1999. The year I took my XII board exams. The year when late nights and early mornings ceased to exist. The year when burning the midnight oil was not merely a phrase. We crammed till our heads could no longer hold the load. We wrote tests till our fingers bled. Our eyes were bulging with sleep yet our minds were alert. The pressure was unbelievable yet we thrived. For many of us this was the moment. The moment where we could leave our hometowns and ride as far as our aspirations stretched. The moment when middle class woes were replaced with the aura of academic excellence. Our mundane past would lead to a momentous future.

We reaped the fruits of our toil. My marks landed me in a coveted college in the deserted state of Rajasthan. Although I could have studied closer home, my counseling dates clashed with the registration deadline and I shunned the single window system to take the train to the remote village of Pilani. I have no regrets. But many were not that lucky. Had I stayed, I would have witnessed the cacophony of distressed students. Their faces writhing with disappointment and casting a bewildered look at their score cards. This was good but not good enough?

(My closest friend scored 98.8% yet did not manage to secure a medical seat. One scored 96.6% and could not attend an engineering college in Chennai.) Some studied with the same diligence but had to pursue post graduation outside the country. We have bright, brilliant and ambitious scholars but nowhere to house them. They are pushed, shoved and finally fed the left over bones. Reservations, over regulation and inertia plague the higher education system in India.

India boasts of nearly 3,393 engineering colleges offering 14.86 lakhs seats. Yet we are the only BRICS nation that does not feature among the top 200 universities of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) list-the most reputed global rankings of institutes for higher education. This abysmal performance remains unaltered in the World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education.

Faculty recruitment is identified as the cornerstone in providing quality higher education. A recent article in Kafila highlights the state of pedagogy akin to a raconteur in a premier institution like St Steven’s college. Salaries, in most universities are legislated by the government and remain a pittance compared to that offered by the corporate sector. Research grants and IPR (Intellectual property rights) is riddled under the policies and processes of UGC. As reported by the Daily Sun, a researcher has to wait an average of three years to begin work after submission.

Although the HRD ministry acknowledges the efforts for internationalization of higher education institutions as ongoing, it reports a meager number of six research scholars eligible for international collaborative programs. Top officials from acclaimed universities in the United States accompanied President Barack Obama in 2009 to convince the HRD ministry to grant legal authority to set up independent graduate and undergraduate degree programs and this is still in consideration.

If the Indian universities fail to rise to global standards quickly, countries like US, Germany will pave way for aspiring students to pursue graduate studies abroad. US has a strong grassroots immigration reform movement that aims not only to help students pursue top brass education but also to stay and contribute to the economy with improved visa regulations and citizenship roadmaps. If India does not act fast in improving the education sector, the loss of youth will cause irreparable damage to the economic and social stability.

Reservations for admissions to the higher education sector should be used judiciously for the sole purpose of promoting the backward and under privileged strata of society. Using it to hurt the fair chances of skilled and meritorious candidates and as tools for electoral politics is shaming. The abysmal state of selling the seat to the highest bidder should be abolished. Education should also not be used as a means for filling the coffers of political lobbyists which is common place in India.

Time and again, both AICTE and UGC have been critiqued as being autocratic and confining. As WallStreet Journal’s Geeta Anand reported in 2008, the AICTE and UGC are plagued with outdated reforms and bullish decision making that keeps aspiring students out of high ranking universities. Several prominent panels and eminent researchers including Yash Pal have called for the abolition of these two regulatory bodies and creation of an all inclusive committee that stimulates self regulation. With deemed universities focusing primarily on engineering mushrooming in every corner and an inspector raj tradition followed for every issue from course introduction to infrastructure expansion, the higher education system remains stagnant and over regulated.

In line with the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, the HRD ministry organized a Google hangout session with Dr. Shashi Tharoor to engage with the youth of India in an attempt to provide answers to these pressing problems. What transpired in the hangout and what outcomes if documented remains a mystery. With the noose tightening in lieu of the coming elections will the HRD finally embrace change?

Knowledge is power supreme” and the path to becoming a developed nation can only be paved with education. Education, not merely elementary, but graduation and post graduation should be a fulfilled fundamental right for worthy candidates. If the country cannot satiate their intellects, why blame the youth for seeking solace elsewhere? Will this truth hammer the doors of policy makers and politicians?

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Meera Ramanathan
Meera Ramanathan is a freelance writer and columnist dabbing on passions that extend from travel, cinema to food. She blogs ardently at Lost in Thought
Meera Ramanathan

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