The University Grants Commission has released a set of draft rules to facilitate foreign universities in setting up campuses in India. An editorial in this newspaper welcomed the move (“Going Global”, IE, January 7, 2023) on the grounds that it “could herald long overdue transformations in the country’s higher educational milieu.” However, I am not as optimistic about the move — or indeed the larger policy framework on higher education that it is set in, from the point of equity and inclusiveness.
The government came up with the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP), 35 years after the last policy in 1986. The NEP 2020 envisions a complete overhaul of the education system. The focus is on “making high-quality higher education opportunities available to all individuals”, combining the goal of quality and equity. However, while the measures for quality improvement are clearly specified, those related to equity are left to the state governments and education institutions with a long advisory. Further, while the follow-up regulations for quality improvement have been issued at an unusually high speed by the UGC, the foreign university regulations being the latest, the regulations for ensuring equal access are not forthcoming with the same eagerness.
The implementation of quality measures alone is likely to further reduce the access of weaker sections to higher education, as these measures possess elements which may enhance unequal access, unless the government comes with corresponding measures to safeguard them.
The main measures proposed for quality improvement include creating unitary universities in place of affiliating universities, dual duration Bachelor’s/Master’s/BEd degree, National Entrance Test for admission, promotion of private education and foreign university campuses.
The first policy suggestion for quality improvement is the switchover from the affiliating university system to the unitary university system with large multi discipline campuses. Unitary universities are recognised as being better than affiliating universities, as the same pool of teachers teach all courses, including at the undergraduate level. Therefore, the NEP proposed the de-affiliation of colleges from state universities and their conversion into cluster unitary universities. The affiliating state university system, however, offers easy and cost-effective access to students from weaker sections of society due to their physical proximity to colleges in small/medium towns and even large villages. On the other hand, the NEP prioritises large unitary universities located in big towns. The NEP should have searched for a middle path to ensure both quality and equal access. The way out is to create cluster unitary universities by de-affiliating colleges, keeping the present decentralised geographic location intact to ensure both quality and equity.
The second measure relates to the dual duration Bachelor’s (three and four years), Master’s (one and two years) and BEd (two and four years) degrees. The new feature is multiple entry and exit. Students who discontinue their studies get a certificate or diploma, with the provision to return and complete their degree and the earlier credit deposited in “credit bank.” While this seems like a good idea, it may push poor students to go for a Bachelor’s degree of three years’ duration rather than four, because that would be cheaper. This could create a hierarchy, as those with degrees of longer duration might get preference in employment. One is at a loss to comprehend the need for multiple duration degrees as the three plus two system was recommended by the Kothari Commission after careful study. Similarly unclear is the reason for dropping the MPhil degree which is particularly useful for students from weaker sections as preparation for PhD studies, besides offering greater prospects for employment.
The third measure is holding national entrance tests for admissions. These tests are invariably biased against students from weaker sections. The Rajan Committee Report from Tamil Nadu clearly indicates that after the entrance test was introduced, some students who scored more at the higher secondary level, did not find a place on the admissions lists, but those with lower marks who could afford private coaching, did. In any case, there is no justification for holding a national entrance test for all subjects while our higher educational attainment rate remains low. For instance, in 2017-18, the Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) was 13 per cent for the bottom income group, 16 per cent for STs, 21 per cent for SCs and 16 per cent for Muslims. In fact, the GER of the bottom income group from STs and SCs was 7 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. At such a hopelessly low level of GER, we should have a fairly open or “walk-in” admission policy for weaker sections.
Also an issue is the absence of a policy to improve the access of students from weaker sections to private education institutions. In 2017-18, the average fee per student per year was Rs 29,834 in private unaided institutions, Rs 21,596 for private aided and Rs 6,912 for government institutions. Of the total students in the private-unaided education institutions in the country, the share of students from the bottom income quintile was almost four-and-a-half times less than those from the top income quintile. The NEP should have definite measures to ensure access for the poor in the private education sector.
Allowing foreign universities to open campuses in India will have a similar impact on access. The best alternative is to have institution-to-institution collaborations which would improve access for students from weaker sections, and also lead to improvement in the capabilities of the domestic collaborating institutions. The best of our institutes, such as the IITS and IIMs, were set up in collaboration with the best institutes from the US, Russia and Germany in the 1970’s, and not by opening foreign university campuses. The Ford Foundation had played an important role in collaborations with US institutions.
It is clear that measures for quality improvement alone will further restrict the access of students from weaker sections to higher education, unless accompanying regulations for ensuring equal access are also issued. This calls for equal emphasis on measures for quality and equity.
The writer is former chairman, UGC