Higher education in Kerala needs a new chapter

There are many tasks that the LDF government must consider in its focus in order to transform the state into a knowledge society


The latest election manifesto of the Kerala Left Democratic Front (LDF) government begins by claiming “we are entering a new phase in the reconstruction of Kerala” and promising to usher in a “sustainable development model”. Higher education is undoubtedly the crucial dynamic to trigger creative transformation in a society. The January 15, 2021 budget speech (the previous government’s final budget) and the June 4, 2021 revised June 4 budget (the new government’s first budget) speech in the Legislative Assembly reaffirm the government’s determination to “rapidly transform Kerala into a knowledge economy and society.” The new budget announced that the government would appoint a high-level commission to “review” and “reorganize” the state’s educational system. The restructuring of higher education is an urgently needed step in transforming Kerala into a knowledge society.

I bring up three topics for discussion: decades of unplanned linear expansion; declining quality and compromises with mediocrity and increasing inequality in economic and social opportunities.

Expansion of universities

First, the linear expansion of arts and science colleges and even vocational colleges regardless of business needs, especially over the past 30 years, coincides with the accelerated flow of remittances since the economic reforms of 1991. Without a prudent policy of channeling these resources for productive purposes, education has proven to be a lucrative investment candidate for many, including powerful social groups. After the direct payment agreement with subsidized private universities in September 1972, the state took responsibility for paying the salaries of teachers and non-teaching staff in addition to granting maintenance grants. Without effective social scrutiny of teacher appointments, donations, bounties, and several corrupt practices increased, affecting the academic environment and goals. The art and science colleges affiliated with universities rose from 172 in 1991 to 958 in 2020, a 5.5-fold increase. Of these, 476 or almost 50% are self-financing universities.

Of the 1.37 lakh students enrolled in these colleges for BA programs, English, Economics, and History alone account for 61% of total enrollment in 2020. Here too, 69% of the MA programs are in these three subjects. Similar for B.Sc. Mathematics and physics alone make up 41.3% of the 1.05 lakh enrolled students. Over 40% of the M.Sc. students take these two subjects. These linear reproductions could be an expression of the helplessness of a student community with no alternatives.

Can we say with confidence that higher education in Kerala fulfills the dreams of youth of becoming great scientists, entrepreneurs, economists, scholars and others? It is not overlooked that student policy has produced a generation of proven political leaders.

Relevance and quality

Second, the linear reproduction of traditional university courses raises the fundamental question of relevance and quality. Surprisingly, no political party has considered this issue important. Nobody wants Kerala to be among the top 100 universities in the world or have such high hopes. Indeed, higher education plays an important instrumental and intrinsic role. With no life skills or employability, the rapid rise of higher education can only increase the number of unemployed. The expansion of the liberal arts and sciences has not materially promoted better public reasoning, open discussion, better gender equality, and high democratic values.

All branches of the university, including technical training, are now working on a self-financing mode. There are only 19 autonomous colleges in Kerala. There is resistance from teachers and students to this idea. A good autonomous educational institution requires high quality curricula, curricula, pedagogy and research. As the first professor (1976-80) at the Dr. At the John Matthai Center at Calicut University, I can confidently testify that dedicated teamwork with a well-designed curriculum and curriculum, exercise book, project work, seminars, objective internal assessment and student assessment can produce excellent students. How the project was abandoned can provide many lessons. Mediocrity can never be the essence of change. The fact that 26% of teachers at Kerala art and science colleges now fall into the “visiting professor” category is just a testament to the mediocrity. Improving and reforming the current situation is a great challenge.

Also read | Kerala HC Order opens a Pandora’s box in higher education

The current government has announced the goal of doubling the gross enrollment rate (18-23) from the current 37% to 75% over the next five years. This is a goal that should be pursued with great planning. Many wealthy middle classes in Kerala (including non-resident Indians) send their wards outside. In view of the strong self-interest in the education system and the existing lack of orientation, a criticism of the epistemological foundations of the existing model is a desideratum.

Question of commercialization

Third, the increasing commercialization of education in Kerala has profoundly undermined the egalitarian narratives of the state of the past and weakened the scope for improving equal opportunities. Growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, income, and consumption of households in Kerala (a well-documented phenomenon) has exacerbated the situation of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), fishermen, plantation workers, and other vulnerable groups. The self-funding colleges of engineering, medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy have practically priced out a substantial portion of these categories. The growing digital divide in pandemic relief affects these groups more than others. The SC / STs that did not participate significantly in the golf boom are facing the double blow of marginalization.

Unemployment rate of women

Kerala can proudly say that of the 3.32 lakh students in humanities colleges in 2019-20, 67.7% were girls and 57.2% of teachers were women. Even so, the activity rate in Kerala is low and the unemployment rate for women is very high. According to the Government of India’s Periodic Labor Force Survey (2018-19), the female unemployment rate in rural Kerala (15-29 years old) is 57.8% compared to 13.8% in India as a whole. Judging from the larger perspective of democracy and social justice, the women of Kerala do not play a crucial role in transforming the economy, society and the community.

In conclusion, the revised budget reaffirms the determination of the current administration to build a new Kerala based on a knowledge society. Multiple steps like K-FON (Kerala Fiber Optic Network), K-DISC (Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council), Knowledge Economy Mission and many others in the pipeline require dedicated teamwork. A shared rethinking of all stakeholders, academics and policy makers is crucial.

MA Oommen is Honorary Fellow, Center for Development Studies and Distinguished Professor, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram