Time higher education is given the focus it deserves
November 10, 2017

College density in India leaves a lot to be desired. The all-India figure of the number of colleges per lakh eligible population (between 18 and 23 years) is only 27.58. In some states like Bihar, it is as low as seven. A mere 33 per cent of colleges offer postgraduate courses and only 1.7 per cent. PhD programmes. Providing this backdrop, Mario Noronha says thousands of students who want to study further after completing schooling are unable to access higher education.

In the Union Budget speech 2017-18 made in Parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley proposed a framework to infuse quality into higher education. A slew of measures, including greater administrative and academic autonomy for educational institutions, are on the anvil. Will this be a game-changer for countless youth in the country? Will this open out the potential in their lives and in the process lead to further advancement of India?

After completing his schooling, Sonam who hails from Ladakh, a high-altitude icy desert in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), wanted to study further. The problem was that the region has just one college. It does not have a university. Sonam like so many of his fellow students was left with no choice but to leave home. Now, a student of Jammu University, he says, “We face a lot of problems here. So many expenses – rent, tuition fees, food; it’s difficult to manage.”

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Students of Deva Nagri College in Meerut.

Still Sonam considers himself lucky. “There are many young people back home who want a college education but simply can’t afford it.” It does not count even if one is a brilliant student. “Getting a scholarship does not help either. First you have to spend the money, only thenyou’ll get the refund. Where does one get the money in the first place!” exclaims Sonam, clearly pained.

The lament from students in Ladakh finds an echo in other regions too. Kaustav Baul, from Vapi, Gujarat, is doing a postgraduate course at the Delhi School of Communication, a leading B-School in the capital. Like him, there are scores of students from different corners of the country. It is a huge struggle not only to find the right college but also a place to stay, eat and commute in a city that can be harsh. Often, budgets are extremely restrictive. “It’s never as easy as it sounds. Adapting to a different culture, language, lifestyles and food can be really tough.”

The issue is not limited to whether a university exists in a particular area or does not. In J&K, while Ladakh does not have a university, Jammu region has one. This would imply that for students there, higher education is more accessible. But Zafar, a student at the university hailing from a rural area in Jammu, has a different tale to tell. “Young people in backward areas have no idea about university admission, the procedures, or when entrance exams are held. Many of them don’t even know that they have to appear for entrance exams in order to get admission.” We are today a young nation primed to reap the demographic dividend. The focus on higher education is an imperative that we simply cannot afford to ignore.

Arguably, higher education in India has reached a quantum; yet figures disappoint. The gross enrolment ratio (calculated for 18-23 age-group) for 2014-15 at 23.6 per cent was low. This prompted the fixing of the target for 2017-18 at 25.2 per cent, to be increased to 30 per cent by 2020-21.

Even so, the scenario remains daunting. The All India Survey on Higher Education 2014 lists three broad categories of institutions and their numbers – 760 universities, 38498 colleges and 12276 stand-alone institutions.

Interestingly, 35 per cent of colleges are located in the top 50 districts. College density or the number of colleges per lakh eligible population (between 18 and 23 years) is skewed. In Bihar, it is seven. This is in sharp contrast to Telangana that has a whopping 60. The all-India average lies somewhere in the middle, at 27.58.

Of the total number of colleges, 58 per cent are located in the rural belt that is vast in proportion to the urban.
The survey shows up a gender gap reflected in the gross enrolment ration in higher education – 25.3 per cent for men and 23.2 per cent for women.It also shows that exclusive colleges for women make up 10.7 per cent of the total.

Only 33 per cent colleges offer postgraduate courses while those offering PhD programmes stand at an abysmal of 1.7 per cent. A sizable chunk of colleges (41 per cent) run only a single programme. Of these, 81 per cent are privately managed. Among them, 33 per cent offer only BEd courses.

The Department of Higher Education, under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, is guided by its vision ‘to realise India’s human resource potential to its fullest in the higher education sector, with equity and inclusion’.

The current dispensation has indicated its policy intent in this direction. In his budget speech, Jaitley made a pitch for “quality education to energise our youth”.

The Finance minister spoke of a slew of measures including greater administrative and academic autonomy for educational institutions. Based on a system of ranking and accreditation, colleges would be identified for autonomous status. Accreditation would be outcome-based and credit based programmes would be put in place. A revised framework would be worked out to incorporate the changes, he said.

This alone may not suffice. As Swami Vivekananda said: “The education which does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for the struggle for life, does not bring out strength of character, a spirit of philanthropy, and the courage of a lion – is it worth the name?”

Says Prof Ramola Kumar, dean, Delhi School of Communication, “Students are liable to make wrong choices in their career options. Coming from homes with both parents working and diminished peer support, they need hand holding and career guidance.” According to Kumar, teachers can play the role as mentors and counselors. “Higher education needs to become much more human at the delivery platform,” she says.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features. The writer is CEO, Charkha Development Communication Network based in New Delhi, a non-profit organisation that connects developmental issues on the ground with the media.)

July-September 2017