Tertiary Education: National Ills and Regional Confusions

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By Amar Yumnam
Tertiary education, generally termed as higher education, is not in an enviable position in this country and particularly so in this region. We have lost focus,

direction and the commitment which were there upto about the early 1980s. While the emphasis on science education has been salient, it has not yielded the kind of

results expected from the pre-eminence given to its funding. Social science research too has been very laggard and with little attention from the funding authorities.

All these are happening at a time when almost all the countries, including India, are appreciating the necessities and compulsions of a knowledge economy. While some

tend to interpret knowledge economy as something to be related to the market orientation for profit only, we are absolutely wrong in doing so. The concept and approach

of knowledge economy is an outcome of the centering of human beings as the core of development discourse as compared to the earlier focus on materials. Besides, use of

existing knowledge in execution of every functioning has been underlined as the means to enhance common efficiency and address poverty issues at the level of

individuals and households.

Chinese Scenario: A comparison with the Chinese would be interesting and frightening in this regard. They are expecting that they would get the Nobel Prize in stem

cell research within a decade or so. Despite the long emphasis on science in national funding, can Indian science afford to have any of such confidence? Further the

Chinese balance in emphasising research across disciplines stands far superior to the Indian imbalance. The budget of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences alone

would be about five times that of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. We can even go over to the least developed province of China, Yunnan. The Yunnan

Academy of Social Sciences alone has eleven research institutes under it. Further, undergraduates from two universities in China, Peking and Tsinghua, have beaten

Yale, Cornell and Michigan in completing Ph.D. from American universities in recent years. Still further, China have got universities and medical colleges within the

top hundred of the world whereas India has none; this is about the mainland China only and without taking into account institutes in Hong Kong. Imagine higher

education scenario in India was far superior to that of the Chinese in the pre-1980 period.

National Ills: The ills of the core of Indian tertiary education are stark. First, the country does not have a history of sustaining institutes of higher learning.

This is how we have allowed all the pre-eminent centres of teaching and research to degenerate over the years. Secondly, there is over-centralisation in higher

education administration, curriculum and provision in this country. This has prevented the emergence of an open and thriving knowledge generation system. Third, while

heterogeneity has been the reality of the country by any conceivable yardstick, the tertiary education authorities in the country have been busy with efforts for

homogenising higher education across the country. This has led to absolute irrelevance, lack of focus and commitment in the entire sector.

Peripheral Confusion: The North Eastern Region shares all the national ills characterising higher education. But it has also added some of her own. The peripherality

of the region is in two clear aspects. First, there is the usual geographical one. But the geographic aspect is unique when it applies to the region. While the usual

periphery is conceived in a uniform and linear way, the region is peripheral with a break. Second, the region is peripheral when it comes to exercise of authorities in

higher education is concerned as well.

The worst part is that the peripheral characteristics and the national ills at the core are coupled by some gross confusions about tertiary education in the region.

Before we come to these, we can profitably recall the missions of higher education. They are the provision of teaching, involvement in research and rendering of social

service.

Given these three components of the higher education mission, we now need to situate our scenario and indentify the space where the sector should be playing an active

role. The prevailing paradigm of tertiary education in the country is one based on industry-academics interface, and we have just blindly replicated it in the region.

This is how the lack of relevance and appropriateness of the tertiary education institutes are getting increasingly exposed in this part of the country. The region

simply does not have a robust and identifiable industrial sector. So the higher education paradigm based on industry-academics interface would be plain irrelevant in

this part of the country. The only interface we should nurture and have should be one of society and academics. This important aspect of relevance and contribution to

the social cause has not yet dawned on the education policy makers and authorities in the region. This is why we have not been able to make the kind of headway which

we could otherwise.

Another very important failure of higher education in the region is the absolute neglect of the significance of undergraduate education. This is the most critical

input in the entire structure of the tertiary education system. But we have allowed all our colleges to decay, thanks to the manoeuvres of the government. Remember all

our colleges were competitive and excellent centres of learning before government entered the scene. Now the onus is definitely on the culprit to see to it that

corrective measures are put in place to restore the lost glory of the colleges in the region.

If we want a robust future of our region, the most critical input would be to have a clear vision of the society-academics interface and restore glory to the colleges

of the region. Education authorities have a role to play here.

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