Potential of India's knowledge economy has been aptly described as, “Unlike China, India's significant cheap labour pool is not a pool of factory workers, but a huge crop of scientists”.
Indian Higher Education is an area of great debate and policy direction requirement. Despite its large pool of technical manpower institutions, India in it's strive to achieve the desired results, seems to have missed the bus. The two changes that took place in the global economy in the last to decades are: the growth of internet and e-education and the expanding growth of World Trade Organization (WTO). While the advent of Internet has changed the world, higher education has undergone a much bigger transformation. Higher Education has already become a trillion dollar global business and Indian students, besides the Chinese, are perhaps the largest “customers” of this business. According to the Economist's special survey, Higher Education is a global business and there are about 100 million students in this sector of which 2% are foreign students.
India's Knowledge Economy
India's Higher Education policy since 1950's in creating schools of excellence like the IIT, IIM, Centres of Science and Law have paid rich dividends. Indian trained doctors until recently were the backbone of British Medical Service while engineers from IIT's are highly regarded in the US. Remittances from these Indians kept our foreign reserves in good condition in difficult days. However, the once highly criticised brain drain is now giving rich dividends as many Indian professionals return to India with all their experience, money and connections. The IT sector has been a major trend setter in this context. Further, a number of leading research companies in IT, Medical and Financial Sectors have set up R & D and Scientific Research Units in India and have taken advantage of India's new crop of scientists and engineers.
Some Features of Indian Higher Education System
The growth of Higher Education is India has been phenomenal but perhaps not enough. Starting with 1950-51 there were only 263,000 students in all disciplines in 750 colleges affiliated to 30 universities compared to 11 million students and 17000 degree colleges affiliated to 230 universities and non affiliating university level institutions in 2005. In addition, there were about 10 million students in over 6500 vocational institutions.
In India both public and private institutions coexist. For example, of the 13072 higher education institutions in 2000-01, there were only 58% in the public domain and the remaining 42% were privately managed. Currently a rapid growth in private unaided colleges is being witnessed.
In so far as universities are concerned, only Central or State Governments can open a university and that too by legislation. The UGC can however grant institutes of excellence, deemed university status. UGC has also developed National Accreditation & Assessment Council (NAAC) and AICTE has also established is own accreditation mechanism by setting up National Board of Accreditation (MBA).
India as a Knowledge Society: Need for Quality Control
In 2000, the then Prime Minister had laid down a vision to leap frog India into a knowledge base society. Planning Commission's document India as a Knowledge Super Power; Strategy for Transformation conceives India as a knowledge society built on foundation of ICT's. This requires India to make its education more attuned to characteristics of new global environment and improving the quality of tertiary education including also providing opportunity for life long learning. While India leads in quality of Mathematics, Science and Management education, there is a need to improve soft skills, a critical prerequisite for modern job requirements.
The concept of providing subsidised education to students should shift to providing more scholarships to needy and deserving students which will bring in efficiencies in the entire system
India currently produces a fairly large core of knowledge workers with numerous universities and world class institutions. However, the struggle between quality and quantity has been made worse by an extremely bureaucratic regulatory and management framework built on numerous controls. What is required today is to focus on quality assurance and accreditation. The National Accreditation Board has long wait list and a bureaucratic process. Private universities in India are not accredited. Synchronization of curriculum leading to joint degrees is welcome and indeed a way forward.
There is lack of partnership between universities and also with universities abroad. However, many private universities have tie ups with universities abroad and have started offering dual degrees, one by themselves and another by the foreign counterpart.
India has a very large system of post secondary technical, science and engineering education which gives it one of the largest stocks of scientists, engineers and technicians in the world. However, besides the world class institutions such as IIT's, IIMs, Indian Institute of Science, etc. hundreds of newly established engineering and technical colleges and over 500 government/government aided self financing engineering colleges are offering only degree programmes in addition to some 1100 polytechnics offering diplomas. It is the latter institutions which need stricter monitoring and quality control. Currently only about 15% of such institutions are accredited by National Accreditation Board and less than 6% of these institutions have noteworthy research activity. In addition there is the serious problem of corruption and capitation fee in our mushrooming institutions imparting science, engineering, management, and medical education. In one sense this reflects that the pent up demand for quality education is not being met in India.
There is a need to integrate technical education with higher education so that students can pursue these courses simultaneously (a la Australia and Manipal with a nucleus of numerous educational institutions at various levels). Degrees from Manipal are recognized in more than 40 countries and twinning programmes, in which a student completes first two years in Manipal and the remaining in US, Australia, are extremely popular.
Public Spending in Higher Education vs. National Scholarship/Loan scheme
Given the competing demand on public funds for elementary and higher education, with the former a high priority need, it is crucial to move to a system of private financing of higher education with a very large scholarship/loan base at low or zero interest rate. India already has an education cess with income tax which could provide full scholarships and subsidized interest on loans from banks. It could also provide guarantee on loans to the very poor. The concept of providing subsidised education to students should shift to providing more scholarships to needy and deserving students which will bring in efficiencies in the entire system as it will then be based on cost to each student and will also determine the popularity of the institution as well as the course from a demand perspective.
Career Oriented Training/Short Term Courses
India produces every year a large number of graduates and 700,000 post graduate students. The demand for post graduate diplomas in a large number of fields of employment is increasing rapidly as employers need well trained people with well grounded personalities. Soft skill training is required and should be brought within the curriculum. The private sector has responded by a mushrooming of short specialized courses. However one needs to exercise strict quality controls.
Thus, it can be said that India's Higher Education Sector is in dire need for mid-course correction. The issues associated with quality control, accreditation and funding need to be looked afresh. Opening the borders to foreign Universities is likely to bring in healthy competition. Education bureaucracy does also require a overhaul.