Multidimensional Issues on Higher Education in India


A. N. Maheshwari


I have been asked to address this Workshop, which is being held on the theme of “Re-Engineering Higher Education towards Excellence”, on the topic “Multidimensional issues on Higher Education in India”.


Reengineering is a great idea and a clever new buzzword. Reengineering is a management term that calls for throwing out everything that exists and recommends reconstituting a workable organization on the basis of completely fresh ideas. During the past decade business processes have been reengineered for bringing in efficiency, effectiveness and economy through use of advanced technology, which in our present context are communication and information technologies. I am not a management expert and find myself inadequate in addressing issues, which have turned complex, especially when higher education in our country is at crossroads. I will first argue out that higher education in India is indeed at crossroads.


Higher Education at Crossroads


My contention is that higher education in India since its inception in 1857 has been following the same road. The road has therefore reached dead-end from several perspectives. As the nature of occupations has been constantly changing with rapid developments in science and technology but curricula have practically remained unchanged, therefore, students no longer have confidence in higher education institutions for preparing them for entering the world of work. For a long time the principal employer of the educated youth in the country was the State. State as an employer generally did not look beyond academic certifications such as graduate, post-graduate, and occasionally at the level at which the degrees were obtained. It is only in the recent past requirement such as National Eligibility Test coupled with the level of pass at the post-graduate level were introduced as essential criteria for appointment of lecturers in colleges and universities.    


The hard reality is that majority of employment opportunities now are in the private sector and this sector is very choosy, to say the least. The private sector employs only those who possess skills and competencies required by it. Its requirements are continually changing because this sector has to keep pace with its global competitors. Education now has to be tailor-made to the requirements of the private sector. Also, foreign institutions are making inroads in the higher education sector by providing alternative learning opportunities leading to award of degrees of their universities. They claim that their certification will be preferred by multinationals to the degrees awarded by our universities.

To add to the complexity of issues of higher education in India, its demand and asymptotic saturation of state investment in higher education have been exploited by the private sector in a big way in setting up institutions with the hidden agenda of making money. In the period since 1990 the number of universities has nearly doubled; there has been manifolds increase in the student numbers. Many states passed acts for setting up of Private Universities. Private universities emerged like mushrooms under the provisions of Private University Acts, and institutions including those which were newly created obtained deemed to be university status.

At the same time, the traditional structure of higher education in the state funded institutions has continued to remain around teacher-student contact, and finds that it is no longer adequate in meeting its demand and relevance. There are not enough lecturers, library books or rooms, and there is not enough time. New organizational structures are therefore required to support new learning processes.

In such a scenario, an obvious conclusion is that the road of higher education seems to have reached dead-end, or in other words it is at crossroads. The need of the hour is to give a fresh look to the higher education and introduce such changes as will restore confidence in the ability of the state universities and colleges for providing, cost effectively, education relevant to the present context of the world of work. If ‘traditional’ working practices are no longer efficient in the modern context of higher education, then we must determine effective ways of successfully achieving change. We have no choice but to do things differently. New organizational structures are required to support new learning processes.

Paradigm shift

What is the required paradigm shift? Perhaps, a partial answer may be found from the experience of the manufacturing sector. It is also struggling to remain competitive when the foreign countries have flooded the domestic market with goods and services. The key to meeting this challenge has been quality assurance that too cost effectively. Customer satisfaction is the key for upgrading quality, as without full customer satisfaction it is not possible to increase market share. The customers of education are students. Decline in interest in general education courses has hit the universities and colleges. It is perhaps due to dissatisfaction with the present education system, students seeking tertiary education clamour for joining professional courses of study than courses in general education. The widespread impression is that unlike professional education courses, the general education courses have failed to keep pace with changes that are taking place in the world of work. The courses offered by the general education colleges are determined by traditional mindset and have continued to remain inflexible. Students complain that they are not able to exercise choice in selecting what they would like to study. They want to study what would suit their aptitude and also meet their future needs. Also, the general perception is that contents of courses that are being offered at present may not be helpful to them in acquiring skills and abilities required by their future employers.


Student satisfaction may have to be used as an effective instrument for raising the quality of programmes of study. This will require acceptance of the sovereignty of learners by the higher education system. New courses and course combinations may have to be offered for meeting varying learning needs of students. The other driving force for raising quality will be the commitment of teachers to their students and to the pursuit of excellence. The main task of teachers will be bringing out the inner potential of their students and chiselling of their mental faculties. Yet, another perspective that brings out the need for bringing in change in the content and process of education is the recognition that unlike in the industrial age when production of goods was the accepted means for generating wealth, in the information age it is the knowledge-based work that generates wealth. Instead of large capital investment of funds that was required for starting an industry for production of goods at a competitive cost, a knowledge-based enterprise requires human capital of knowledge workers only. Already the information age is transforming the way we work.

Like the brains of the other species that have evolved on Earth, the human brain can also store information. But the human brain has the privileged faculties of thinking, imagination and creativity. The computer can store a vast amount of information but it cannot think. It can process information as per the direction given to it by its user. The directions are the outcome of thinking by the human brain. Lord Rutherford, the great pioneer of nuclear physics once said, when he was told that America was going ahead in nuclear physics because they had a lot of money," Americans have money. We do not have it, and so we have got to think." There is no substitute for hard and serious thinking; and with sustained and serious effort we should be able to go long way even with our meagre resource and capital. It will, therefore, be an anachronism to continue to use the human brain for memorizing information when it should be used for solving problems, creative thinking - the skill attributes of knowledge workers. Therefore, any system of education unless it is learner centred, is flexible, is around developing thinking skills and is able to help learners in acquiring the ability of learning how to learn will gradually lose its relevance. We should not be surprised that now the good students rarely select the conventional courses offered by the colleges as their first choice for higher studies. Therefore, there is now an urgent need to reorient teaching-learning in the universities to meet the requirements of the youth for living and contributing effectively in the 21st century.

The dimensions of the Information Revolution and its limitless possibilities are widely accepted and generally understood, even by lay people. Nevertheless, to make the most of it, we must also acknowledge that there are challenges before the education system particularly the higher education system, and we must make important choices. We can extend opportunity to all or leave many behind. We can accelerate the most powerful engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known, or allow the engine to stall. History has taught us that choices cannot be deferred; action or inaction makes them. There is no such thing as virtual opportunity. We cannot point and click our way to a better future. The tools of information and communication technologies that are available today offer themselves for introducing the paradigm shift that the higher education system needs for making it relevant to the needs of the 21st century. Before too long, each student has to be enabled to stretch a hand across a keyboard and reach every book ever written. Also, information that is being generated, nearly in real time, is being made available online with the Internet. For the first time in our history, it is now possible, in principle, for a student in India to have access to the same world of knowledge at the same instant as a student in the most affluent country of the world has.

We know from hard experience that unequal education hardens into unequal prospects. We know the Information Age may perhaps accelerate this trend. The fastest growing career presently is in computer related fields, offering far more than average pay scales of other professions. History teaches us that even as new technologies create growth and new opportunity, they can heighten economic inequalities and sharpen social divisions. As we move into the Information Age, we have it within our power to avoid these developments. We can reap the growth that comes from revolutionary technologies and use them to eliminate, not to widen, the disparities that exist. But until every student has a computer in the classroom and a teacher well-trained to help, until every student has the skills to tap the enormous resources of the Internet, until every high-tech company can find skilled workers to fill its high-wage jobs, India will miss the full promise of the Information Age. We cannot allow this age of opportunity to be missed. Everyday, we wake up and know that we have a challenge; now we must decide how to meet it. Every student deserves the chance to participate in the information revolution.

Therefore, time has come for redesigning curricular concerns in higher education. The challenge is to introduce innovative interdisciplinary programmes of study appropriate to the concerns of the 21st century. If teachers continue to work in isolation and curriculum concerns are tackled by each institution individually without drawing benefit of each others experience it may become a race in which goal post is receding at a pace faster than the speed of approach. The end result will be that reaching the target may forever remain illusive.

Key Issues

The key issues that I have tried to bring out are multidimensional and are overlapping. A possible list of such issues as I have tried to argue out can be as follows:

1.     communication and information technologies in teaching-learning and in administration

2.     matching skills achieved through teaching-learning with employability skills

3.     effective learning; flexible learning; problem based learning; collaborative learning


Action Plan

An action plan for reengineering higher education for excellence can be as follows:

  • information technology literacy to be made a compulsory component of all courses whether offered as campus programmes or as distance education programmes
  • access to the state of the art learning resources through CD-ROM and the Internet be made available to all students
  • networking of teachers for collaborative development of teaching-learning resources
  • institution to recognise sovereignty of learners and teaching-learning be made learner-centred
  • programmes be made modular and choice be given to students to select modules for earning the required number of credits for the course of study
  • transfer of credits be allowed for enabling students to study part of a course at another institution
  • theoretical component of courses to be taught by the teachers of the institution and courses for skills development be taught by practising professionals, and the skill component be kept updated with the developments in technologies
  • internship arrangement for each student with potential employers for obtaining practical experience




Online Learning Resources

I have selected as samples of online learning resources two sites one of which is an international collaborative effort and the other which I have developed.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is the oldest producer of free electronic books (e-books or e-texts) on the Internet. It offers a collection of more than 13,000 e-books produced by hundreds of volunteers. Most of the Project Gutenberg e-books are older literary works that are in the public domain. All may be freely downloaded and read, and redistributed for non-commercial use.


Learning Physics

Learning-physics site aims at promotion of teaching-learning of physics by solving problems using thinking and reasoning. The objective of this site is to demonstrate the power of physics concepts in understanding nature and expose excitement of learning physics.

In addition to building a programme for learning physics around solutions of some suitably selected problems given as mathematical texts supported with graphics, animations and multimedia, it promotes interactive learning through supports such as Ask Us, Online Classroom, asynchronous multimedia lessons prepared with Teaching Tools, which are accessible even with low bandwidth internet connections.

For this programme about 1000 problems have been selected mainly from the books Physics by Resnick, Halliday, and Krane, and Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick and Walker. Some interesting problems from other textbooks such as Heat & Thermodynamics by Zemansky, and Relativity by Resnick have been included.


          I have taken advantage of this opportunity in placing an agenda for reengineering higher education in India. Our country is well known for the quality of mind and is recognised as a potential knowledge hub of the world.  Its demographic profile is that majority of population of India is in the age group 0 to 30 years. The challenge for the education system, particularly the higher education system is to reorganise itself for enabling the youth in becoming problem solvers, creative thinkers and lifelong learners.  For reinforcing the key philosophy of my agenda I reproduce below what I have already said

“….There is no such thing as virtual opportunity. We cannot point and click our way to a better future. The tools of information and communication technologies that are available today offer themselves for introducing the paradigm shift that the higher education system needs for making it relevant to the needs of the 21st century. Before too long, each student has to be enabled to stretch a hand across a keyboard and reach every book ever written... For the first time in our history, it is now possible, in principle, for a student in India to have access to the same world of knowledge at the same instant as a student in the most affluent country of the world has.

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