Will opportunities be held hostage to regulation emanating out of New Delhi?
By Prem Das Rai and Amreeta Priyadarshini Das, Journal Bureau
It has been widely recognised that the way to convert human capital into economic strength is by providing the youth with quality education, skills and direction. Due to this higher education has come to be viewed as the golden ticket to a good job, good life, social mobility and overall social and economic development.
Sikkim, which became the 22nd State of India only in 1975, has had the added challenge of being a mountainous state, which compounds the problems of ensuring universal access to essential goods and services. Despite this, today Sikkim is well-acknowledged for its high literacy rate of over 97 percent.
In 1971 the literacy rate of Sikkim was only 17.74 per cent, which was almost half of the national level, but from 1981 onwards the literacy rate has increased manifold. In 1981, it was 34.05 per cent, which increased to 56.94 per cent in 1991 and 69.96 percent in 2001 – which was four per cent higher than the national average. In 2011, the literacy rate rose to 82.20 per cent, an amazing feat indeed!
Twenty percent of the budget is spent on education by the state government. The tempo of development in higher education increased only after 1994, when the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) Government came to power. Since then, there have been visible strides taken to improve the state of education in Sikkim. Education has been made free up to college level for those who cannot afford. Educational loans for higher education, Fellowship for students who opt for higher education and professional training and Chief Minister’s Complete Literacy Mission have been launched. These are some of the important policy initiatives that have been undertaken.
Higher Education Scenario in Sikkim Today
Currently there are seven universities and a total of 26 colleges in Sikkim.
|Sl. No.||Name of University||Govt/ Private||Year of Establishment|
|1||Sikkim Manipal University||Private||1995|
|3||Sikkim University||Central Govt||2006|
|5||Vinayaka Missions Sikkim University||Private||2008|
|6||National Institute of Technology||Central Govt||2010|
(Source- Human Resource Development Department, Government of Sikkim)
Out of these, there are notable specialized colleges for law (Veena Memorial Law College, Sikkim Government Law College), medicine (Sikkim Manipal Institute of Medical Sciences), pharmacology (Himalayan Pharmacy Institute), business (EIILM Business School, IIAS Business School) and hotel management (Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition). There are some unique institutions like SHEDA (Buddhist Education) Institute of Tibetology, and Government Sanskrit College in Sikkim.
Additionally, there are two important research institutions, called the National Research Centre of Orchids (NRCO) and National Organic Farming Research Institute (NOFRI).
Sikkim University, a Central University, is in the process of building its permanent campus in Yangang, South Sikkim. It has been designed to be completely grid-free, disabled-friendly, zero waste, green and sustainable campus and is projected to be completed by 2021.
The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education of the state is 37%, according to Additional Chief Secretary G.P. Upadhyaya, which is among the highest in the country. In terms of average enrolment per college, Sikkim (814) is higher than the all-India average of 700. Total enrolment of students in regular mode in higher education institutes is around 0.12 lakhs. Given that every year the average number of students graduating from Class XII is around 6,500 and we assume that at least 6,000 out of this figure enrol in universities in Sikkim, that would mean that approximately the same number of students is coming in from other states and countries. This points to the huge economic and revenue potential of the higher education sector in Sikkim.
The growth of government and private institutions in Sikkim over the last two decades has elevated the higher education scenario in Sikkim. These universities are not only benefiting students within Sikkim in pursuing a degree at the tertiary level, but also students from other states of India and the neighbouring countries who come to Sikkim to pursue higher education.
The Government of Sikkim can rightfully be proud of these achievements.
However, there are also a range of challenges which need to be addressed.
Challenges of higher education in Sikkim
Most of the challenges that Sikkim faces in the field of higher education are common problems facing most Indian states, stemming from the structural problems with India’s higher education architecture.
Education falls under the Concurrent List of the Constitution, which means that both the Centre and the State can enact laws related to education. The mandate of determining standards of higher education and research lies with the Centre. There are multiple regulatory bodies in India, University Grants Commission (UGC) for universities and colleges teaching general subjects, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and additionally, institutions offering courses related to medical, legal, or architectural education are regulated by 15 professional councils like the Medical Council and the Bar Council.
It has often been cited that India’s higher education landscape, characterised by a multiplicity of regulatory agencies, with overlapping mandates has led to a system that is over-regulated and under-governed. Currently, universities have very little autonomy in terms of what they can do, which has led to a politicization of higher education, as observed with the recent strikes in Manipur University demanding the resignation of the Vice Chancellor over various issues. Rather than seasoned educationists, it is the bureaucracy or the government that selects the leaders or vice chancellors of higher education institutions in India, which does not necessarily lead to selection of the most competent leaders. The leadership determines the environment of the university, and if the top management is tainted, the standards of the university automatically falls.
Moreover, the universities do not have control over anything — from the syllabus, admission criteria and fee structure – while the regulators control everything. This has hindered experimentation and the flow of new ideas. Due to the lack of freedom, talented people don’t want to engage in academia which has also resulted in mediocre pedagogy. Additionally, the teaching is geared more towards passing exams rather than learning or gaining new skills. Research and innovative learning have taken a back seat.
In Sikkim, despite the huge growth in number of institutions and infrastructure, the quality of education is still not up to the mark. Faculty find the curriculum to be too theoretical, vast and inappropriate for graduate level studies and irrelevant to societal needs. Due to the evaluation process, there is limited motivation for learning among students. Moreover, university education in India is all too generic, whereas the demand in the job market is that of highly skilled, or specialized graduates. Graduates find themselves under-prepared for the job market resulting in low employability. This is why big corporate houses have their own compulsory training programmes. Not only is it a wastage of time, but higher education is not fulfilling the purpose of preparing the future citizens for the job market.
Little wonder then that educated unemployment is a growing issue all over the country.
Most Sikkimese students can get admission in one of the many universities in Sikkim, but they must often compromise on their choice of courses due to the limited number of seats in specific courses and the enormous meritocratic competition.
The other problem is that due to the limited choice of courses for those wanting to pursue Post Graduation studies, a large number of students go to other parts of the country for degrees such as M.A., M.Phil, and PhD in humanities and social sciences, sciences, and other professional courses. Not only does this pose a great financial burden on students, but Sikkim is losing its best and brightest due to the lack of research facilities and infrastructure to support its ambitious youth. While it is true that this is a pan-Indian phenomenon, it is something which needs to be investigated seriously.
In India there have recently been a wave of protests, for example in Manipur University, against the politicization of the recruitment process. Academic posts which can go to talented Sikkimese youth may instead go to people from outside the state – an increasing challenge.
The Way Forward
The problems stemming from the structure of higher education in India can only be remedied if the very framework of education in India is changed. Firstly, the overall regulatory framework must change such that universities get autonomy to govern themselves. Only this will allow freedom of experimentation, prevent politicization of higher education and attract quality people to academia in Sikkim. Secondly, to correct the mismatch between higher education in Sikkim and all over India and the requirements of the industries, the focus of higher education should shift towards skill-based education. There should be increased cross-talk between public-private, formal/informal educational enterprises and the industry so that there is a better understanding of the needs of the market, towards which learning can be directed.
The other big problem that new graduates face in Sikkim, as elsewhere, is that of appropriate employment. To correct this, the Government is providing more assistance to self-employed people and putting greater emphasis on vocational education. Chief Minister’s Self Employment Scheme is one such programme. The other is to ensure a diversity of job opportunities. Development of small-scale industries is being encouraged as this will lead to an increase in production, which is what ultimately creates demand for labour. The organic farming sector and the tourism sector are two vital pillars that will drive Sikkim’s economy in the future, where innovation from young graduates will help in revolutionising the outputs. More and more jobs will be generated in Sikkim as the economy moves to a higher order of value addition in all sectors.
Physical infrastructure alone is not enough. The reputation of an institution depends primarily on the quality of its faculty and research output. Unfortunately, there is very little incentive and research grants that are being given out, resulting in a stunted research environment. To this end, a comprehensive policy should be put in place to give much more funds to researchers. Not only will this uplift the research output of the state, it will also attract the best academics and faculty to Sikkim.
Sikkim – An education hub of Northeast and beyond
For the future of Sikkim, huge developments in the higher education sector will be key in ensuring stable economic growth. The large numbers of incoming students that Sikkim is receiving is proof of the huge potential of Sikkim’s education sector. Added to this is the attraction of learning in a State which offers peace and security to all, especially to women.
The North Eastern region as a whole is going through a phase of development, and education will be the next sector which will propel the region’s developmental status further. Sikkim is capitalizing on this opportunity to become the next big regional education hub by providing impressive infrastructure and a continually expanding list of colleges and courses offered in these colleges. India has been cited as the preferred destination for higher studies of many SAARC nations, especially students from Bhutan and Nepal. There are already many students coming in from these countries to Sikkim, but if these numbers can be given a further push through policy impetus and stronger physical connectivity, then Sikkim can emerge as the education hub, not just of North East India, but of the adjoining nations too.