Higher education alarm rings

New Delhi, Feb. 4: India's head of state and head of government today echoed in unequivocal language what sections of academia and industry have bemoaned for years ' the state of higher education.

"We are witnessing declining standards in the quality of higher education in our country," President Pranab Mukherjee told a conference of vice-chancellors of central universities.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was more critical. "We must recognise that too many of our higher educational institutions are simply not up to the mark. Too many of them have simply not kept abreast of the rapid changes that have taken place in the world around us in recent years, still producing graduates in subjects that the job market no longer requires," Singh said.

The grim assessment comes at a time two different studies ' one by industry body Ficci and the World Bank and the other by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and the CII ' have flagged the poor employability of engineering graduates.

Questions are certain to be asked why the Prime Minister's government, which has been in power for nearly a decade, could not stem the slide.

Both Singh and Mukherjee did not desist from making it clear they were disappointed by the state of affairs in higher education.

Sobha Mishra, the education director at Ficci, told The Telegraph that the Prime Minister and President have articulated exactly what the industry feels in terms of gaps between education and requirements of industry.

"The Ficci-World Bank survey last year found that 60 per cent employers were not happy with the kind of engineers being produced by the institutions. The industry-academia linkage is completely missing," she said.

The other survey by the AICTE and the CII also found that activities for industry linkage, a key requirement to produce industry-ready manpower, were either moderate or low in over 80 per cent of engineering colleges in the country.

Singh said the central government had expanded access to education by opening more institutions and increasing investment. Despite the expansion, the enrolment rate in higher education revolves around 18 per cent, much below the world average of 26 per cent.

"But in recognition of the fact that expansion without quality improvement serves little purpose, we will now give overriding emphasis on quality," Singh said.

He lamented that not a single university from India figures in the top 200 global institutions ranked by various agencies.

"It is a sobering thought for us that not one Indian university figures in the top 200 universities of the world today. Improving quality and fostering excellence in our institutions of higher education is a critical challenge that we must collectively address," he said.

Outlining a few suggestions, the Prime Minister laid stress on flexibility in institutions to attract good faculty, raise teaching standards, encourage cutting-edge research and nurture talent.

Mishra, the Ficci education officer, said the regulatory framework also affected higher education. At present, institutes, particularly those offering professional courses, have to take approvals from a regulatory body and affiliation from some university. "There should be flexibility in the regulatory framework," she said.

The President highlighted the challenge of regulatory architecture and quality of governance. He said the focus now has to be on policy formulation that promotes autonomy and good governance.

Participation of the private sector should be encouraged by formulating appropriate policies without compromising on the social objectives and the quality benchmarks, Mukherjee said.

Not all were impressed by the views of the Prime Minister and the President. "Employability is not the be-all and end-all of everything. Universities are not employment exchanges. They are institutions of learning," said M.N. Buch, a retired bureaucrat and former chairperson of the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Gwalior.

Buch said the quality of higher education was poor because school education remained pathetic in the country. "Nobody bothers to improve school education, which is the feeder for higher education," he said.

A teacher at Guru Govind Singh Indraprastha University, who requested anonymity, said the government's intention was to promote private and foreign universities in India.

But the former Delhi University vice-chancellor, Deepak Pental, agreed with both the Prime Minister and the President on the quality of education and the employability of students.

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