The ability of the present government to “skill India” is critically dependent upon the reform of our higher education system.
The department of management of a central university recently invited me to give a talk to their second-year students.
The head of the department complained that students did not attend classes in the second year.
The teachers had to call them on their mobiles and encourage them to attend classes under the threat of disqualifying them from taking exams due to the shortage of attendance.
Such forced attendance, even if it happens, does not go far because the attention of the student is not in the class.
I spoke with students. They said that the teachers mostly repeated the contents of the books. There was nothing new in the classroom.
They found it easier to read the course books on their own rather than come to the class and then have to read the course books on their own again anyway.
The question is why the teachers could not teach beyond the course books. The fact is that none of them had worked in a factory or a big organization.
None knew what management meant in real life. None did any research either. The teachers held permanent positions for life.
They had done PhDs in-house and been appointed lecturers. Doing research also did not add to their incomes.
They were content to come to the department for a couple of hours, and deliver the prepared lectures in a parrot like manner, often relying on the slide made many years ago.
They had no incentive to go farther. This is the sad situation of a central university, where the average age of the teachers was about 35 years.
One can imagine the situation in the state universities where the average age of the teachers is 50 years. A number of reports have pointed out that the rot in our Universities is rooted in political interference.
Ministers have appointed vice chancellors on political considerations. These vice chancellors, in turn, have made appointments of teachers on political considerations or on grease money. They take no interest in promoting research.
An associate professor of Delhi University complained to the vice chancellor that he was not given a room in the department where to sit, study, meet with students and undertake research.
The vice chancellor, instead of providing the room, replied that he should take the lesson from Marie Curie who went on to win a Nobel despite having virtually no resources!
In the result, incompetent teachers run the entire university system. The honest teacher who tries to teach and does research becomes a threat to these incompetent colleagues.
Say, a lecturer in the department published ten papers in international journals while the professors published none even in Indian journals.
A question immediately arises on the credibility of the professors. Therefore, they put all kinds of roadblocks in the path of the honest lecturer until he also falls in line and stops undertaking research.
The teachers have unionised themselves, in part, as a reaction to these political appointments.
They found that the vice chancellors were pursuing their personal agendas and not taking interest in the working of the institutions.
They staged strikes to force the administration to listen to their legitimate demands. An unintended consequence of unionisation, however, was that it was no longer necessary for the teachers to teach.
It was not possible to take action against a teacher who did not teach because of the protection provided by the unions.
Solution to rotten situation
The solution to this rotten situation will require five steps. The first step is that the government must not make political appointments. This does not mean ideological neutrality.
There is no such thing as a value-free education. Every curriculum necessarily projects a particular ideology.
The people have elected the government and it is within its rights to appoint persons toeing its ideology.
However, this should not regress to making the appointment of incompetent persons. The way forward is for the government to make a panel of the most competent persons.
Then choose the person closest to its ideology without compromising on the quality.
The second step is to end the permanent employment of all existing teachers and convert them to five-year contracts.
I have studied at the University of Florida. Only two of the 40 odd professors in my department had permanent employment.
All others were on five-year contracts that were renewed depending upon their performance.
The evaluation for renewal of a contract depended on external evaluation, student evaluation and by the peers. This made the teachers work. The government must institute such a system.
This is not the same as the “casual” appointments made frequently. The casual appointments are on a semester basis. They carry no incentive to undertake research.
Linking funds with output
The third step is to link the funds given by the government to output.
President Obama created a $4 billion programme named “Race to the Top” that provided government funding to colleges, which had their teachers evaluated by students, and employed teachers on time-bound contracts.
The government must tie all increases in funding to performance evaluation of the universities. The committed funds may be reduced by 10% every year and additional funds provided only on performance evaluation.
The fourth step is to push for online teaching. The University of Phoenix in the United States has 300,000 online students today.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology started a non-profit online programme named edX. Courses were offered without charge.
A fee was charged only from students seeking a certificate of course completion. The first such course, from MIT, was on computer and electronic circuit design.
Initially, 154,000 persons joined it though only 7,000 completed the course. However, even these were more than double the numbers that passed through the parallel classroom course at the MIT.
The cost of providing online courses is high initially. The lecture has to be converted into graphics etcetera. However, once developed, the software can teach to millions of students at no extra cost.
The way forward would be to make it mandatory for all universities to offer online courses. The role of teachers may be reduced to offering online or face-to-face tutorials.
India has a huge strength of software professionals. We can produce online courses at a fraction of the cost that it takes to develop these in the western countries. We must also set up a bunch of online universities.
The fifth step is to allow entry of foreign universities. That will automatically put pressure on our homemade universities to perform. Our future is at stake.
Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal. .Author’s phone: 85278-29777