Tertiary education: Need to chart out new territories of expansion

We recently commented on IHEM, the Indian Higher Education regulatory Mess, wondering whether the Modi government would shift the goal posts to adapt to bolder and higher stakes for Indian development.

A country, with the vastness and complexity of India, with state, federal and now more private tertiary players, not mentioning autonomous IITs, with some 700 universities and 12 000 polytechnics, most certainly needs a respected Apex regulatory framework to weed out “cow-boy” or sub-standard private outfits, encourage better institutions, monitor standards and use of public funds without turning into an inefficient and ineffective bureaucratic maze.

The tertiary education scene has evolved dramatically, nowhere more than in those Asian economic powerhouses, where private entrepreneurs and institutions have erupted on the scene, meeting the huge rising demand from business sectors and willing parents, proposing whole arrays of private courses ranging from medicine and health sciences to engineering, not to mention accounting, finance and allied management disciplines. Distance and blended-mode education opportunities by operators who have franchised thousands of “tutorial centres” tapping into a lucrative market, have complexified the regulatory dilemma, but, in the same breath, rendered it even more indispensable to the Indian scene.

Minister of HRD, Smriti Irani has recently announced the setting up a high level Expert Committee to suggest a comprehensive clean-up, restructuring and revamping of the higher education regulatory framework which includes the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All-India Council of Technical Education. A review of IHEM was probably overdue.

Quantity AND Quality

This is not just a matter of concern to students and parents. If India has bold aims for a new phase of development, with growth rates systematically above 5%, it has to face a double exigency: (a) vastly raise its annual output of university and tertiary graduands and (b) significantly improve the quality of its tertiary output and institutions as rated against world rankings. Neither objective can be taken in isolation.

The tertiary enrolment ratio (TER), above 90% in the United States, hovers around 60% in West European economies (France, Germany, Italy or UK) and Japan. In the two Asian powerhouses, India and China, despite rapid increase in the recent past, the TER has reached the 25% range, still not enough to meet exploding demand and strengthen the backbone of sustained higher growth paths.

Equally, if not even more important however, India has to raise rather than simply monitor quality and standards levels so at least some of its better Institutions figure prominently on international higher education radar maps. It is sad to note that even its best IITs (Mumbai or Delhi) are beyond the 220 rank and none of its flagship public Universities figure in the top 200 of world University rankings.

If a benchmark philosophy were adopted by the Modi government, it could, for instance, challenge ten of the best publicly-funded Indian Universities to draw up academic plans, international partnerships, research facilities, residential campus of decent quality, budgets and forecasts to figure in the top 100 of world rankings within a reasonable time frame. Private Universities with modern facilities and solid academic plans should be encouraged rather than crippled by bureaucracy. Given the country’s size, it has to revamp the institutional and regulatory framework so the likes of MIT, John Hopkins or Harvard actually wish to open shop there, in solo or in partnerships, and thereby act as a powerful pull for quality driven institutions and enrolments in India and the region.

Lessons for Mauritius

There are undoubtedly some lessons for Mauritius, where the past ten years have considerably changed the setting. On the private front, meeting unsatisfied latent demand, many tutorial centers for all manner of distance-education courses seem to have cropped up, some having little scruples to avow a money-spinning philosophy. Others have a real demonstrable academic development purpose even with limited means. A couple of private institutions have clearly stood the tests of resilience and academic intent and are blossoming into respectable ventures, if not quite of University status yet.

One of them in particular, Medine Education Village, seems to have embarked in a rather novel approach, with onsite campus and facilities aimed at emerging as a multi-provider pole of high-quality brands of French tertiary institutions, the likes of SupInfo, Asas and some Grandes Ecoles. It has undoubtedly the capacity to become a major focal point for quality, bi-lingual, internationally recognised, tertiary education targeting the African and regional markets, while offering interesting and affordable avenues for prospective Mauritian students.

Entrenching the reputation of the country as a regional hub of quality, and increasing access and enrolment numbers does not and should not obviate the necessity to provide mechanisms, processes and an institutional framework to control and, where necessary, weed out the bottom end while encouraging higher quality levels, including benchmarking for progress against international University standards and rankings.

It applies to our publicly funded tertiary institutions each of which should have a clear academic development plan, the whole overseen by the new Ministry of Tertiary Education, Science, Research and Technology, to ensure that numbers, quality and good governance go hand in hand. Government is reported to have commissioned a comprehensive Quality Audit of the tertiary sector by independent UK agencies. One assumes it will look at shortcomings in the way publicly funded institutions are managed and their development coordinated and, more generally, address matters of legislation, policies and regulatory institutions to brand the country as a reputable international tertiary hub, opening wider opportunities on the regional development front.

The services sector is increasingly important and already plays a vibrant role in the national economy. It has to chart out new territories of expansion with regional dimensions and one of those pillars is to entrench and deepen a tertiary education hub of good repute. The creation of the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology was a timely decision and has already made some notable contributions. In the light of experience acquired by local authorities at all levels, and the recommendations of the independent Quality and Regulatory Audit, the future government will have a solid base to implement a more resilient development blueprint of the sector fitting in the wider thrust towards a higher income economy.

* Published in print edition on 26 September 2014

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