Assam’s Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma did well to invite principals of 301 colleges of Assam—government colleges, deficit colleges, private colleges, et al—to a meeting held at Cotton College on Wednesday to talk about improving college education in Assam. His emphasis, at this first meeting with college principals, was obviously on improving college education by way of giving it some meaning and purpose, instead of sustaining a ritual that has long got reduced to the business of keeping students in college for three years just to give them a paper called a degree that proclaims them to be educated even if they are not. In the process, the Education Minister might have caused major revenue losses for colleges in the State by recommending that students below the poverty line should not have to pay any admission and tuition fees. He even asked principals of colleges to let him know the extent of revenue losses to colleges, so that they could be compensated by the government for waiving the admission fee and tuition fees of BPL students.
While the Education Minister deserves full marks for identifying those whose fees should be waived to eble BPL students to pursue higher studies, his concern about the standard of college education in Assam is something that touches everyone who has had anything to do about higher education in the State. Over the years, higher education in the State has been reduced to a ritual that rarely results in useful learning that can be translated to competence in the subjects studied by college students for their academic degrees. The graduate course has, by and large, become a three–year exercise which a student has to undergo in order to get an academic degree that qualifies one to apply for certain jobs that are open only to graduates. The situation is so pathetic that most graduates would prefer not to be asked about the subjects they had studied at college. It is perhaps this failure of college education to ensure competence in the subjects studied that makes higher education in India more of a ritual performed to qualify for certain jobs than a course of study that ensures competence in certain disciplines. Making college education free for those who are uble to afford higher education ought to be a responsibility of a welfare state, but in countries like ours where we have a kck for reducing every pursuit to a ritual, one cannot help wondering whether making college education free for some may not have the effect of making higher education more of a mere ritual. After all, people value what they have to pay for more than what they can get free. The Education Minister has insisted that every college will have to introduce two job–oriented subjects so that students can get employed after graduation. Unfortutely, the situation in Assam is very different from what pertains in the more advanced States of India. There have to be job opportunities in order for colleges to think of job–oriented subjects. The total lack of industrial development in the State has reduced the job opportunities in Assam. Besides, the pace of industrial development will depend largely on the easy availability of electricity. We thus have a long way to go to be able to ensure that that the requisite number of jobs can be made available even if colleges introduce two job–oriented subjects.
There is something else that the Education Minister proposed that may not go very well with the objectives of secondary education. He mooted the suggestion that every college must take charge of the academic needs of three secondary schools. The objectives and goals of secondary education are different from the objectives of tertiary education. In any case, the system in operation has already decided the responsibilities of the directors of secondary education and higher education. In directing colleges to look after the academic needs of schools there is the fear of bringing in dual control of schools that might not be in their best interests.