Reform Higher Education For Economic Growth, Not Vested Interests

While the proliferation of institutions has expanded access to education and contributed to economic growth, there are many challenges in the current system, Dr Muneer points out some of them along with suggestions to solve them

Just three years ago, the Modi government had announced the new higher education policy with much fanfare. Two years prior to that, set the ball rolling by giving Emeritus Institute status to a yet-to-start Jio University, undue advantages over other established and successful institutions. The status enabled Jio to bypass regulatory authorities in curricula and courses. As if that was not enough, the government has been interfering with the autonomy of public institutions like the IITs and IIMs – Not very dissimilar to the way it has been doing with PSUs to sell them off to private players.

The increase in the number of universities in a country is conducive to its stronger economic growth. The effect is two times larger if the size of the higher education system is considered. The quality of research activities is an important driver for the growth in the GDP.

India has the world's second largest schooling system with over 1.5 million schools and nearly 250 million enrolments. The annual higher education market is estimated to touch US$ 50 billion by 2025. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of private institutions of higher education, catering to students from urban and rural areas offering a wide range of courses. Online higher education is also growing rapidly and is estimated to reach US$ 5 billion by 2025.

While the proliferation of institutions has expanded access to education and contributed to economic growth, there are many challenges in the current system. First and foremost is the growing concern about the falling quality of education. Second, lack of access to higher education for underprivileged and rural populations, despite the growth in the number of institutions. The government provides limited funding to public higher education institutions, which results in poor infrastructure and below-par faculty.

Skill and space

With a large number of students competing for limited spaces, many universities and colleges suffer from overcrowding and a shortage of faculty and facilities. The other challenge is that the pedagogy often relies on rote learning which stifles creativity and critical thinking.

The skills taught in many institutions aren’t aligned with the needs of the modern workforce, which has resulted in a gap between what students learn and what employers require. There is no emphasis on practical learning.

In order to produce a future-ready workforce, like what the USA and China have, certain reforms are needed for the higher education sector. China has seen success today because of the reforms that were infused into its system a quarter of a century ago. In the age of generative AI, the future of higher education needs to see significant changes in several areas.

Using technology positively

Increased use of technology will be imminent and the sector shouldn’t ban ChatGPT or openAI but develop pedagogy that is inclusive of them. With advancements in technology, online and blended learning are more important, to offer students greater flexibility and access to education. The use of artificial intelligence and machine learning can lead to a more personalised learning experience, tailoring curriculum to the specific needs and abilities of each student.

The placement track record of the institution is a key factor in attracting good students. As the job market continues to evolve, universities need to place a greater emphasis on preparing students for the workforce by imparting critical skills that are not taught today, such as critical thinking, communication that sticks, and problem-solving. In addition, the boundaries between disciplines will have to be blurred, and more interdisciplinary programmes should be introduced.

Alternative options

Another change is the growing need to have alternatives to traditional degrees. The rising recognition of non-traditional forms of learning such as apprenticeships and coding boot camps will lead to the development of new models of higher education that focus on practical skills and hands-on experience. Many organisations have shown a keen interest to recruit such candidates without a formal degree because of lower training needs and cheaper benefits package.

Reforms should be uniformly widespread and, on a level, playing field. The government should not interfere with its own institutions to help competitors in the private sector. Just because the private players contribute liberally to electoral bonds or the political agenda favours undermining whatever Nehru had done, government should not destroy the public wealth created over the last 76 years. Any reform will take time to show effect on the ground but not 1000 years as the prime minister was saying on Independence Day. Instead of repairing what is not broken, reforms should build further from the strong foundations.

Possible reforms 

Several reforms are needed to meet the future requirements of the sector. First, the government should increase the funding for the sector in order to support the development of better infrastructure, faculty, facilities, and so on. The need of the hour is to attract, develop and retain the best teachers and ensure that students receive a high-quality and relevant education that drives innovation and creative thinking. The quality of current Ph.D. topics in India will disappoint most serious academics.

Second, provide more comprehensive training and development for the faculty so that they can impart better quality of education. The Azim Premji University has this mission for higher education. Such initiatives ensure that the teachers are equipped to deliver high-quality, innovative and engaging lessons that support better learning.

Third, encouraging innovation through experimentation with new pedagogical approaches and technologies. This will help higher education institutions to drive innovation and find new ways to improve the quality of education. The use of metaverse, online and blended learning, as well as the incorporation of hands-on, project-based learning will drive the much-needed changes. Augmented reality and virtual reality are ideal for educators to achieve better absorption of knowledge without exorbitant costs.

Fourth, emphasis on practical skills and real-time experience as a way to grow. This can help bridge the gap between what students learn and what employers require. Expand the current levels of partnerships with industry for internships and modify curriculum to suit the needs of employers.

Fifth, focus on student-centred learning by putting them at the centre of the learning process. Include active learning modules and design the curriculum and testing process around the latest tech aides.

Contribution of private universities

Not just the government, but the private universities should also contribute to driving the changes required. They have the potential to provide high-quality education that is on par with international standards. They will be able to invest in the latest technology and course design and can bring in experts from across the world to impart courses that are job-ready. Jio and Amity universities are planning big time on this.

Private universities can help increase access to higher education by offering programmes in a variety of formats. With satellite classrooms, they can reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots. Unlike government institutions, private universities have the freedom and agility to experiment with new pedagogical approaches and technologies, which can drive innovation in the education system as a whole. As a result, they can introduce specialised programmes that are not available in traditional universities, allowing students to study niche subjects in-depth.

Finally, private players can foster strong partnerships with industry just as we have seen in the USA and China. This will ensure that the education they provide is relevant to the needs of the industry.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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