Making higher education affordable and economical

By Dr G Shreekumar Menon

5 min read
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College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram | Mathrubhumi file photo

Higher education, especially professional courses like medical education, law, and engineering, are highly sought after by lakhs of students, across India. But there is a chronic shortage of seats, acute competition and prohibitive fee structure of private and deemed-to-be-universities, which is beyond the common man. Hence the clamour for getting admission in government institutions, where the fee structure is very economical in every respect.

Private entrepreneurs are unwilling to invest in the education sector as there is no return-of-investment, on the grand scale that was the norm earlier. Existing educational entrepreneurs must bear a considerable share of justified criticism of messing up the sector because of their rapacious greed, unscrupulousness and reliance on fake propaganda, and advertisements. The commercialization of education by private investors, has led the educational sector into a crisis. Students find it more economical to head to East-European universities, as also destinations like Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Hungary, Moldovia, and even tiny countries like Malta.

Even China is a preferred destination. Education in these countries is very affordable, though little is known about the quality, except what is touted by agents. But with the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the scenario is getting complicated. Security of students has become a major issue, apart from rising costs, scope for job opportunities and availing of economical educational loans. As regards the heavily advertised institutions of UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, they cannot claim any exceptional quality, calibre or merit, for warranting wasting crores for an educational degree. Many of our youngsters are splurging money by availing educational loans, or selling landed property, just to acquire European degrees in order to get an access route to acquiring European citizenship.

However, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the possibility of the war spilling into Europe, coupled with steep rise in cost of living in many countries, has prompted many parents to rethink about sending their wards to foreign countries. The scenario in US is also not that rosy. US education has always been expensive, but since they offer great scope for research as also jobs and ultimately Green Cards and citizenship, many thousands of students flock to US, every year. Needless to say, hundreds of American universities, are surviving on the fat fees, extorted. American universities are full of Chinese, Indian and Korean students. The average American is not willing to shoulder the burden of huge fees, as also lengthy duration of the medical courses there.

Why is it that Indian student flock to foreign countries just to acquire a medical degree, M.S. degree, MBA, and other post-graduate degrees? While India has top class IIT’s, IIM’s, Medical colleges, and other institutions of higher learning, it is just not sufficient to cater to the huge demand. Merit category students find it extremely frustrating to join a course of their preference. Hence many are also under compulsion either to seek admissions in foreign universities or opt for other courses in India. This is typical Hobson’s choice.

How do we ensure that every student in India gets to learn what he desires? For this, India needs to develop its educational sector, especially government run institutions, and raise their standards to global level. India needs to put in place a pragmatic policy to ensure top-class education for its youth at the most down-to-earth fees. If many East European countries and China are able to provide professional courses at very reasonable rates, why can’t we do it in India? Can this be achieved? Why not?

This writer is of the considered opinion that government run schools, colleges and universities are strategically located in many towns and cities, have excellent calibre staff, and solid infrastructure in the form of buildings, furniture, and land. The problem is these basic facilities are totally under-utilised. As a rule, these facilities are used only for a fixed duration of time, everyday, usually from 9 AM to 5 PM, Sundays are closed, and there are long spells of holidays for summer, and other festivals. If this pattern is totally changed and the facilities are utilised round-the-clock, can it not have a huge impact on the educational sector?

Factories and many commercial establishments work 24x7, why not extend this pattern to government educational institutions? Instead of the present single batch, three batches can be accommodated, in time-slots of 8-hour duration, thereby ensuring 100% utilization of the building and infrastructure.

Next, is this feasible? In many institutions of higher learning, both India and abroad, it is not uncommon for classes to be held at mid-night or in the early hours of the morning, to suit the convenience of visiting professors or distinguished personalities. It is nowadays very common for students attending online programs, software professionals, medical transcriptionists, coders, teachers, and even consulting doctors to work according to Pacific time. If this norm is extended to the educational sector, then the intake of students can be tripled, without any fresh investment in land, building and infrastructure.

There will be difficulty for the batch studying in the third shift-from 10 PM to 6 AM, but this should be offset by a 75% fee discount or better, should be made fully free. Out of the three batches one batch can be set aside for meritorious students. For example, the present average intake in a government medical college is 150 students, but in this scheme, the intake will touch 450, i.e., 150x3=450, with zero fresh investment.

The next issue to be considered is the teaching staff. Presently, the retirement age is ranging from 60 to 65 years in professional colleges. Most of the staff retiring even at 65 are very healthy and capable of continuing to work, but in India they are compulsorily weeded out. However, in USA, people can work till whatever age they want, there is no fixed retirement age. India can emulate this system, for teaching faculty by re-employing the interested staff. Further, the government service retirees are a huge talent pool of vast experience and calibre. Even in the civil services there are qualified doctors, engineers, and Ph.D. holders.

Their talents are all wasted and compulsorily made redundant, because of the retirement policy. Many would like to do free service and teaching appeals to many of them. If this resource pool could be mobilized and directed to fields like medicine, engineering, and law, there would be no dearth of teaching staff.

Presently, the government of India has taken some rudimentary steps in this direction. A pathbreaking reform in this area, can be a great gamechanger.
As regards practical classes, the existing facilities could be utilised by different batches during their allotted hours. In the medical field, for example, there is acute shortage of doctors and other health professionals. These students can be deployed immediately upon enrolment in several non-patient related fields and later for assisting in hospital duty, which would be a learning experience for them. Any inadequacies can be taken care of by increasing the duration of internship. Even as it is, the present internship duration for medical graduates in India is lesser than that in USA and UK. By enlarging the internship duration, it can be brought to international levels.

By making medical, nursing and other allied medical education fields function on a round-the-clock basis, the present acute shortage of doctors and nurses, can be overcome in due course and also the country can fulfil the aspirations of lakhs of students. We need to learn from China’s example. In 1968, Chairman Mao officially launched a scheme to improve healthcare in rural China, by giving thousands of people basic medical training and sending them out to work in villages.

They were known as the “barefoot doctors”. India also needs to draw inspiration from these innovative strategies, successfully utilised by neighbouring countries. Simply by making optimum usage of existing infrastructure and harnessing the retired workforce, India can do its own miracle.

(Author is a retired IRS officer and a PhD holder in narcotics)

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