Reviving Indian Higher Education

Adam Smith’s argument, “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to regulation of the conscience” holds relevance in the context of the over regulated Indian higher education. The sector faces the intricate challenge of managing growth and scale (improving GER from 27% to 50%) and infusing quality (skill development thereby improving employability) as the government reduces budget allocation per student and tries to achieve all this under an over regulated hierarchy. No doubt that we owe the intensity of the current regulatory environment to past misdeeds in the education system, but drunk driving isn’t an argument against cars. However, the new set of regulations and guidelines seem to be undoing the past mistakes and helping the sector come out of the chronic neglect of post school education.

In February 2022, the regulator published a draft Second Amendment Regulations for rejuvenating distance and online education in the country. The said proposed document suggests removing several binding constraints from the current regulations like allowing universities to offer new age online programs (even if they are not currently taught by the university), collaborate with technology service providers (to bring in the best quality of services to their learners), equivalence of degrees offered by the institution irrespective of the mode of delivery (conventional, distance and online), allowing institutions to procure content from external sources and permitting high quality autonomous colleges to also offer online degrees (thereby democratising online education). These draft amendments shall help universities and colleges massify their online learning, introduce new age industry-oriented learning programs and collaborate for improving outcome. Once notified, these amendments would help institutions financially too; the marginal cost of educating an extra student being relatively low, it could prove a windfall for the institutions.

Large scale disruptive events have sometimes helped improve education – the World War II midwifed the Butler Act of Britain abolishing the fees from the public school and pushing for compulsory schooling. Hurricane Katrina urged government officials to take up sweeping school reforms; a decade hence, the graduation rates of New Orleans have improved significantly. The Covid-19 pandemic posed a unique, unprecedented, and formidable challenge interwoven into existing socio-economic conditions – campus closures led to a sudden shift to online mode at an unprecedented scale and speed forcing teachers cobble together a learning platform out of business tools. However, this provided an inflection point, a springboard for re-thinking the future of higher education – an opportunity to embrace a multi-modal blended learning model and use it to expand access and strengthen excellence in teaching and learning thereby prepare the learners for a changing, evolving, and unpredictable job market.

UGC released the guidelines for universities to roll out Apprenticeship Embedded Degree programs sometime around December 2020 to ensure that the competencies, knowledge and the attitude demanded by the industry gets embedded into university degrees through apprenticeship linkages. The guidelines seem to be in the right direction and can help improve graduate employability. The other set of guidelines released in September 2022 to help universities and colleges upgrade themselves to multi-disciplinary institutions where student can pursue courses like creative arts with business degrees holds a lot of promise. Students would benefit from the diversity in their curriculum, can pick up courses from multiple institutions and stack their credentials to obtain a degree. Collaboration between institutions and with the industry shall help students gain a variety of academic knowledge and skill that would go a long way in improving the economic value of their degree.

Regulations had held back the growth of Indian higher education for quite a few decades in the past. Many legislators seemed to believe that they can lay down rules to regulate every eventuality; however rather than preventing abuses, too much complexity created loopholes that the shrewd and cunning could abuse with impunity. Online education, with the recent advancements in technology, under the modified regulations, seems to be the angel in the shining armor that can herald a more flexible, nibble, effective and an efficient alternative.

Indian education needs a smart approach to regulation. The system won’t benefit from an evolutionary approach that tends to repair a broken-down model; what we definitely need more is a better governing architecture with clear goals and letting revolution happen. We need clear unambiguous guidelines. India needs to build a system that encompasses all – formal education, skill development, apprenticeships, internships, career guidance and student support. Reforms that once looked frightening, now seem possible. The country has started its journey on a path that will reimagine higher education and will create the right conditions for multiple life forms of education to thrive; a system that’s adequately funded to foster excellence, affordability, equitable access and sustainability

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

sabhar: times of india ,shantanu rooj