Enrolment in Higher Education: Need for Reflection PART II

The real problem is the lack of an approach to connect academic subjects with the real-life or occupational contexts of students. The subjects that students study in their UG programme should contribute to their lives and occupations even if they do not pursue higher levels of education.

Higher Education part2

Demand for Higher Education – Does it mean demand for the content of education?

One implication of what we have discussed so far is that the demand for higher education (HE) may not be one driven by a strong interest or aptitude for it. A section of youngsters is in some way compelled to participate in it due to the absence of other viable options. They are not really motivated to acquire HE with its multiple dimensions. This may create a situation where a sizeable section of students is not really interested in the content of education. Their lack of interest and motivation may spill over to the interest/​motivation of college teachers, and this can easily lead to poor quality of education even in colleges/​universities which have adequate facilities. This can also shape the decisions of governments regarding the supply of education. There could be an expansion of HE without adequate facilities. There can be policies which may lead to such an expansion, say, by allowing private colleges without satisfactory regulation on their functioning. The section of population that should demand an improvement in the quality of education, especially in the large number of arts and science colleges in second- and third-tier towns, is weak or small. Hence, the demand for HE is conducive to a quantitative expansion, not a qualitative one. It may be noted that the quality of education is an outcome that is determined jointly by the work of teachers and the interest and willingness of students. The weakness of either will have a bearing on the overall quality.

This demand for HE, which is driven by extraneous factors, leads to an underemphasis on the content – curriculum and pedagogy. The curriculum is not updated periodically nor is its relevance to the majority of students debated adequately. The pedagogic approaches which are in use may not enable a majority of the students to develop a deep interest in what is taught. The examination system tests memorised information and students do not develop the capacity to apply knowledge. For example, when they study caste’ in sociology, it should ideally enable them to reflect on the bearing of caste in their lives, but that capacity is rarely built. When they study demand’ in economics, it should enable them to understand the demand for different goods and services and its implications on the local/​regional economy. Building such capacity is rarely attempted.

All these lead to a situation where students from a majority of colleges are not very motivated to attend or participate in class. This can demotivate teachers too. Moreover, teachers are also the product of the same uninteresting, unstimulating education. This may also be reflected in the quality of instruction.

These problems cannot be solved by cosmetic changes. If the system insists on PhD degrees for all HE teachers, then there will be a drastic increase in poor-quality PhD theses. If there is an insistence on research publications for college teachers, there will be a mushrooming of poor-quality journals. Therefore, there may be a need to address certain fundamental constraints now even if change in this regard is going to take time.

English as formal medium; other languages as informal/​illegitimate medium: Implications

In India, the formal medium of instruction for HE (other than when the core subject is a non-English language) continues to be English. However, the informal medium of instruction in many colleges (and universities) especially in tier‑2 and tier‑3 cities is the local (state) language. This is because many youngsters who enter colleges, especially after completing school education in their state/​regional language medium, may not have proficiency in English. To some extent, this is true of a sizable section of teachers in these colleges. When the teachers and students are not proficient in the formal medium of instruction but have a common language in which both have a higher proficiency, it is not surprising the actual classroom instruction and transactions take place in the latter.

The use of state language as an informal medium is not, per se, a problem. It is problematic only because of the persistence of English as the formal medium. There has not been any major effort to change the medium of instruction even though there have been political movements/​efforts to provide school education in the state language. Hence, the state/​regional language becomes the illegitimate’ language of HE and though students and teachers use these languages, there is a shame attached to it.

One implication of this illegitimate use of state/​regional languages (and the inadequate recognition of such languages in HE) is that most of the better-quality teaching/​learning materials (including textbooks) are in English. Many students in colleges where state language is used (unofficially), may not be able to use quality materials which are available in English. Hence, they may use poor-quality learning materials (mostly guidebooks) which are available in state languages. Are there good quality college textbooks in sociology, economics, physics or mathematics in Tamil, Kannada or Marathi which are spoken by 70 – 110 million people or in Hindi which is spoken by around half a billion people? Comparison with other languages, like Dutch, French, German, Vietnamese or Japanese, which are spoken by a much smaller number of people will make this situation really embarrassing.

There may be an argument that there is a higher demand for English in India but that does not explain the actual use of state languages in HE. Moreover, when we compare with countries, like China, Vietnam, Korea, or even Japan, it is clear that there is no need for English proficiency to achieve higher levels of economic development or to be an active participant in the global economy.

India needs to think about its formal medium of instruction in HE. There is a need to make state languages the formal medium in many more colleges and universities. This must be followed by major efforts in developing good quality learning materials for HE in these languages.

Single ladder of HE: Implications

India (like many other countries) by and large has a single ladder in HE. A few institutes or universities are at the top. Many liberal arts and science colleges, especially those located in small towns are at the bottom, based on a perception of quality. However, there is not much difference in terms of their goals. The top universities aim to create researchers. However, a majority of their undergraduate (UG) students may not opt for a post-graduate education in their major (subject). Probably 75 – 80 percent of students in a post-graduate (PG) programme also may not join a PhD programme. However, the teaching of subjects like sociology, economics, physics and chemistry, is oriented towards creating researchers (and so, there is a perception that those who do well in UG programmes opt for PG and those who score well in PG programmes may join PhD). Those who study these subjects in a UG programme have very little use of these if they do not pursue PG. The less proficient ones are expected to drop out of HE after UG, and they pass out without any applicable insights from sociology, economics, physics or chemistry.

The real problem is the lack of an approach to connect academic subjects with the real-life or occupational contexts of students. The subjects that students study in their UG programme should contribute to their lives and occupations even if they do not pursue higher levels of education. This has not happened historically in India, which has further reduced the ability of college teachers to adopt this approach. Hence, teachers from universities where a significant section of UG students go for research and from those colleges where none becomes a researcher, both focus on the same curriculum and pedagogic approaches.

Competition to get admission increases the value of certain universities; no evidence of their higher quality

The signalling value of degrees from universities is discussed in literature. Though there is a perception that students enrol in universities due to their demand for (the content of) education, in reality, they value only degrees. There is information asymmetry in the labour market and employers are not in a position to judge potential employees’ willingness to work hard. Hence, they take the degree from a reputed university as a signalling/​screening device. This signalling value of the degree goes up when it is difficult to get admission to a university (admission to such a university is seen as a signal of the ability to work hard).

In general, the competition to get into top-tier institutes/​colleges in India is very tough (and the success rate here could be much less than that in top-tier institutes in the developed world). This could be due to the fewer number of institutes which are reputed in the minds of aspiring students; and the large number of students who seek admission in any given year.

These top-tier institutes in India in which students find it very difficult to get admission, have low global rankings. There are only two to three institutes in India which are on the list of top 500 universities in the world. Even institutes like the IITs are not known for a robust body of research work by their faculty. There are not many innovations in terms of teaching in most of these institutions. They are also not known for understanding/​addressing the specific social or technological issues that India faces. All this indicates that the relative success of these top-tier institutes is also due to factors which are, to a certain degree, external to the content of education (curriculum and pedagogy). This may indicate a need to improve the quality of teaching and learning in these institutes.

Policy implications

Rather than focus on increasing the enrolment in HE (which may happen without much effort), the attention should be on making the existing (and expanding) HE programmes more useful and meaningful to address the problems of our economy, society, and individuals.

There should be a greater focus on improving the completion and quality of school education if we want to see a sustainable improvement in HE in India.

There is a need to focus on the improvement in classroom transactions. Teaching should be aimed at connecting subjects to the real lives of students. Teaching in UG and PG programmes should not be designed only to create researchers. Students who complete HE programmes and take up non-academic, non-researcher careers should be able to gain subject knowledge in liberal arts and science colleges. There should be a greater focus on enhancing the capacity of students to apply the knowledge.

We should not presume that all challenges of HE can be solved by education policies. The problems in HE could be the product of failures on other fronts, like the slow pace of industrialisation, the low female work participation rate, or fewer avenues of socio-economic mobility, especially for the less privileged social groups. Socio-economic transformations along these aspects may be needed to address the challenges in HE.