Going towards a “New Education Policy”

Past few years have been extremely eventful in the education eco space of this country. However, this year offers little prospect for relief. The top issues of 2017 will undoubtedly include cost, Workforce development, creating an environment for competency based education, accreditation, assessment, Quality Assurance, Skills based education, leadership crisis, and the challenges of online education. The new education policy would do well to address these issues.

Past few years have been extremely eventful in the education eco space of this country. A great emphasis has been laid on expansion both in the Government and the private sector. Several new IIT’s and IIM’s have been setup, Existing IIT’s have also seen increase in intake. The private sector has seen an enhanced grown with several new entrepreneurs setting up educational institutions.

This thrust on expansion has raised the GER of around 15 a decade ago to more than 23 today. The role of the private sector cannot be discounted in this purple patch. However this has been not without a share of criticism. Lack of infrastructural facilities, lack of qualified teachers, lack of even teachers and lack of adequate funding have dogged the system.

Successive Governments have made some good initiatives to correct the paradigm but like any other, this too has a fair share of complexities and the untangling is never easy. Diverse requirements, the need to address equity and access and lack of adequate jobs have only exacerbated and compounded the problem.

The currents of change have propelled the sector toward, or onto, one rock after another. This year offers little prospect for relief. The top issues of 2017 will undoubtedly include cost, Workforce development, creating an environment for competency based education, accreditation, assessment, Quality Assurance, Skills based education, leadership crisis, and the challenges of online education. The new education policy would do well to address these issues.

Topping the List:

Cost continues to top the list of concerns for the Managements of Institutions and, most importantly, the public. Much of the cost increase over the past five to six years can be attributed to reduction in Grants for public institutions which has forced an offset through increases in tuition and fees. Some of the highest increases have been in some public Institutions like the IIT’s though still way below the actual cost of education. The private technical Institutions where 90% of students are enrolled has probably seen the highest increase in fees. The Deemed and the Private Universities where the fees is not regulated have also raised the tuition fees over the years in the name of growing expenses and initiatives of development.

Some robust student tuition fee funding models and scholarships are required if everyone has to be educated. Government would do well to create a corpus that has inputs of CSR, the State, the Centre, philanthropy et al. that would provide soft loans.

The new education policy needs to be student centric and allow all to pursue higher education and not be restrictive. The public debate on this is welcome. However it needs to be representative of all sections of society, all stake holders and inclusive.

Where does the Skills lie?
Skills as an alternate mode of education must be institutionalised. Skills without adequate employment opportunities can degenerate and wither. Current policy of skilling people without adequate checks and balances can lead to chaos. Employment markets must evolve to the new realities and the policies must encourage new businesses and opportunities for growth. Make in India and Start up India are in the right direction though the passion of the top echelons must be seen to have percolated to the last mile.

Workforce development is taking on greater importance with initiatives of the Skills Ministry as employers are once again hiring though in a small way but are still having difficulty finding applicants with needed skills. This is creating dialogue around India’s “skills gap” and the need for higher education to do a better job of preparing future workers. Meanwhile, business and industry remain largely on the side-lines in terms of efforts to increase employee degree completion. Business houses must be encouraged to adopt Institutions and run them as their extended research centres.

Competency-based education (CBE) should receive attention from the Government as more schools / colleges dip a toe into these new waters. There is much to be done here. Few understand exactly what is meant by “competency”, know how to measure it, or comprehend what can actually be done with a degree attained through such a process. The employers may like it, but Graduate Colleges may have reservations that must be addressed. Even the appropriateness of the term “competency-based education” is questioned by some as such programs are focused on the assessment of one’s ability to apply learning already acquired rather than the attainment of new learning. The new education policy may consider “competency-based credentialing” (CBC) in place of competency based education.

Accreditation- The Favourite:
Accreditation has become the “cure all” of both the political and education administration policy makers. Mandating accreditation may prove counterproductive if not supported by adequate funding and understanding of delivery of education especially in a country where the footfall is massive. Few of those who are critical of it understand the present system, and a big part of the problem. However, before any meaningful reform can be undertaken, there needs to be agreement as to whether the present system is “too difficult” or “too lax” and whether the desired end state is a regulatory enforcement body or one of quality assurance.

Assessment has become a major concern for higher education. Increasingly, regulators and accreditors are moving away from input models to outcome based models and even adaptive based learning models. They are further asking “What is the country receiving in return for the Crores being spent on higher education and how do we know if it is effective?” Learning outcome-assessment has become the basis for determining institutional effectiveness. However, the availability of valid, widely accepted tools and methods needed to determine learning and skill acquisition are proving hard to come by. The Policy must look at reinventing the assessment matrix for different forms of education delivery.

With delivery of Skills based education gaining ground the Skills Ministry and the Ministry of Higher education must focus on quality assurance methodologies in the Skills space rather than quantitative based strategies. Quality assurance in non-institutional / skill based learning is one of several awkward terms attached to granting equivalency to similar learning within an academic institution. There is growing consensus that a need exists for standards and greater transparency in the process for determining the credit worthiness of learning/skills achieved outside the academy. The NSDA/NSDC needs to come out with meaningful performance parameters and measurement metrics. The credit framework proposed by AICTE in 2014 must be looked at as the basis for future work in this area.

There is a need to recognize the new majority in student bodies. While higher education has seen a dramatic shift in student demographics, neither the media nor the policy community appear to fully recognize that today’s and tomorrow’s typical student is no longer an 18 to 24 year old studying full-time on a campus. In fact, there is data which shows that about 30 million enrol in higher education in India constituting a 23 GER to fit this traditional description. It’s another matter of concern that only 6 Million actually graduate from our colleges. Demographics point out that more than half the population would be below 25 years of age in a few years. Hence a massive number are “post-traditional” students who are older, working part-time, and often commuting, either by public transport or, increasingly, the Internet. Yet, policies and programs still make assumptions based on the needs of a shrinking minority. Out of box initiatives and policies should recognise the fast changing demographics if it is not to become an unmitigated disaster.

It is debatable whether the need to prepare new leaders in higher education is coming or has already arrived and we need to recognise that a leadership crisis is looming. Demographic data probably would show an increasingly “seasoned” group at the top of our colleges and universities. New and young leaders are needed and have to be trained whether in teacher training academies or the Manager/Administrator training academies and while some may question whether these are the right places to be training future leaders in areas such as the use of technology, innovation, advocacy and entrepreneurial thinking, there is little else filling the void. Collaborating with the best in the World, setting up a few teacher training institutes would be a welcome step.

Our economy is gaining strength with some robust policies in place and employment is once again rising albeit slowly. While this is generally good news, it also gives fuel to those who maintain that a college education isn’t necessary to employment. Cost-value comparisons that question the investment in a degree at today’s prices often supported by the “published” tuition for an elite private institution are increasing in frequency. Student recruiting is likely to become more difficult as a result of improved and changing economic activity and because of the changing employment patterns. Yesterday’s graduates fit today in an employment market that never existed then and the same is repeating with new generations.

Online Education is gaining ground for various reasons, cost of education and flexibility being the major ones. However increasing awareness of MOOCS and their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of “enough already” will be the future to discuss. SWAYAM of the Government of India has the potential to reach the unreached. Content creation is an impediment in the spread and acceptability as an alternate form of information and knowledge gathering. New knowledge workers must be encouraged to fill this void. Initiatives of NeGD, like creation of knowledge centres in a chosen few meritorious institutions may be expanded with a network that traverses across the CSIR/DRDO labs may be just what the doctor recommended. Above all, forbearance should guide us in times when uncertain seas are still ahead. However we can draw cheer from the resolve that our initiatives will eventually propel us to the next level of responsibility with a sense of fortitude.

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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