology sectors.
How can we employ people when they have low technical knowledge, asks Som Mittal, president, National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom). As much as 30 per cent of labour cost is anyway spent on training people, he adds.
The lack of employable skills of graduating students is a concern shared by academia as well. Education should not be developed, it should be acquired and created, says scientist and educationist Yash Pal. If fresh graduates do not have industry knowledge, its because of dated curricula and indifferent teaching. As a result, students have little conceptual understanding of the subjects they graduate in.
Another important reason, according to educationist Samar Bagchi, is our continued emphasis on rote learning. This begins right at the school level and continues till the time a student starts working, he adds. Rote learning can get students top marks but discourages both conceptual understanding and original thinking. It could be the reason why so few worthwhile inventions or research papers have been produced in India in recent years.
Deepak Pental, vice-chancellor of Delhi University, thinks that another reason we turn out graduates unsuitable for the ever-evolving industry is that the curriculum is not revised at regular intervals. Lack of training for faculty, poor infrastructure and no absolute autonomy compounds the problem, adds B.B. Bhattacharya, economist and vice-chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The solution, suggests Pental, lies in the introduction of a semester system. The semester system will ensure that the curriculum is updated regularly and learning is more project-based, he says. In other words, students will get a practical grounding, which will also increase their employability quotient. Students need to undergo industrial training so that they get practical exposure, agrees Mittal.
Also, the best of students are not keen on teaching owing to the poor pay, a problem that the government is trying to address by offering college faculty members a substantial raise. Still, it will be a long time before the higher pay leads to the induction of better senior faculty. V Indresan, former director, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, suggests that all PhD students be asked to do a short teaching stint before they begin their thesis. Those that enjoy the experience will definitely take up teaching as a career, ensuring more quality faculty. According to Bhattacharya, infrastructure development in universities should be given top priority.
If we want our educational institutions to be of global standards, we must provide full autonomy to them, says Indresan. That point is reiterated in the interim Yashpal report as well as in Murthys book. Too much of a top-down approach will hamper the development of an institution, says Bagchi.
The Yash Pal committee has pointed to low teaching standards, a divide between research bodies and universities, the undermining of undergraduate education, and multiplicity of regulators as factors hindering our education system. It has also put on record its worry about the increasing number of deemed universities operating without proper infrastructure.
The report has suggested having universities that teach all disciplines to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. We need to have multidisciplinary universities that can allow students to broaden their knowledge base, says Yash Pal while talking about having science, management, technology and humanities under one roof. If this suggestion gets the nod, a student whos learning technology can pursue music or theatre alongside.
Wanted: single regulator
But the suggestion that has generated the most controversy is one that argues for creation of an all-encompassing higher education council, making bodies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and Medical Council of India (MCI) redundant. Incidentally, the Sam Pitroda-headed Knowledge Commission had also recommended that a single independent regulator replace the multiplicity of governing bodies in higher education. That was a recommendation that the human resources development ministry chose to ignore.
Hopefully, with the Prime Minister taking an interest in the matter, the Yash Pal committee report will meet a different fate.
1) Vocational education should be brought into the mainstream so that students get skill-based training
2) The rampant conferring of deemed university status needs to be checked
3) Regular faculty training should be made compulsory
4) Faculty members should have published papers in international journals
5) Students in undergraduate programmes should be allowed subject mobility