The 9th of August saw thousands of scientists take to the streets in defence of the scientific temper and against budget cuts and the proliferation of pseudoscience that has plagued various fields of knowledge and academia within the country. Just a few months before the protests came the NITI Aayog's three-year action plan which contained within it a section on higher education reform. Though at the time, the plan created quite a furore, discussion around the topic had slowly died down by the time the March for Science took place. It was a pity since it would have been an opportune moment to focus on what the action plan would mean for research in the sciences and social sciences in the foreseeable future.
In that spirit, it would perhaps be prudent to revisit the Higher Education Plan and break it down to some of its essential recommendations.
The proposed model allows greater autonomy to the highest tiered universities and provides them with a lion's share of limited funds... Meanwhile, other universities face drastic funding cuts, while having to "make education accessible to all."
The first recommendation revolves around creating a list of 20 world-class universities (10 public and 10 private) that will then receive a lump sum of the budget allocated to higher education which currently stands at a meagre ₹33,329 crores or less than 1.5% of GDP (within which a majority of the 10% hike has gone to the IITs and NITs). The second recommendation is tied to the first and third, which revolves around a tiered system of universities, with the top tier given great autonomy in matters of fees, curriculum, etc. with an increasing level of regulation as we proceed down to the third tier.
Next, we have the fourth suggestion which has to do with researcher specific grants, with grants being awarded purely on the basis of ability to clearly specified problems, for the purpose of redirecting funds especially towards and within the fields of science and technology.
For the purpose of this article, we will attempt to understand the tiered model around which this action plan revolves and for that we must first start with the fundamentally flawed and linear conceptualisation that the NITI Aayog has of higher education per se. It seems that the minds of the policy planners have clearly defined parameters of a quality university (i.e. a tier-1 institute that produces scientific and technical research that can lead to innovation and immediate solutions to India's ailments) and a poor university (i.e. a tier-3 one whose primary purpose is to "offer education to all"). The fact that these are classified as mutually exclusive categories points to two critical flaws in the approach adopted by the NITI Aayog.
One is that both of these are mutually exclusive categories and the second, that somehow only research which reaps clear and immediate dividends deserves funding. More troublesome, however, is the impact that this tiered system will have on higher education as a whole, creating multiple glaring inequalities by virtue of its funding and regulation patterns. The proposed model allows greater autonomy to the highest tiered universities and also provides them with a lion's share of the limited funds available in higher education. Meanwhile, other universities face drastic funding cuts, while having to shoulder the burden of "making education accessible to all".
The new action plan reduces the list of educational temples receiving state patronage. It will come at the cost of many who will now no longer be able to reach the temple steps.
At first glance it would seem like those who make the top 20 on this list would be the beneficiaries of the scheme, but even within them, the document proposes to give a lion's share (within the lion's share) to the top two public universities. From the language of the document and its emphasis on immediate solutions and innovation in the fields of science and technology, one would be led to believe that it will inevitably be either an IIT or an IISC (who already command a lump sum of the budget).
On the ground, this translates to an even greater percentage of the budget being allocated to a handful of technical universities, while also providing them with autonomy in fee setting. This, in turn, means that an already unequal higher education system, which few have access to, will go on to become even more unequal with likely fee hikes and fewer, economically accessible institutions, for quality learning. Those institutions that find themselves in the third tier will be starved of funds while attempting to perform their responsibility of offering quality education to the millions who pass their 12th-grade examinations, at a time when they are already failing to shoulder this burden.
The rationale provided for this entire endeavour of creating a tiered system has been that, as a nation, we mustn't spread our funds too thin and instead focus on two top universities. However, on deeper examination, it is a policy proposal that fails to address the funding drought that has persisted in the sector since the first generation of higher education policies that sought to create temples of higher learning instead of attempting to make education accessible to all. The new action plan reduces the list of educational temples receiving state patronage. It will come at the cost of many who will now no longer be able to reach the temple steps.