Prof Farqan Qamar, Secretary General of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU), a voluntary body for universities, calls for speedy action to make Indian universities centres of excellence. Two months into AIU, Prof Qamar brings fresh perspectives to challenges faced by higher education institutions in an interview to KS Narayanan of ENN. Excerpts
Has AIU achieved its mission since it was set up 90 years ago?
It is a voluntary association of all the universities in the country. Any institution that has the power to grant degrees is eligible to become an AIU member. Out of nearly 700 universities, around 500 are members. As the collective voice of higher education, we enter into a dialogue amongst ourselves and form a view and convey it to policy planners. Similarly, we interact with the HRD ministry, Planning Commission, UGC, AICITE and communicate it to our member institutions. Besides this, we support research and sport competitions. We publish university news and a Universities Handbook.
With the emergence of private universities, have the challenges for AIU increased manifold?
AIU does not see universities in terms of ownership. Our larger concern is that irrespective of ownership, universities emerge as centres of excellence. So we do a lot of communication not to cut corners and not compromise on quality. Evidences are emerging that people are not merely looking for a degree. What they are looking for is a quality programme in an institution where degrees are recognised and provides them social and economic opportunities.
Our governance structure is designed in a manner that ensures representation of all. In the seventies, a decision was arrived in favour of zonal representation with three vice chancellors from each of the five zones besides five to six others. At that time, variation was not there. Now is the time to ensure that there is representation of all kinds of universities in our governing structure. We are seized with this question to see how to amend our by-laws and Memorandum of Understanding to see that different kinds of universities are represented well in the decision-making process. We have already set up a committee and it is being studied. It will take three to six months.
What is the holistic perspective you get on higher education in India?
In terms of expansion of institution enrolment, India has done remarkably well. Even in terms of inclusion, which is a major concern in India, we have done fairly well. I personally do not subscribe to the view that quality has declined. Objective parameters such as employability, number of papers and Indians going abroad have all improved. I agree that with respect to India’s quality in the global context, there are huge gaps in terms of teaching, innovation, curriculum and pedagogy. We need to improve in these areas. But I also say India is the most cost-efficient higher education system (spending per student basis).
Our output, per dollar of investment we make, is enormous. If we want quality, we should be ready to invest more in higher education.
How much does India spend on each student in higher education? Should it be increased? If yes how much?
In the best of institutions it would be Rs 5 lakh per year per student. It should be increased at least 15 times. Even on the basis of purchasing power parity, if you want your IITs to become MIT, we need to raise investments to that level. Our investment is very low. We have to ensure quality infrastructure, teachers etc.
Can Indian universities become education hubs?
To implement academic reforms, there are certain pre-conditions that need to be assured. From 1991, most universities face a ban on faculty recruitment. In case of central universities, the ban was removed in 1995. But these account for only 5 per cent enrollment in education. The remaining 95 per cent is in the state sector. In state universities, there is either a direct or tacit ban on faculty rerecruitment. Some of them have removed the ban but are resorting to appointing teachers on temporary basis. How will the best of students come to academics?
So what is the way out?
To attract talent, universities have to offer what the Sixth Pay Commission has recommended.
Is going digital the way forward to realise education for all?
Technology can supplement teachers but nowhere in the world has it been able to replace teachers. Global centers of higher education such as Harvard, Chicago and Oxford which are active in online learning are targetting a teacherstudent ratio of eight and ten. In India, it is one teacher to 25 to 30 students. In some disciplines, it is worse. Using ICT tools in our education is necessary but it cannot be a substitute.
“To attract talent, universities have to offer what the Sixth Pay Commission has recommended”
As a finance expert, what is your take on resource mobilisation for education and educational institutions at various levels?
If you look at the public universities in India, fees contribute merely 10 per cent and rest is grant from the government. They are not mobilising resources from any other source. Lack of incentivisation is the reason. Secondly, the institution may get lesser funds after deducting the resource they have mobilised. Mobilised funds are subjected to procedures. Fourthly, there is a cost to raising funds. In India, there are no such concepts. In case of foreign universities, research and development is funded by corporates while in India, it is government grant that feeds R&D.
About 15 per cent seats in all the higher educational institutions can be allocated to foreign students and persons of Indian origin on supernumerary basis without affecting Indian students’ intake. Universities should attract more foreign students. This requires marketing, campaigns, sales offices and appointing sales agents. But the Indian system does not allow these things. We do not have good infrastructure to attract foreign students. We want them to stay with Indian students and eat the same Indian food which is not palatable to them.
Why can’t we allow the hospitality industry to develop hostels on BOT basis on the university land? Allow the private investor to recover the cost for 20 years and then the assets belong to the university. Let foreign students pay higher fee. With limited grants from the government, universities develop in a piecemeal manner in two decades. Why can’t we draw a plan on infrastructure needs and invite bids to build, develop and operate and ask them how much would they charge per square meter? We will have the entire infrastructure within five years.
What is the significance of MoUs signed by AIU with half-a-dozen countries?
Presently, all the admission is based on the number of years spent in the education system. Most of the MoUs are about recognition of qualification that will enable students to get admission to foreign universities. Another issue is internationalisation of higher education globally and the mobility of students between nations. Equivalence and recognition of qualification is another issue there. Presently, we do not have any higher education qualification framework in India. We are bogged down to whether two, three or four years are important.
Has the AIU formulated its stand on the New Education Policy?
Let it be announced formally. AIU would want to play a very vital role as we are a major stakeholder. We have had many committees. How many more study groups do we need? All the problems and all the solutions are well known. We need to address them holistically and implement them.