In a seminar on education technology, in a lighter vein I told the audience: “If I say I have leaked out papers of the Class 12 exam, people will be ready to pay me hefty charges. If I say I have the BA Economics final year exam paper from your university, nobody will be willing to pay me even the photocopying charges.” This is the value of graduate education in India. Peter Drucker once said that even for the most successful Fortune 500 companies, the strategies that work for them then will not work in the next decade. Governments pursue with diligence decades-old policies that are not even successful ones. Poorly designed policy that is efficiently implemented does further damage by creating rent-seeking stakeholders. Invariably, they take refuge under arguments that cite the rural poor.
The most successful impact of the liberalised education policy has been the promotion of engineering and medical colleges, which used to be the privilege of a few. The colleges mushroomed, but did help in the growth of the software industry and globalisation of manufacturers. The quality varied widely, but because the students came through stiff competition in Class 12, decent standards were maintained. In the end, the market mechanism that helped these institutions grow took a reverse swing, forcing the colleges through a churn.
Arts and science education, the backbone of any undergraduate and graduate programme, took a complete beating. Given that education is always seen as employment-driven, it was always market-driven. In the 1970s and 80s, it was B.Com; later it was BBA and MBA. In fact, even the most glamorous subject, economics, got hit by its own principles of market economics and had no takers. Subjects like mathematics, physics and chemistry suffered the same fate, as did the poor cousins history, sociology, literature, etc. About two generations of students missed quality arts and science subjects. It is an all-round failure that is difficult to defend.
Universities all over India glossed over the quality of education in the past few decades. Delhi University is like an island in ensuring quality, including in its affiliated colleges, and the tale of high cut-off scores is an annual feature. A few years ago, I was asked to study the finances of universities by a state government. I found that their main source of revenue is affiliation fees, examination and certification fees. Unfortunately, for the affiliation fees universities collect, they do not provide any support in terms of quality improvement or quality control. Colleges became their clients rather than regulated entities. This ‘revenue model’ did lead to mushrooming of colleges and helped take higher education to rural areas, but quality was sacrificed. Under the new National Education Policy 2020, universities will be asked questions because the policy promises quality and choice.
Service quality gap:
One argument against the NEP is that small block-level colleges will not be able to survive. In any other industry, they would have perished, but education being an imperfect market, they thrive. The investors bask under this very same argument of equity that is antithetical to what they do. In my study, I found professors have very light loads and teach the same things. It is a network of stakeholders with vested interests.
I found the infrastructural capacities, especially in universities, grossly underutilised. In colleges and more in universities, there are some rooms reserved only for HODs as in the Central Court of Wimbledon. In my study, I recommended to the state that all universities there be integrated through virtual classrooms, and expert or popular teachers be allowed to teach students of other universities. The choice of teachers and university should be left to the students. This will expose straightaway the capacities of the teachers. My desire was to create a market for teachers but this would have exposed those who have rusted. Do you think teachers will accept this?
Since Independence they have been delivering a standard menu. If you opt for the science stream, you can only do this and you are ineligible to take economics courses. Constraint of teaching resources will be binding and larger colleges will survive. Maybe smaller colleges can offer basic courses or offer specialised subjects like arts or music, or even skills courses. Students can go to larger colleges for more specialised areas. It throws up a world of opportunities. But all these require creative thinking and collaborative efforts, which means getting uprooted from one’s comfort zone and sharing revenue. Hence, they invent spurious arguments.
When some elites from diverse profiles speak, they take the name of the poor, and the label of poverty and equity. But the underlying meanings have to be understood and addressed. Some samplers: a) Where will the poor students from rural areas go? This means, what will happen to the investment on the real estate and to the teachers who have found captive students? b) How can a college offer so many courses? It means colleges decide the combo offer and the students can take or leave it. A restaurant can say we will serve only a fixed menu, but a college? In the US, you join a programme, not a course, and can take a range of subjects. Students come out of universities as complete learners.
In a democracy, everybody is entitled to not just opinions but also prejudices. When one falls sick, he would go to astrologers, gurus and local vaids, but finally he would go to a specialist for treatment. Similarly, please listen to your favourites including actors, but finally do pay attention to the advice of educationists and experts.
Professor, Centre for Public Policy, IIM Bangalore