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Higher education needs a fair deal in Budget 2014

H Chaturvedi     July 7, 2014

H Chaturvedi
The Union Budget, to be presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on July 10, is awaited with a lot of excitement, expectations and aspirations especially by the youth, many of whom were first-time voters in the recently concluded general elections.
 
Today, 27 million youth between 18 and 23 years are pursuing higher education in 36,000 Indian colleges and 610 universities. However, around 100 million young Indians do not have access to higher education. For the latter, the BJP's election promises will fructify in the Budget speech.

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We do not expect miracles from the finance minister but he can fulfill the promise to spend six per cent of GDP on education, of which 1.5 per cent will be allocated for higher education, provide better access to higher education for underprivileged sections and even middle-class youth.
 
Restructuring the UGC [University Grants Commission] into a Higher Education Commission, focusing on girl education, e-learning, adding to the pool of teachers and setting up of National Multi-skill Mission - were part of BJP's election manifesto that will turn the sector around. The President [Pranab Mukherjee] has already highlighted the plan to set up IITs and IIMs in those states which do not have one, in his joint address to the first session of the 16th Lok Sabha.

The problems of Indian higher education are endemic and are well entrenched in our socio-political system. Prof. Craig Jeffrey of Oxford University, UK, has done extensive research on Indian campuses and published a book "Time pass: Youth, Class and Politics of Waiting in India" where he says Indian higher education is a "time pass" for the idle middle-class youth who are unable to get a decent job on the basis of their degrees.
 
Since higher education institutions train manpower for almost all sectors of the economy, employers expect graduates to have required skills, competencies and abilities. But this is not so. An employability survey by NASSCOM and MeritTrac, of BEs, B.Techs and MBAs found that just about one-fourth are employable by industry.
 
To deal with the low level of employability both in professional and general stream of higher education, special funding is needed for curriculum update, pedagogical innovation, and examination reform. Our graduates now require skills beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (the 3Rs) with a focus on the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity).  

A proposal by the UGC talks of increasing Gross Enrolment Ratio from 17.21 per cent to 25 per cent, which would translate into 45 million students getting access to higher education by 2020, up from the present 27 million. To meet this target the higher education system will have to admit additional three million students each year from now on. It will call for a sizable expansion of infrastructure, faculty pool and funds.
 
In spite of big expansion during last the two decades, Indian higher education is facing a variety of challenges at all levels. Poor quality of education delivered by state universities and its affiliated colleges is debilitating the system. Currently, there are 316 state universities and 31,935 colleges, accounting for more than 90 per cent of total enrollment. But they suffer from poor governance, acute corruption and severe shortage of funds.

The much-awaited Budget can rectify the situation by allocating funds for academic reforms, better governance and infrastructural upgradation. Incentives can be offered to state universities for raising their own funds through upward revision in tuition fees and other legitimate means.

There is a dire need to expand educational loan facilities in the country. Currently, only 1.5 per cent students get educational loans due to high interest rates and cumbersome procedures to get a loan. There is plan to set up National Education Finance Bank (NEFB), which can play a catalytic role in designing a new scheme of educational loans with low interest rates (say five to seven per cent annually) and long payment period (15-20 years), if Rs 5,000 crore is allocated towards its equity capital. Loans at low interest rates to young entrepreneurs for setting up schools, colleges and skill development centers in small towns, cities and backward districts will go a long way in improving employability.

Given the resource constraints and political compulsions, our expectations are rational. Jaitley's budget should ensure that no deserving youth from poor or middle-class family should be deprived of quality higher education for want of funds. We expect academic standards of state universities and affiliated colleges be raised to the level of IITs and IIMs so that benefits of quality higher education are not confined to a minority. In a democratic and plural society, it will not be fair that only a privileged class should get world-class education and aam aadmi be given degrees which do not have intrinsic value.

(The author is Alternate President of the Education Promotion Society for India (EPSI) and Director, BIMTECH)

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