With the attack on Indian students in Australia making the headlines, an Indian scholar, R Vaidyanathan, Professor of Finance at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangaluru, recently raised a very relevant question in the media. According to him, one lakh Indian students are studying at various Australian Universities and the amount they spent in two years on tuition, travel board and lodging comes to around Rs 20,000 crore. If one adds the amount spent by Indian students in other countries, the figures would rise to Rs one lakh crore. What can’t India achieve if that amount is spent right here in India to raise the educational standards of our own universities? Not all foreign universities are known for their high standards. As Prof Vaidyanathan put it: “It is a sad commentary on our own complexes that we should prefer to graduate from a third rate foreign university to struggling to get degrees here in India”.
The trouble is that Indian universities are not exactly famous for providing quality education. India has the third largest higher education system in the world—after China and the US—with 311 universities and 15,600 colleges as of 2004. India produces 2.5 million graduates and 350,000 engineers every year. India’s pool of university graduates, according to N R Narayanamurthy, alone is 1.5 times the size of China and twice as large as that of the US. Is that something to be proud of?
Consider these facts: According to the academic ranking of world universities for 2005, India had just two universities in the top 500 while Japan had 34, China 18, a small nation like South Korea seven and Brazil four. According to a survey report in the Times Higher Education Supplement (October 6, 2006) India had then just two universities in the top 100 and three in the top 200, while just Hong Kong had two universities in the top 50, three in the top 100 and four in the top 200. What does that say about our universities? Not only Hong Kong but China as a whole together are beating India hollow.
According to the Asian University Rankings 2009 published by The Times of India (May 31, 2009) no Indian University made it to the top ten in Asia. At the very top stood the University of Hong Kong. Five of the seven Indian Institutes of Technology and the State Universities of Delhi and Pune came only in the top 100. It is a sad commentary on our higher educational system that, according to a McKinsey Study (known for its high credibility) a typical IIT was granted three to six patents in a year as against sixty four granted to Stanford Engineering College in the US. What a shame!
What is even more shocking is to realise from a McKinsey report that only about 10 per cent of Indian students with degrees in the Arts and Sciences and 25 per cent of engineering graduates are globally competitive. And to think that Indian students have been doing well once they go abroad and work in the Silicon Valley! Are we outsourcing our brains? Does anybody know that overseas Indians hold almost 30,000 patents for every one held by an Indian in India?
Writing in The Hindu (December 9, 2006), three and a half years ago, Ramesh Thakur, senior Vice Rector of the United Nations University and Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations made the point that “India’s higher education and research sector is over-regulated and under-funded with professors being burdened with excessive student numbers and teaching to the neglect of quality original research”. Tsinhua University in China apparently has 4,600 faculty for 26,500 students, including 5,000 Ph.D graduates. That was said three years ago. Things must have improved still further. Latest information is not available, but from what little we know, our policy makers in the past have had no clear vision of how to handle higher education in India. For that matter, even primary education. It is not that Indians are intellectually low grade. Given the opportunities they can outshine anybody in the world as has been shown time and again. But it is not just opportunities that have to be created: It is important that crores of rupees need to be spent to upgrade the entire educational system. India spend just about 1.9 per cent of the GBP on higher education when the Kothari Commission which submitted its report almost four decades ago, had recommended raising the percentage to six per cent. That recommendation, like so many others, has for long been brushed under the carpet.
According to the Draft Report of the Working Group on Higher Education (11th Five Year Plan), the per student expenditure on higher education has been declining in recent years. At 2006-2007 prices, the per student expenditure was about Rs 17,000 in 1993-1994 whereas it was only Rs 13,000 in 2003-2004, which only shows that students have been continuously deprived of quality education. Presently, according to media reports, the UPA government is taking steps for a course correction in the field of education. A blue-print, apparently, has been evolved at the highest level of decision-making to initiate major reforms in the educational sector. Apparently, foreign universities will be henceforth permitted to set up campuses in India. Instead of students having to go abroad to get their degrees, they could save an enormous amount of money by getting admitted to the branches set up in India by these very universities. That should be a welcome move.
Another wise and long-due decision reportedly taken by the new government is to keep faculty appointments free of reservations. The former Human Resources Development Minister, Arjun Singh, had ordered implementation of the reservation policy in IIT faculty appointments leading to requests by IIT Directors to the Prime Minister not to allow the same. It is pleasant to know that the Directors are being listened to. Again, according to media reports, the reform blueprint has advocated that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Laboratories be converted into full-fledged Universities so that Indian students can rise to be on par with students abroad in the matter of patents. There are reports that the UPA government is also considering abolishing the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) to establish a single independent regulator according to the recommendations of the Yashpal panel. That is a major step to take and, for all one knows, it is a wise decision, except that it calls for a valid explanation. The time, certainly, has come for moving fast in upgrading our universities in all fields of educational endeavour. There has been too much stagnation in the past than is good for the country.