Budget 2020: Can reforms revive higher education?

Published: February 10, 2020 2:02:02 AM

Budget 2020 India: Higher educational institutions need to refocus themselves as research and teaching bodies, rather than just money-making teaching shops.

Budget 2020, FDI, higher education, education sector, NSF, FDI in education, IIMBudget 2020-21: In the technology domain, IITs have started offering niche master’s degrees in a blended mode to working professionals.

Union Budget 2020 India: has drawn attention to the education sector with an allocation of nearly Rs 1 lakh crore. The amount, per se, is not of significance, since even in the 2019 Budget the allocation was Rs 95,000 crore. The real issue is what are the policies that drive the spend and how is the money being spent. In this Union Budget, the two main policies addressing higher education are the opening up of FDI for the sector, and the encouragement to online degrees by top-ranked institutions.

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Our problems in higher education are both of quantity and quality of supply. Regarding quantity, we have distortions both in terms of excess supply and short supply. Management and engineering are examples of excess supply, where the shake-out due to low registrations is beginning to happen. It may have some positive impact on quality. Medical and niche areas of skilling are where we have short supply. The fact that many of our students go to other countries (China, Russia, Malaysia) for relatively low-cost medical education is testimony to this. The regulator in this domain is partly responsible for this. In many areas of skilling (driving, construction, plumbing), the supply of quality institutions has not picked up partly because the demand side is not sensitive to this, and licensing requirements are lax. More importantly, the demand side being largely in the unorganised and semi-organised sectors, it is important to see how the supply side can reach out to the demand side for effective skilling.

Regarding quality, there is not enough focus on creativity and research-orientation, and critical and liberal thinking.

Higher educational institutions need to refocus themselves as research and teaching bodies, rather than just money-making teaching shops. The government has to be liberal on research funding, albeit through a competitive route. A role model is the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding in the US. Faculty development programmes, especially in a continuous learning mode, need to be increased. To be fair, there has been a movement in this direction over the past couple of decades. Non-teaching time of faculty, directed towards research and personal development, needs to be protected to the extent of at least 40% of their time. This will create a platform to nurture quality.

Given this, it remains to be seen how FDI in education can serve the purpose. It possibly can address quality teaching by attracting (and incentivising) good teachers. But I am less sure about the research focus. The better bet for research focus is to improve industry-academia interaction, with industry leveraging research supply of academic institutions. A successful role model is the Research Park at IIT Madras. FDI, in the form of industries from other countries investing in such research parks, would be a useful step. Online degrees again primarily address the quantity issue rather than quality. While making learning and degree-seeking more accessible, a possible positive effect on quality could be if online degrees by top-ranked institutions are a better learning opportunity than in-class learning offered at lower-ranked institutions.

In the technology domain, IITs have started offering niche master’s degrees in a blended mode to working professionals. Similarly, in management, IIMs have started such blended programmes. In the online format, it still needs to be seen how the synchronous (which needs live faculty time) and asynchronous (which need a lot less of live faculty time for the Massive Open Online Courses) modes will emerge.

Overall, online education is making inroads and is expected to disrupt higher education scenario. The early understanding is that such a mode can be efficient for learning at the knowledge and skill levels but yet to be proven (vis-à-vis in class) at the conceptual and attitudinal levels.

Another aspect is the ‘Study in India’ scheme and the budgetary allocation for that. While this is a welcome goal, its effectiveness needs more reflection. India usually attracts students at the undergraduate level from some of our neighbouring and African countries, significantly driven by scholarships. Many of them go to relatively lower-ranked institutions. The challenge is to attract international students in higher-ranked institutions including IITs and IIMs. Exchange programmes have become popular, though not full-time study. Perceptions of security, ease of travel, ease of living and quality of education are the deterrents. Placement opportunities would be another concern.
The Budget talked about the National Education Policy. The focus for higher education is on improved regulation including restructuring of institutions, establishing National Research Foundation and professional faculty development. While the focus areas are in the right direction, implementation would be the challenge.

The author is director, IIM Bangalore

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