The obstacle course of higher education in Sikkim

The obstacle course of higher education in Sikkim
Photo Credit: Sikkim Government College, Tadong

India has a gross enrollment ratio of 25%, much lesser than its developing economy peers China and Brazil. With an increasing number of students pursuing higher education and specializing in different disciplines such as medicine, engineering, science, arts, economics, management etc., and improved women enrollment of about 48%, India has become a host to millions of students from neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and African countries. University Grants Commission, which facilitates the setting of colleges, grants funds to the institutions and advises the government on the education infrastructure is under review for being revamped. 

Higher education is a growing priority among Sikkimese youths and parents look to provide the best for their children. From three colleges in 1990 to several institutions mushrooming across the state, Sikkim has come a long way. 

Schemes like the introduction of Lepcha, Tibetan and Limboo language courses at the postgraduate level, has given students a wider choice in learning Sikkimese language and fine-tuning research development.

Even the previous government's laptop distribution scheme to students of government colleges remained novel as it bridged the digital divide between those who could afford one and those who couldn't. Thelay Namgay Sherpa, a student pursuing B.A. Hons. in Economics mentions that he is thankful for the laptop distributed by the government years back as it was helpful during the lockdown phase's shift to digital learning. 

A rise in PhD scholars in the state and increase in scholarly interest on Sikkim specific topics has led the state administration to provide various initiatives.

As per the state government website, currently, there are fellowships grants to PhD scholars awarded for INR 6000 per month. For in-service candidates, there is a reimbursement of INR 12,000 per month.

Purna Hang Subba, PhD scholar in Economics says that the present situation has improved study culture in various universities such as Sikkim University, NIT SIKKIM, SRM University who now offer courses to students on subjects previously missing. He delights in expressing improvement in the number of students availing higher education and the value of PhD, Med, MA which has increased significantly, facilitating interest in aspirants even among school students. 

However, he does express concern over the infrastructure at Sikkim University but is hopeful that the university will meet the standards once the campus at Yangyang is complete. 

He suggests more development in terms of publication of state journals. "Central funds to PhD scholars have been hiked to INR 27,000 in the recent times but issues with state grants have remained as there is no timely disbursal of the funds which could have been crucial in making a level playing field in par with other scholars in any part of the country," he says. "Many scholars have dropped out due to financial constraints and therefore I hope that the state government promptly responds to this."

The Challenges

Huge regional disparity— According to a report, states in Southern India like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have a higher number of colleges with a slightly different structure when compared to states in Northern and Northeast, prompting students to migrate out of their native state for education. 

The Southern states have institutes that allow a student to major in three core subjects, giving them greater expertise and equipping them for the competitive world outside campus. 

Even North India is not far behind. Every year, thousands of high school students apply to Delhi University's colleges and pray fervently for their name to appear on the acceptance list. Apart from being hugely popular institutions, colleges under DU have a stellar faculty, something that sorry lacks in Sikkim. 

Lack of accreditation - In recent times various colleges established in Sikkim have lost accreditation, putting the learning process of various students at stake, such as Eiilim University in West and Pakim Palatine in the East. 

Corruption—There have been several reports of corruption in the educational system, especially in the admissions process to premier institutions. 

College infrastructure— Issues of college infrastructure and Ad-hoc nature of campuses in Sikkim (Sikkim University, SRM, NIT SIKKIM) have led students to dissent and protest in the form of hunger strikes and sit-in protests. This has shown the disparity of education between private and government colleges with few students able to afford studies outside the state or nation, leaving those dependent on the state's higher education vulnerable. 

High turnover- With nearly thousands of students completing their studies, they have no proper placement in the jobs they had specialized for. 

Technology push- As the most recent entrant, AI-based learning, digital learning, e-teaching are the newbie which would be challenging without robust SOPs in place. 

Centralized nature- The centralized nature of decision-making such as UGC, AICTE or even Sikkim University for that matter, limits other colleges with making a curriculum shift relevant to its local needs. 

The recent decision of the state government to convert the proposed ICFAI University campus in South Sikkim to Sikkim University is a welcome step as it would expedite the need for a better Central University. Sikkim has the opportunity to improve higher education by improving the quality of faculty and infrastructure to improve the skill and employability of the students completing their higher education but unless it comes on time, it will cease to matter at all.