The present and future of higher education in India is synchronous with knowledge and research outcome that is indigenous; based on the findings coded in the civilizational texts; contained in the innovative practices of the communities articulated the Indian languages; and the technology-driven innovations in the institutions of learning and research in the 21st century. The vibrancy of Indian democracy; our economic prosperity, socio-cultural confidence and the international leverage we achieve are all contingent on the quality of education we make available to our young citizens, and the globally competent human resource our educational institutions are able to present to the world. Swami Vivekananda wrote from Chicago in 1894: “Educate and raise the masses, and thus alone a nation is possible.” It was highly imperative for successive governments post-Independence to proliferate higher educational institutions and enhance the enrolment of students in schools, colleges and universities. However, the first report submitted to Parliament by the University Grants Commission in 1958 indicated that without quality higher education, it is futile to think about the desirable development of the nation. On several occasions, educationists have expressed the need for revamping the systems and structures of higher education.
What concerned the stakeholders in higher education—be it the governments, institutions such as UGC and NAAC, educators, policymakers, or the citizens at large—was the disparity and dissonance between the courses and pedagogy of higher education and the developmental targets of the country vying to become a developed economy. This is not to deny that academic learning and research that underscores the pursuit of knowledge in the general sense, such as in the liberal arts, and seeks a development of an autonomous cultivated and critical mind is not important. However, are liberal arts, is pursuing philosophy or music limited to knowledge in the purest sense, and not connected with the developmental goals in the pragmatic sense? It is in this context that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Mann Ki Baat has made a pitch for developmental transformation of the ancient knowledge systems such as the Yoga or the knowledge texts such as the Mahabharata not only as instruments of India’s soft power but also as cultural values that can be tapped into providing employment opportunities. As the PM completes the 100th episode of the Mann ki Baat, it is pertinent to underline how higher education has been an important subject in quite a few of these discourses with students in transition from school education to the higher education his target audience, even as he has urged the researchers and innovators at a higher level of formal education, in various disciplines of knowledge, especially science and technology to invent and innovate.
In 2003, to commemorate its Golden Jubilee, the UGC asked eleven universities to organize brainstorming seminars on the state of higher education in the country. What came out in the report submitted to it raised serious concerns about the lack of employment-giving quality education. The report emphasised on the need to reform certain areas of the higher education institutions in order to equip them to impart accessible and equitable education of the kind that could produce workforce to boost the different sectors of the Indian economy as well as exploit the employment opportunities available globally in the service sector under the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
The United Nations identified affordable, equitable and quality education as the fourth out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. It called on the developing countries to make higher education as SDG4 spearhead their economic and all-round sustainable development. If India has to find its place among the biggest and fastest developing economies in the world, in terms of GDP and also GDP per capita, it has to have a robust higher education system that produces not only job seekers but also job givers.
It was in the 19th episode of his monthly podcast, delivered in April 2016, that the Prime Minister called for a definite departure from education to quality education and from “outlay for education” to “the outcome of it”. This emphasis on moulding education for developmental results has remained the focus in several of the subsequent episodes. Education with skill development has been the cornerstone of his discourses.
The 94th episode of the Mann ki Baat discussed the concept of Jai Anusandhan that the PM first spoke of from the Red Fort. He promulgated the necessity for the current decade to become “the Techade of India.” He stressed on IITs, the medical institutions and universities to take lead in research and innovations in this direction, while appreciating the projects showcased by the IIT students on 14-15 October on healthcare, agriculture, robotics semiconductors, and 5G communications. A particular story discussed at length in this episode was about the development of a portable ventilator for new born babies by the team from IIT Bhubaneswar.
The recent initiative by the UGC towards creating digital universities is a significant step to make higher education both equitable and skill-oriented. The National Education Policy (2020) laid emphasis on the exploring technology and scientific innovations aimed at skilling the youth for the globally competitive job opportunities. The country’s first National Digital University (NDU) that will become functional in 2023 will allow the students to choose the best content and pedagogy available in the partner universities, and hosted by SWAYAM digitally. As elucidated by the Minister of Education and Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Dharmendra Pradhan, it is imperative to “bring a paradigm shift” in higher education by skilling a substantial population of the country that constitute our youth. In the era of 5G, with technology rapidly influencing industry, the form of jobs and the skills they require are fast evolving.
The Union Budget 2023 is laudable from this point of view, as the government has announced an 8% increase for higher education alone. “Make AI in India and Make AI work for India” as uttered by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman sums up how the government is committed to giving technology-driven and industry-specific learning and research a major push in the higher and technical educational institutions. This aligns with critical prediction by the NITI Aayog as to how the supply chain of goods and services in the imminent future will be totally driven by Artificial Intelligence, especially in sectors such as healthcare, agriculture and infrastructure.
Therefore, as is the constant emphasis in the PM’s Mann Ki Baat, and reflected in the pronouncements in the Budget, India must equip its job-seeking young population with the knowledge and the skills that would make them valuable partners in its growth and development.
*Prof Dhananjay Singh is Member Secretary, Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR).