With the aggregate number of registered unemployed across the country having crossed the 40 million mark and not a few million of them being college and university graduates, national attention has somewhat belatedly shifted from unemployment to the unemployability of youth streaming out of the nation’s schools, and particularly colleges. Suddenly there’s a growing awareness within the establishment that formal education at the school and tertiary levels needs to be supplemented with vocational and life skills learning.

Though the rising incidence of joblessness wasn’t a major issue in the recently concluded general election, there is growing concern within the ivory towers of academia about the widening mismatch between the demands of Indian industry which is experiencing an acute shortage of skilled personnel and the crude, unfinished human resources developed by the nation’s rapidly obsolescing higher education system. Comments veteran educationist and outspoken Planning Commission member, Dr. K. Venkatasubramanian: "Graduate unemployment is escalating as university education is not geared either to meet development or employment objectives. No wonder droves of students are driven to technical institutes, which offer crash courses in computers and multimedia. It is high time education authorities restructured outdated undergraduate syllabuses to the needs of a modern knowledge-based society. Universities and their curriculums need to be overhauled in the larger interest of producing students who are able to meet the rising expectations of industry and the economy by becoming productive quickly."

Indeed the issue of job skilling has become a crucial theme on the conference and seminar circuits in higher education. And the chorus within academia is chanting a new mantra: ‘make graduates and postgraduates employable’.

Stung by escalating criticism of outdated syllabuses in institutions of higher education, the country’s apex higher education body, the Delhi-based University Grants Commission (UGC), which half a century after it was promoted has belatedly morphed into an academic standards authority (see EW May cover story), has moved to address this burning issue. During the Tenth Plan period (2002–07) the commission has given the green signal to the incorporation of a plethora of value added, job-oriented diplomate programmes to college and varsity courses. It has suggested that colleges supplement their degree courses with certificate/ diploma/ advanced diploma programmes. To this end the UGC management has offered undergrad colleges in particular a financial incentive — universities and colleges will get a special grant of Rs.1 lakh per vocational or life skills course introduced. The commission has also constituted expert committees to study and encourage revision of college and university syllabuses at least once in five years.

Picture: Film direction class at MOP Vaishnav College, Chennai.

"Out of the 9.28 million students in higher education, only 17 percent are pursuing professional streams while the remaining 83 percent are in conventional higher education streams, i.e B.Sc, B.Com and BA degree programmes. We want to make education more meaningful for these students. Dual qualifications will enable students to get conventional plus vocational education simultaneously, as well as generate more funds for institutions. Many state universities have lapped up this proposal but most Central universities are yet to take it up," explains Dr. Arun Nigavekar, former vice-chancellor of Pune University and currently chairman of UGC.

UGC’s syllabus enrichment scheme enables a commerce student to simultaneously enroll for a foreign exchange management or insurance diploma programme, or a history student to simultaneously study journalism or tourism, thus improving his/ her job prospects after graduation. Students can take up two add-on courses and are given a certificate at the end of one year, a diploma at the end of two years and a postgraduate diploma at the end of three years. "Once the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is implemented, Indian universities will face stiff competition as higher education will open to foreign universities and they will be able to establish campuses in this country. Indian universities have to improve the quality of education to face the challenge," adds Nigavekar.

Confronted with the ground realities of the educated unemployed phenomenon, most college and varsity managements across the country have welcomed the UGC initiative.

"The choice-based credit system (CBCS) which we have implemented in Madras University for our postgraduate programmes is proving ideal for narrowing the gap between university education and employment. This system facilitates movement of students from one discipline to another, provides greater flexibility in the choice of courses and enables highly motivated students to gain extra credits. While the core courses are part of the main discipline, students get to choose from a variety of electives from other disciplines. Besides, as an experimental study we are planning to network between universities in Tamilnadu for offering core/ elective courses reciprocally to postgraduate students who can move across disciplines and even across different university campuses to study electives. For a beginning, the vice-chancellors of Madurai Kamaraj University, Mother Theresa University and Tamil University, Thanjavur have agreed to network with the University of Madras," says Dr. S.P. Thyagarajan, a microbiology alumnus of Madras and Copenhagen universities who is the optimistic newly appointed vice-chancellor of Madras University, which boasts 158 affiliated colleges (including 13 autonomous institutions) with an enrollment of 4,000 students instructed by 274 faculty.

Student voices

University education isn’t job-oriented especially for arts stream students. Our universities should consult industry before they tailor courses and introduce degree programmes like management studies and fashion design for arts students. Unfortunately, we don’t have these programmes in our college

- Gargi Zaveri, first year BA student, Mithibai College of Arts, Mumbai

I’m pleased that our college is planning to add study programmes like journalism, TV production and theatre studies in the academic year 2004-2005. After spending three to four years in college, students should be well qualified and equipped for employment after college. These supplementary courses will train students for careers and create opportunities to meet and work with professionals in the field. It’s a better way to spend time than to waste it in pursuing arts or science degrees full time

- Snigdha Shloka Pattajoshi, second year BA, Gargi College, Delhi

Though the mass communication course is supposed to be job-oriented, we hardly get any practical experience of the media. During the entire two-year course, we have only two-months of internship in a media organisation. I feel this is not enough to equip us for jobs after college

- Noor Jahan, MS student in mass communications, Bangalore University

Ethiraj College is a great place to study but I don’t think my B.Sc degree in nutrition and dietetics will help me get a well-paying job. Indeed when I applied to a foreign university for admission into a Master’s programme I wasn’t accepted because our B.Sc degree course isn’t considered a sufficient qualification. They asked me to do a foundation course to equip myself fully. Nowadays, most students do a dual degree or career-oriented course to pad up their resumes. Likewise I enrolled for a one-year course in designing as an additional qualification

- Karuna Amarnath, final year B.Sc nutrition and dietetics, Ethiraj College, Chennai

Following the UGC imprimatur, Madras University is planning to introduce 29 new certificate programmes for undergraduate and postgraduate students. Among the postgraduate diploma courses the university plans to offer from June 2004 are: rainwater harvesting, cell biology, herbal biotechnology and functional music. "We have designed these certificate courses with inputs from industry experts who have been inducted into our advisory boards. We also plan to appoint them as adjunct faculty," says Thyagarajan. Ten affiliated colleges have already applied to the university to start the UGC recommended add-on courses from the academic year commencing next month.

An associated initiative of the university is the International Centre of Madras University, which became operational in January and offers specialised short term and degree courses to foreign students. The centre is a single window for admitting students, counselling, helping them find residential accommodation and solving visa and documentation problems. It offers learning programmes in Indian music and dance, ayurveda, siddha, performing arts, archaeology, tourism, Indian heritage and culture, and traditional medicine systems. "Since Madras University has been identified as a ‘University with Potential for Excellence’ by UGC, we have received funding to design these study programmes and provide facilities for research, testing and validation. This will help us in internationalising Madras University," says Thyagarajan.

Similarly the leaders of several universities across the country confronted by reducing enrollments in the sciences and humanities because of outmoded degree courses offered by them, are taking corrective steps to address the issue. For example Bangalore University, one of the largest varsities in India with more than 3,000 affiliated colleges is revamping its undergraduate curriculum to provide a blend of pure and applied mix of each subject stream. It has introduced practical subjects to give students hands-on training in industry, and vocational, employment-oriented courses such as sericulture, industrial chemistry, environment and water management, automobile maintenance.

In the academic year starting this month, Bangalore University will introduce four-year integrated honours degree courses in life sciences, physical, chemical and mathematical sciences; arts and humanities, which will provide parallel and maximum practical coursework. "These new initiatives will serve to familiarise students with industry environments and improve their chances of gainful employment. With more vocational courses on stream and pure sciences syllabuses revamped, I’m sure the problem of unemployability of graduate students will be reduced by 60-70 percent," says Dr. M.S Thimmappa, a psychology postgrad of Mysore University who was awarded his doctorate by Bangalore University, and has been vice-chancellor of Bangalore University since 2002.

But although the dominant opinion in Indian academia is that initiatives to supplement formal with employment-oriented life skills education are overdue, it hasn’t been unanimously welcomed. "University education should be rigorous and aim at in-depth training of the mind rather than merely preparing students for employment. The function of providing specific job training for graduates is of industry. Moreover there are separate colleges and courses for vocational and technical education for students who want to pursue them. It is inadvisable to sacrifice the depth and intensity of degree programmes by making them job-oriented," argues Chandra Iyengar, a history alumnus of Madras and Delhi universities who joined the IAS in 1973 and is currently principal secretary of higher and technical education in the government of Maharashtra.

Iyengar, however, acknowledges that following public pressure there has been a definitive shift towards introducing vocational undergrad degree programmes such as bachelor of management studies (BMS), bachelor of mass media (BMM) and bachelor of science in information technology (B.Sc IT) in several colleges affiliated to Bombay University which has also recently begun a course on heritage maintenance with new courses being constantly designed. "We are in the process of getting the Private Universities Act passed in the state assembly. If this happens we will be the first and only state in the country to do so. This Act will enable private Indian and international universities to set up campuses in Maharashtra. Of course there will be a regulatory framework for these autonomous universities and colleges, " says Iyengar.

With public and UGC pressure to contemporise syllabuses and curriculums intensifying, college and varsity managements have been forced to innovate and become more business literate. Highly-rated institutions like the Ethiraj College and MOP Vaishnav College in Chennai, St. Joseph’s in Bangalore, Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics and Sophia College in Mumbai, to cite a few have won plaudits for suo moto initiating syllabus enhancing programmes and strategies beyond the mandatory requirements of the constraining university affiliating system. But the visionary leaders of spearhead education institutions complain about "rigidities" of the tertiary education system. Among them: the affiliating system of universities which enforces standardisation; hide bound attitudes; the higher education bureaucracy, declining UGC allocations and the evaluation and examination system based on rote learning.

"The basic problem of undergraduate education in our country is that syllabuses are prescribed by universities, curriculums devised by colleges and examinations conducted by universities. Moreover, university syllabuses are revised very infrequently. The iron grip of universities leaves very little scope for college managements to do any out-of-the-box thinking in the pursuit of excellence. At our college, however, we enrich our syllabuses by running parallel honours or diploma programmes," says Fr. Ambrose Pinto, S.J, a political science alumnus of Mangalore University and currently the outspoken principal of Bangalore’s highly rated St. Joseph’s College, which offers arts and science education to 2,500 undergrad and 200 postgrad students.

St. Joseph's College offers honours/ diploma courses in 21 different streams which include space sciences, econometrics, peace studies, journalism and media; boasts 61 clubs of assorted interests and mandates a compulsory one-week HRD programme which it conducts every year to equip students with the soft skills required in the workplace. The college has been chosen as one of three in the state under UGC’s ‘Colleges with potential for excellence’ scheme for pilot implementation of the choice-based credits system from the academic year June 2004-05. Under this scheme first year undergraduate and postgrad students can choose electives across traditional arts, science and commerce boundaries and tailor study programmes to suit their personal needs.

Picture: Biotech training at Sophia College, Mumbai.

Such and other academic innovations would be facilitated if universities encouraged collegiate autonomy. Way back in 1966 the Kothari Commission advocated that at least 10 percent of the total number of colleges across the country should be conferred autonomous status to free them to devise their own syllabuses, evolve new methods of teaching and learning, prescribe their own study courses and conduct examinations. The need for collegiate autonomy was endorsed in the National Policy on Education (1986) and Programme of Action (1992). Had these recommendations been implemented in letter and spirit, there would have been 1,600 autonomous colleges in India. Instead, there are only 140.

Cabined, cribbed and confined by standardisation norms imposed by universities, academics of colleges which are consistently rated high in the opinion polls of popular newsmagazines such as India Today (see India Today of May 15 for the latest rankings) are chafing at the bit and are in favour of being granted autonomous status. Though this status is conferred by UGC, the grant of autonomous status requires clearance by the affiliating university and the state government, which is not always forthcoming.

Moreover, colleges have to obtain the approval of the parent university for introducing new courses and depend upon the state government for faculty salaries and upon UGC for infrastructure development finance. "Unless institutions of higher education are prepared to accept change and implement the new autonomy guidelines of the UGC, imminent global competition will force closure of more than half of the country’s existing colleges. Moreover cash-strapped colleges should prepare themselves to raise tuition fees, augment research and consultancy earnings to become financially independent," says D. Victor, who retired as director of collegiate education (Tamilnadu) in 2000. Currently Victor is the founder-director of the Academy for Quality and Excellence in Higher Education, Chennai which conducts autonomy and accreditation workshops, offers consultancy services on issues related to higher education and helps institutions find funding agencies to finance their proposals and activities.

Against this backdrop of growing disillusionment with theory-intensive mainstream — arts, science and commerce — college and varsity syllabuses, there’s considerable enthusiasm for supplementary professional education within academia and the student community. "The UGC’s initiative to introduce add-on courses, though very late in the day, will definitely serve to make undergraduate education more student-friendly. It is time college and varsity managements woke up and revamped their curriculums to deliver knowledge and skills training to students. The success of this initiative will depend a lot on the type of leadership in each college. Every institution has to plan ahead for a quarter century if it is to survive imminent foreign competition. Besides, introduction of new certificate courses will require teacher training in vocational education. UGC has provided the guidelines, but it’s up to college administrators to design vocational courses suited to their work culture," says Indhrani Sridharan, a history postgrad and Ph D of Madras University and currently principal of Chennai’s Ethiraj College for Women which has 5,500 students instructed by 275 faculty on the rolls of its day and evening colleges.

Sridharan’s advice to academics is valuable because its undergraduate, postgraduate and full-time MBA and MCA degree programmes apart, Ehiraj College is a pioneer in parallel vocational education, offering short term certificate and diploma courses to its students for the past decade. Moreover, recently, the college introduced plant biology and plant biotechnology, advanced zoology and animal biotechnology degree programmes for students disillusioned with the traditional science education. In the new academic year, the college will offer nine career-oriented certificate courses in women and media studies, insurance, banking and foreign exchange and hospital waste management of 20-weeks duration incorporating both theoretical instruction and on-the-job training during vacations.

With a swelling stream of school leavers opting for job-oriented professional education, academics in mainstream colleges and varsities offering traditional arts, science and commerce education which is as vital for orderly socio-economic development, are becoming painfully aware of the need to restructure their syllabuses and curriculums to meet greater expectations. "The logic of economic liberalisation and deregulation needs to be extended to Indian education. Right now, all academic initiatives are subject to government control. I hope these controls gradually disappear so that college managements will have greater autonomy to design, choose and adapt the type of courses they want to offer students. Only then can university education become truly contemporary," says M.K. Desai, principal of Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, college and university education was synonymous with an interregnum of fun, games and romance before graduates received intensive training within corporates and in workplaces. But the global revolution of rising expectations has brought this era to a close in the new millennium. Corporate and business enterprises are becoming increasingly anxious about rising costs of in-house training while students in institutions of higher education expect to be equipped with professional skill-sets which will speed their ascent up the executive ladder.

Against this backdrop, UGC's directive to colleges to supplement mainstream degree programmes with vocational or life skilling certificate courses is an overdue initiative which should be warmly welcomed in all colleges and universities. With the threat of competition from offshore institutions of higher education which are poised to enter India under the provisions of GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), the managements of academic institutions urgently need to enrich and upgrade their syllabuses and curriculums. Moreover if the Indian economy is to sustain its annual 7 percent GDP rate of economic growth, the quantity and quality of graduates streaming out of campus India will need to improve.

An onerous responsibility has devolved upon the Indian academy. How it responds to the challenges of this 21st century will determine whether the long awaited take-off of the Indian economy will become a reality or the world’s most populous democracy will continue to languish as an also-ran nation, buoyed by rosy promises rather than actual performance.