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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Quality in Indian Higher Education

A lot of us keep bemoaning that the quality in Indian Higher Education scenario is largely absent but for a few institutes in each discipline. Consider engineering, for example, with a demand of more than 10 lakh seats per year, but the most liberal interpretation of quality would still not let you classify more than 50 thousand seats as having good quality of education.

Has the higher education policy of the government failed?

Of course, not. The policy has been fantastically successful. It was designed to create a situation that we see today, and it has succeeded. A higher education policy has to balance between access/equity, cost and quality. Government has always considered access/equity and cost to be more important parameters than quality. Please note that while technology and improvement in eco-system, governance, understanding of pedagogy, etc., will hopefully keep reducing the cost, we are far from a situation where cost is irrelevant and the quality education can be provided at a low cost.

If that be the case, it follows that quality education will require greater financial inputs. (By the way, it does not follow that greater financial inputs will always result in higher quality education. So one needs to be aware of all issues, and not just blindly throw money at the problem.) Where will this money come from. It can come from the government (tax payers), or from students, or in the form of philanthropy (including CSR of companies). When we talk about students, it can be their parents or through loans that they pay back later (there are more than one model for this payback, including a slightly higher income tax, for example).

But the government policies have consistently ignored this issue of funds for higher quality. It does not want to spend a much larger part of the budget on quality. So it can support only a few of its favourites for higher quality. There is a severe fee regulation and control in most states that does not allow even a better performing college to charge a significantly higher tuition. The fee that is allowed is such that it is not theoretically possible to even pay the minimum UGC salaries to all faculty members at the student-teacher ratio required by the regulator. The students and parents keep complaining that it is not easy to get student loans in a hassle free fashion.

Fee control is justified on the basis that in the absence of easy student loans and the lack of government subsidy, the higher education will become inaccessible to poor. This is a fine argument, but then this is precisely what I have pointed out in the beginning of this article that the policy is to give higher priority to access/equity and cost, and that the policy has succeeded.

A few deemed universities started claiming that as universities their tuition cannot be controlled and started charging higher tuition and started providing higher quality of education. Of course, there were some who started charging higher tuition and still provided lower quality of education. Instead of creating a distinction between the two, the government is threatening to bring tuition control to all deemed universities. Again, cost is more important than quality in our higher education policy.

One would have thought that the policy may permit a few institutions who have got a track record of doing better than average to go up the ladder in quality, either by providing direct subsidies or allowing them to charge higher tuition. But no. Government does not have funds for quality education outside its favourite institutes, and there must not be any institute in the country which is expensive.

And it is not just the government. Even the mango men (I love this phrase instead of "Aam Admi") want the same. Low cost, low quality in all institutions is better than low cost, low quality in most, and higher cost, higher quality in some. After all, this can create a class divide. Those who can afford quality education will become superior to those who can not afford quality education. So, ban higher cost institutions. The result, unfortunately, is huge competition for the few quality seats (like IITs), and a huge exodus of students for quality institutions abroad, when we could have been the education provider to the world, if we had paid some attention to the quality in our education policy.

Please note that I am not arguing for higher tuition here. I am only pointing out that low quality of higher education reflects success of higher education policy, and not its failure. Whether policy needs to change is something that more erudite people can comment on.