The challenges being faced by Higher Education (HE) sector in our country as listed by the National Education Policy (NEP) draft is rather unusual, with the prominent ones being:
highly fragmented sector with too many institutions that are too small
most institutions, including universities are single discipline (mono-field) entities with little cross disciplinary or liberal content.
no autonomy and freedom for the teachers or the institutions themselves, especially in the affiliated institutions.
very little research happening in the state university system.
considerations other than merit operating at every level, especially while appointing the heads of the institutions.
Very little international presence in any form in our campuses,
etc. In chapters 9 to 18 covering about 150 pages, the document outlines how these challenges are to be met during the next 10 to 20 year timeframes.
While all these are indeed relevant and important issues affecting our HE sector, the perception of the immediate stake holders of the crisis in this sector (the worm's eye view!) seem some what different , and include
lack of decent jobs for the graduates
an atmosphere of aimlessness and cynicism pervading the campuses, shared by both the students and the faculty.
impoverishment of families due to the exorbitant cost of private sector education
an acute disconnect between what is learned in the campuses and what the world outside seems to need
the State System of HE&R (which produces about 93% of our graduates, according to the NEP document) in deep coma due to decades of sustained neglect.
research funded by public money in our elite institutions adding little to the economy or the society
rather poor global standing of even the best of our institutions , etc.
It is probably the case that the NEP Committee's perceptions were strongly coloured and guided by what is proposed to be done about them.
A key recommendation that is likely to be implemented is the division of all institutions into three types, Research Univ, Teaching Univ and Colleges. This is entirely meaningless and uncalled for in our context, and it is certain to formalise and legitimise the already existing biases and extreme unequal resource allocations between the Central and State Systems. One doesn't have to be very clever to see this suggestion for what it is: Type I would be largely Central institutions, Type II would be State universities, Type III would be colleges (public and private), and Private universities could belong to both types. And what is claimed to be the basis for such a classification? One is the existence of appropriate systems, processes and infrastructure in place where the Central system has a huge advantage over the State system, thanks to the sustained investments and patronage that have gone into them for 4-5 decades . The other criterion relates to their outcomes, mainly HRD and R&D. Here it is necessary to be frank and accept that generation of human resources is the core activity that happens in all classes of these institutions, and given the continuum that exists here across institutions of different classes, there is no justification for rigid classification based on this criterion alone. The other ostensible reason cited is R&D out put, and here it is seen that NEP stays entirely clear of asking the hard questions that need to be asked of our “research universities” – what impact has their R&D outputs had on our economy and society so far? What ideas, approaches, designs, technologies, tools and techniques developed by them in our country can claim to have contributed even indirectly to our GDP, and to what extend? At the exalted level of an exercise like the NEP, one has to go beyond glib talks of start ups etc, and admit that the R&D in our elite institutions exist in a rarefied atmosphere, unpolluted by our economic and social realities, and this can not be a basis for declaring them to belong to a higher class, such as Type I institution. If at all such classifications have to be made, it should be based on performance per rupee invested. A far more honest thing would be to formally use the legal classification of Central Universities, State Universities and Colleges, and let the rankings be left to evaluations like NIRF.
Why such top down classifications without much basis have to be avoided is because we know from experience that all decisions pertaining to allocation of resources, rights and privileges would be governed by the Type to which an institution has been slotted into, despite protestations of mobility, continuum etc. existing between them. It will only serve to legitimise and perpetuate the divisions that already exist between the Central and State systems.
The question of what purposes and conditions should govern government funding of research ought to have been a central one addressed here since research is taken as a key aspect of higher education criterion, especially so in the context of the National Research Foundation that the NEP is proposing. It is significant that NEP does not demand that the established research institutions demonstrate the muscle of their research by committing to raise a significant part of their budget from the commercialisation of their research (and not through more central government grants).If there is a place where accountability is badly needed, it should have been here.
And finally, since the NEP document says that 75% of the public spending on education comes from the states, shouldn't the states have been given a far higher role in this exercise itself?