2015: The year of execution

For the Indian education and skill development sector, if 2014 can be called the year of promises, 2015 should be the year of execution

As we bid adieu to 2014, reflections on how the Indian education sector fared in the year is an important part of planning ahead.

This year saw a big change of guard at the helm. Along with the new government, the new minster, and a change of guard in bureaucracy at the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), this year also saw the first-ever ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship. The new government gave a sense of purpose and determination to the education and skilling sector through various initiatives.

We saw a lot of forward-looking measures announced by the government. Five new IITs (Jammu, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala) and IIMs (Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha and Maharashtra) are expected to be set up soon. There have been announcements that the Lok Nayak National Centre for Excellence in Humanities and Madan Mohan Malviya Teachers Training programme would be established. Also interesting are plans for setting up a Sports University in Manipur and a National Centre for Himalayan Studies in Uttarakhand. Four AIIMS-like institutions in Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Purvanchal and Jharkhand, and 12 government medical colleges are planned. These seem to be a partial answer to our oft-repeated clamour for quality institutions in engineering and medicine, and specialised institutions in sports, teacher training etc.

In line with the global trend of the growing influence of technology in education, specific initiatives were attempted in India too. A US-based educational technology company, which offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) from various universities, has partnered with a leading business school, making it its first partner institution in India and 115th worldwide. Under the agreement, the business school will offer online content globally on the technology company’s platform. Seven IITs and the Indian Institute of Science are working to set up India’s first home-grown virtual technology university. The IITs involved in the project are Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Madras, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Roorkee.

The government seems to have understood the need to incentivise students to help them spend time in training and research. Under the revised Apprentices Act 1961, the MHRD has announced a 40% hike in stipend for apprentices. The ministry and industry plan to spend R536 crore this year, up from R383 crore last year. Likewise, the ministry of science & technology has announced 50% increase in the fellowship amount for young research scientists. These are small but positive steps in encouraging students to extend their education years.

As we step into 2015, which could witness a lot of these fledgling initiatives take shape, there is an urgent need for the sector to look into certain areas.

Faculty availability
As many as 5,707 posts for faculty are lying vacant in 39 central universities, of the 15,573 sanctioned. The newly established 13 such universities have a shortage of 1,208 faculty positions against the sanctioned strength of 1,918. As per UGC data in 2014, 1,176 professors, 2,044 associate professors and 2,487 assistant professors posts are lying vacant in the central universities. Over 37% of faculty posts in the existing 16 IITs are vacant. The 30 NITs, too, are facing a shortage of 28%. At the primary education level as well the picture is dismal—over 6 lakh posts of teachers are lying unfilled under the state sector and the national literacy mission. This may be the biggest stumbling block for the sector to progress and has to be addressed on a war footing. The resolution would need to be way more widespread and inclusive than the Madan Mohan Malviya scheme. The government has announced the GIAN (Global Initiative for Academic Network), inviting industry experts and academicians the world over to teach in Indian universities. Given the fact that Indians are counted as some of the best faculty in global universities, there should be a programme in place to woo them back to teach in Indian universities.

The need to enhance skills of existing teachers is a daunting task. But re-skilling of faculty should be taken as high priority. This has to be done in a simple, scalable fashion. The existing infrastructure can be effectively used. A suggestion would be to look at effectively utilising the summer vacation period. The faculty are least disrupted and the school infrastructure can be leveraged. Well-defined courses with measurable outcomes, for the duration of 2-6 weeks, can be formulated. A special scheme with sufficient budgets for this purpose can be a much-needed intervention. Schemes such as STAR for teachers could be a possibility wherein trainers can be sourced from the private sector.

Quality in education
The year 2014 began on a grim note with the ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), which highlighted the poor outcome of learning in schools. The report pointed out that the standard of students of class 5 who can read class 2 level texts has gone down by 15% since 2005. And the same for the students in class 8 who can do divisions have declined by 23% during the period. While we likely do not have such a report on learning outcomes in higher education, the fact that of 676 universities and 37,204 colleges in the country, only 274 universities and 7,070 colleges have been accredited by the NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) can be seen as an indicator of our quality consciousness.

The government plans the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan next year with a view to lift the falling standards of learning outcomes in mathematics and science of students in classes 6 to 8, and upgrade the skill of teachers. There should be sustained measures to constantly address the fall in outcome measures.

There is no option for quality of education to be postponed. It is counterproductive to have schemes for inclusion and quantitative improvement without focus on quality. As the number of players in the education space increase, (lack of) quality can become an even bigger issue. Quality, in my view, can be seen as benchmarking and transparency. Our schools and universities have been in their own world, with minimal exposure to peer institutions. As for any other public institution, we should develop metrics and benchmarks. Accreditation should be made mandatory and accreditation bodies should be strengthened. Here again, private players can bring in a lot of value. PPP models can work effectively in this area where an empanelled set of private players who are trained can assist/assess universities.

Our universities should also be prepared for global competition. The awareness of global ranking systems in the past few years has been a positive trend. I am associated with a not-for-profit agency called the Indian Centre for Assessment and Accreditation, which is perhaps the first private player in the space. The enquiries by Indian universities, both government and privately owned, to participate in global rankings is encouraging. Information availability and transparency are key requirements for this to happen.

Skilling/vocational education
The movement that started with the National Skill Development Policy 2009 needs a big push to become a part of mainstream education. Vocational education is typically of shorter duration, less expensive and is employment-oriented, and can be the answer for those who can’t afford higher education. The coming together of industry bodies to form Sector Skill Councils (SSC) and develop National Occupational Standards (NOS) is a big achievement. The NSDA has spearheaded the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) that provides the basis for much needed equivalence. Its mission to coordinate with State Skill Development Missions (SSDM) could be a big step in aligning with the state government’s implementation agenda. State participation could be the defining factor in the skilling programme. The year 2015 should see key states embracing SSDM and coordinating skill programmes to increase benefits. They should evolve state-specific skill programmes that cater to the aspirations of the youth and promote local trade and industries. The NSDC has created a desire in the private sector to participate in the skilling programme, and this needs to be supported. A good idea is to align the CSR programme of corporates with the NSDC, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Another good example is the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) that launched the School of Vocational Education (SVE). The TISS SVE would be instrumental in creating an ecosystem that can lend credibility and dignity to blue collar workers and provide them with long-term income. This has AICTE affiliation and can be replicated by universities. It is important that vocational education is seen as a mainstream option for aspiring students.

Another interesting initiative to look forward to is the Skill India programme that plans to train youth in traditional trade. It can achieve the twin objectives of promoting traditional trade and providing rural youth training and recognition in a familiar vocation, rather than for unknown, and many a times discomfiting, urban job requirements. Overall, 2015 is eagerly awaited for many existing and new initiatives.

By Narayanan Ramaswamy
The author is partner and head of Education Sector, KPMG in India. Views are personal

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