Publicly-funded Higher Education in North India is in Dire Need of Improvement

The admission process for undergraduate programmes is almost in the last phase here in north India.

One can easily feel both the excitement and fear among new college aspirants and their parents.

In fact, there are very few reasons for students to celebrate – with concerns about having to move away from the comfort of home, looking for accommodation, choosing the right course and programme hanging over their heads.

Many of us believe that college and university life not only gives direction to our career but also shapes our world view. However, that isn’t exactly true. The best part of structured learning i.e. a college student’s life is on the brink of collapse.

The simple reason behind students’ hardships is a common market rule – ‘demand and supply’.

There are millions of students, who graduate from schools, but very few colleges and universities that can actually cultivate the skills required to survive in the contemporary world.

The institutions with wholesome learning atmospheres and infrastructure, updated curriculum, well-equipped laboratories, libraries, well-trained and qualified faculties along with ideal student-teacher ratios can be easily counted on one’s fingers.

These institutions, mostly publicly-funded, are becoming rare due to fund cuts by subsequent governments and no (or minimal) recruitment over the decades.

Also read: The Days of Authoritarian College Administrators Are Over

As a result, competition within the student community to get a seat in universities like Delhi University (DU), Jawaharlal Nehru University and Banaras Hindu University has become a nail-biting affair.

Moreover, getting admissions into technical institutions like IITs, NITs and medical colleges is also no easy feat.

One has to prepare for entrance tests, which is near impossible to do without the help of special coaching centres, which many students join from class IX onwards.

Nowadays, most private schools tie up with these coaching centres and charge a high fee for these services. Therefore, medicine and engineering becomes an unfeasible option for the average student who can’t afford to attend these coaching classes.

A large number of other central and state universities and colleges are also deteriorating with every passing day.

Most of these institutions run without professors, labs and libraries, The curriculum is anachronistic and divorced from reality and the demands of industry.

For instance, in Kumaun University (Nainital) with nearly 90 affiliated government and private colleges, political science students are still studying the Cold War while not delving into the new world order. Moreover, the social science course for students pursuing post-graduation stands nowhere even close to what is taught to undergrad students in DU.

In the state of Uttarakhand, neither book sellers sell nor teachers recommend any text books for undergraduate students. In fact, many students solely rely on a 50-page-book – a kunji or question bank – that can be memorised the night before the exam. Scholarly writings by Amartya Sen, Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra , Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Dipankar Gupta, Andre Beteille, Paul Krugman, George H. Sabine, Noam Chomsky stay out of classroom teaching and discussion.

Unfortunately, for a large section of ‘registered’ college students, a university only means a place where you get admission, take exams, collect your score cards and, if required, sit for improvement tests – that’s all.

This is quite the contrary to what our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said: “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives.”. This is also written on the entrance of the JNU library.

Clearly, public higher education in this part of the world is not cultivating the masses into demographic dividends – contrary to what is repeatedly claimed under the “vishwa guru (world leader)” rhetoric.

Without a doubt, our education system – particularly higher education – is outdated, non-innovative and doesn’t provide avenues for students to take risks.

The irony of Indian education is that parents want their kids to study in private institutions upto class XII but prefer publicly-funded institutions when they have to go to college.

Ever since the government started encouraging private entities to build universities and colleges, many have come up.

Due to the absence of recruitments in government institutions, private institutions are able to attract the best professors across the country. However, the fee structure of private institutions turns them into elite clubs which many can’t afford to join.

For instance, the fee for BA Liberal Arts at Ashoka University for a four-year degree course costs upto Rs 20 lakh. Hence, the common Indian dream that education can change one’s destiny is clearly not applicable here.

On the other hand, private universities and colleges are mushrooming in small cities and even in rural India. And they are accommodating the well-off sections of society due to the absence of good quality publicly-funded institutions.

Unlike government colleges, most private colleges depend on local teachers who neither have the exposure nor the required qualification to teach students.

More so, their fee structure makes them inaccessible for students who come from a lower economic strata.

These issues have, however, benefitted the coaching industry in the country. But the question is: can these coaching centres and substandard institutions produce skilled human resources for the nation?

An undergrad student’s life is akin to raw clay that can be shaped and nurtured through a vibrant campus life where there is a balance between academic and extra-curricular activities.

The campuses that have produced great leaders in our country are known for their academic excellence, hosting a thriving culture of debate and discussion, and promoting different art forms like theatre.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing a conspicuous absence of these things in most north Indian institutions.

Now’s the time for society and the country’s leadership to feel the anxiety of students. Now more than ever.

Kamlesh Atwal is pursuing a doctorate from JNU, New Delhi who has resided in JNU campus for a decade. He now works for education equity in Kumaon region in Uttarakhand

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty