THE ongoing spat between the UGC and Delhi University over support to higher education cannot but create dismay. Both the university authorities and the teachers’ associations are alleging a severe resource crunch, even raising the spectre of non-payment of salaries in the new year. The Commission expectedly demurs. It, in turn, has foregrounded the mismanagement and bungling by the university as also the constituent colleges as most responsible for the current mess. Clouding the situation further is the reported comment by Amartya Sen that the real problem of the university is not a paucity of resources but a lack of concern with quality.

There is little doubt that we probably have too many universities and post-graduate colleges – most under-equipped and peopled by indifferent quality teachers and researchers. Even the best are bedevilled with structural problems from student indiscipline to teacher absenteeism. The tensions generated by inadequate and decaying infrastructure are exacerbated by an outmoded structure of rules and unhealthy interference by both the political and bureaucratic class. Little wonder that the ‘products’ are often illtrained and unemployable.

For a country which, at least among Third World nations, prides itself on the quality of its manpower, the lack of engagement with the higher education sector can only be described as tragic. Not that there is any dearth of analysis – from the Radhakrishnan and Kothari Commission reports in the ’50s and ’60s to the Pannaya and Swaminathan committees more recently – with their plethora of suggestions.

What is more troubling is a widely held belief that Indian higher education is over-pampered and subsidised, and that this has contributed to the starvation of the elementary education sector. Witness the recurrent demands for privatization and fee enhancement – in short reducing the burden the sector places on the public exchequer. The truth, as always, is a little more complex.

A recent study by N.V. Varghese of the National Institute for Educational Planning and Administration points out that at no time have we approached the recommended target of 6% of gnp to be spent on education. While the overall expenditure on education did rise from 1.2% of gnp in 1951 to 3.7% in 1991, the share of higher education actually fell from 0.9% to 0.56%. Similarly, while the proportion of recurring expenditure on higher education rose from 20% (1951) to 29% (1979-80), it today stands at 18%, lower than the 1951 figure. The situation in terms of plan expenditure is even more stark, the proportions changing from 9% in the first plan to 25% in the fourth plan to a low of 7% in the eight plan.

Equally instructive is the analysis of the sources of support. The share of the government in higher education increased from 49.7% in 1950-51 to 79.7% in 1985-86. Fees which contributed as much as 36.8% in 1950-51 has, however, declined to 14.4%, as has the share of endowments and other earnings (from 13.8% to 4.5%). Overall, the picture is that government expenditure, while up in absolute terms has declined as a proportion of overall public expenditure, and that sources of non-official support have drastically declined.

Within the university system, the situation of state universities is far worse. And loading them with the recommendations of the 5th Pay Commission ensures that these institutions can only shut down. Obviously, therefore, while public pressure to enhance funding for education, including higher education, must be maintained, there is no getting away from exploring and cultivating alternative, additional avenues of support. Just insisting, as so many of our teacher bodies are prone to, that the university is a charge on the state is an exercise foredoomed to failure.

If our institutions of higher learning, more so those providing general education in the humanities and social sciences, are to attract greater financial support, both governmental and private, they will need to reinvent themselves as more useful and relevant. Enhancing fees or arranging loans for students, though essential, is a part answer, for increasing the cost of education is liable to be socially iniquitous and loaded against courses which are not seen as instrumentally useful. Raising endowments is one way; exploring the possibility of instituting a graduate tax is another.

Whatever be the mix of strategies, the university community, more the teachers than the administration, needs to debate ways of increasing efficiency of resource use while improving quality, if it has to garner public support. Academic autonomy, creatively used, can at least help institute greater meaning to the enterprise. Opposing the UGC moves in this direction, as Delhi University seems prone to, is no answer to Amartya Sen’s plea. No way to prepare for the coming millennium.


Harsh Sethi