We must do Justice to Quality Requirement

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The target of 27 percent GER is not difficult to achieve, but addressing quality is the key issue, says R P Sisodia, Joint Secretary (Higher Education), Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) Government of India. In conversation with Rozelle Laha

From being a District Collector to the Director of Technical Education and Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Board of Intermediate Education, you have held several responsibilities in the education sector. What are the key issues that plague higher education in India?
The most important thing that plagues education sector is the severe lack of infrastructure and quality resources. Though we can find good quality resources and facilities in the private colleges, it comes with a high cost implication. In the public institutions, sufficient focus on the part of the government is lacking; basic facilities are also not available thus making quality a casualty. Also, a palpable lack of skills and commitment is observed in the people managing the institutes.

There is a major debate around increasing the GDP spending on higher education to six percent. Can this solely play a significant role in enhancement of quality in education?
Whereas, it is not the only answer to ensure quality, it should remain a significant and key goal for us. Against Kothari Commission’s recommendation of spending six percent of GDP on education, we are spending on an average of four percent of our GDP on education. Out of this 4 percent, roughly one percent spending is on higher education and three percent on school education.
In the past, education was essentially driven by public investment or by philanthropy, today you have entrepreneurs, corporate and CSR investments coming. In the present scenario, a lot of private investments are coming in. If we add everything together, time might have come to have a re-look at the six percent spending. Until now, the goal of spending six percent of GDP on education remains a dream. We do need to focus and prioritise our spending on education.

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With the entry of both private players and public institutions in the education sector, how can we ensure threshold quality across institutions?
The basic threshold level of quality should be maintained regardless of private or public sector. The threshold quality is basically the basic minimum that needs to be ensured by the regulators be it in the public sector or the private sector. This threshold quality can be determined with reference to accreditation. The basic quality should be in the nature of ensuring minimum standards in parameters like teacher-student ratio, the classroom space available for the students and so on. Such basic things should not be compromised upon and must act as the threshold. Above the basic threshold, every institute should have the flexibility and the ambition to go up higher and higher in terms of quality.
The fact still remains that the investment coming from the private sector are coming into some specific regions, areas and disciplines. It is not coming equally in all areas. For instance, the private investments are not coming in northeastern areas, hilly areas, or backward areas, there are not having any private sector participation. There may be oversaturation of private institutions in the metropolitan and the urban areas where there is demand. This is also distorting the landscape in some way. There is an immense need to highly regulate not only the quality but also the numbers. At times, such a distortion might lead to a very unhealthy kind of competition leading to adoption of unfair practices in order to attract students, or to ensure that you get the maximum out of the revenues that are generated which are not healthy or desirable trends for education.

The Kakodkar Committee report suggests, even the top IITs are producing 1, 000 PhD scholars every year, which is much below the average of 8, 000 to 9, 000 scholars being produced by the USA and China each in technical education. How can we make our national institutes of importance more efficient?
The first priority of our institutions happens to be catering to the learning requirements of the students. If we start comparing ourselves to research universities, then we are somewhere being over- ambitious. However, this is not to undermine the fact that our institutions and students have huge potential to undertake research. These days, students are going abroad to do PG and research work. The question is what makes them go out? Are we not having the facility, capability or necessary guidance that is required for research activities? It is perhaps the combination of all. The number of PhDs being produced by the reputed institutes of the country is less compared to international standards. A proper strategy needs to be put in place. You do not churn out PhDs just for the sake of giving PhDs. It should lead to gainful research dividend and that would come when you try to expand your capacity slowly. The institutional objective needs to be re-defined so as to re-orient ourselves towards encouraging research.

UGC has recently proposed tougher norms for private universities. Do you think that it would be a good step?
It would be a good step. Some of the private universities are operating in a way that is not conducive with good learning. Even in terms of quality, if we really compare public institutions and private institutions, you would find that private institutions lack that core focus on quality as somewhere commercial considerations takes the core position and tends to dilute the focus on quality.

Which are the organisations that would play a major role in improving quality in the education sector in the days to come?
The key role would be played by UGC in time to come. The distance education regulation has gone back to UGC and the technical education regulation is also going to be with them in future. NAAC, NBA would play a key role in addition to some more accreditation agencies that we are planning to set up. We need to have a body which has the capacity and the wherewithal to monitor the quality and you need to empower the universities. We need to de-centralise the quality control by empowering the universities to become a formal accreditation agency so that they ensure the quality of all the affiliated colleges under them.

Universities have to become a formal accreditation agency to ensure quality of  all the affiliated colleges under them”

Will UGC not be over burdened with so many responsibilities?
Yes, UGC is a funding body and now it will also become a regulatory body. Having a limited capacity certainly is an issue which needs to be looked at and we are very seriously looking at it.

How do you envision the country’s education sector at the end of 12th Five year plan period in 2017?
We need to define quality, set the measurable indicators of quality, identify the benchmarks, the thresholds and then plan on how we propose to take it beyond where it stands and most importantly, how we can bridge the huge gap that happens to be there between the top institutes like the IIT Kanpur, Kharagpur, Delhi University, JNU and some of the institutions which are below average. When we talk of quality, we need to bring institutes that are below the standards of the good ones in our country at a level so as to assure minimum quality standard. This is the challenge that we have to grapple with during the 12th and 13th Five Year Plan.
We need to focus on ensuring quality through mandatory accreditation. We also need to ensure that the institutes adhere to the basic minimum standards laid by the regulators and that the regulators properly monitor the quality by putting proper frameworks in place.
The target of 27 percent GER is not difficult to achieve, but addressing quality is the key issue. We have brought ourselves at par with the Asian average in terms of GER, but the key question that needs to be addressed is whether we are comparable to those institutes in terms of quality education. We must do justice to the quality requirement.

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