State of higher education in Ladakh

On 11 June, 2020, the Ministry of Human Resource Development released its fifth edition of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) of Indian universities in which University of Kashmir and University of Jammu were ranked 48 and 52 respectively. Higher education in J&K is gradually improving with numerous central and state educational institutions. Currently, there are 154 government degree colleges, 208 private colleges and 25 professional colleges affiliated to various universities functioning in J&K. It also has eight government universities and three semi-government universities. This includes University of Jammu, University of Kashmir, two central universities, two cluster universities, and two Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST-J and SKUAST-K). All these universities have a presence in Jammu as well as Kashmir regions. In addition, institutions such as Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University (SMVDU), Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University (BGBU), Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), and National Institute of Technology (NIT) are also present in J&K.

Astonishingly, it took the government of the erstwhile state of J&K more than 70 years to establish the first university in its largest, remotest, and most-isolated region: Ladakh. This long-standing demand from the people of Ladakh was fulfilled in 2018 when State Administrative Council headed by the former Governor of the erstwhile state, Shri Satya Pal Malik approved a bill to establish a cluster university in the region. It was announced that the varsity would be headquartered in Leh with five colleges (presently six) that were affiliated to Kashmir University included as constituent colleges.

This announcement came after a struggle by the people of Ladakh over several decades. The region has been neglected for seven decades in all aspects of development including education, health and basic infrastructure. Ladakh has suffered this travesty since independence as the state assembly was Kashmir-centric and remained excluded in the constant tug-of-war between Kashmir and Jammu for resource allocation.

This discriminatory attitude towards the Ladakh region was highlighted by the current Member of Parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal in the Parliament during the debate on the abrogation of Article 370. As he mentioned in his speech, the first college in Ladakh was established in Leh district in 1994 followed by one in Kargil in 1995.

The absence of higher education opportunities in the region has compelled thousands of Ladakhi students to migrate outside each year to study. The education-driven migration was inevitable and has led to many hardships in terms of emotional pressure, health challenges, financial burden, and detachment from the family. The political leadership in the state were responsible for this state of affairs and the leaders in Ladakh remained silent on this issue for a long time.

Movement to demand a university

The demand for a full-fledged university in Ladakh started in the early 2010s when Ladakhi students started protesting in Jammu. As the protests intensified, it caught the attention of national and state media. All political and religious organisations in Kargil and Leh districts were united in supporting this demand. This was reflected in a complete shutdown of Kargil and Leh markets, which reflected the importance of having a university in Ladakh. In 2011, the Higher Education Department sanctioned two new colleges in Zangskar (Kargil) and Nubra (Leh).

In 2015, University of Kashmir established two satellite campuses in Kargil and Leh to make higher education more accessible for people in Ladakh at the cost of 29 and 27 crores respectively. The Leh campus became functional in 2015 and offered post-graduate courses in Geology, MBA in Tourism, and English and integrated courses like BBA-MBA, B.Sc-M.Sc Geology. However, this campus failed to attract students. However, the Kargil campus was very popular with more than 350 students enrolling in various courses. The Kargil campus offers courses in Information Technology, Arabic, and Botany. Later, two more colleges were sanctioned; one in Drass (Kargil district) in 2018, and one in Khaltsi (Leh district) in 2019. However, courses at these colleges were not expanded in this period and Ladakhi students continued to travel outside to pursue higher studies.

Despite these changes, things did not change much on the ground. The affiliation of these colleges with University of Kashmir turned into a horrendous experience for the students. There were prolonged delays and frequent postponements of examinations due to unrest in Kashmir, which negatively impacted their studies. As a result, it would take more than four years to complete a three-year undergraduate programme. This meant students would end up losing a precious year of their lives. In addition, students faced other challenges such as having to travel to Srinagar for all their paperwork and certificates. It is not surprising that this frustrated many students who sometimes ended up bribing lower officials to get their work done as fast as possible. All this led students to register complaints, hold protests and send appeals to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Councils in Kargil and Leh and other leaders to address this issue.

Post re-organisation of J&K state

After the bifurcation of the former state into two union territories, the authorities at University of Kashmir handed over its satellite campus in Leh and Kargil to the administration of UT Ladakh. While the government fulfilled the long-standing demand for a university in Ladakh, it somehow remains an illusion till it becomes a full-fledged university. At present, the six constituent colleges of the University of Ladakh include degree colleges in Leh, Kargil, Nubra, Zangskar, Khaltsi, and Drass.

Former Governor of the erstwhile state, Shri Satya Pal Malik appointed former Chief Secretary of the state, Shri C. Phunsog as the first Vice-Chancellor of University of Ladakh (UoL), Shri Imteeaz Kacho, a KAS officer, as Registrar, and Shri Deskyong Namgyal, In-charge Principal, Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh as the Controller of Examination. The first syndicate meeting of UoL was held on 26 November, 2019.

As of 2020, UoL has introduced only 10 PG courses. In Kargil, the PG courses include Arabic, Botany, Chemistry, English, and Information Technology, while in Leh the courses include Zoology, Geology, Mathematics, Commerce, and Tourism and Travel Management. In addition to these, two integrated PG Courses are offered too: Economics in Kargil and Sociology in Leh.

Thus, very few subjects have been introduced so far, which cannot meet the educational demands of Ladakhi students. A bulk of the students are pursuing undergraduate programmes in various colleges in Ladakh and are studying Humanities and Social Sciences courses. They would then be forced to migrate outside if they want to pursue higher studies as they have no options in Ladakh. UoL has not started a PG course for major subjects such as Commerce, Education, Geography, History, Hindi, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Social work, Urdu, etc. It is critical that UoL starts PG courses in subjects that are taught at the undergraduate level at the earliest. The employability and the scope of each subject must be considered before starting new courses. Several public sector jobs have a master’s degree as a basic requirement. In this regard, only a full-fledged University will fill this gap and provide opportunities to aspiring students.

Way forward

The history of educational migration by Ladakhis in search of quality education will continue to exert pressure on UoL for the time being. The greatest challenge before UoL authorities is to retain Ladakhi students within the region, especially for colleges located in more remote areas. Despite being established in 2011, the colleges in Zangskar and Nubra have failed to attract sufficient students. In 2020-21, these colleges have 62 and 43 students respectively, which is extremely low. In contrast, the college in Drass attracted a fairly large number of students (190) in the first year of its establishment.

Many students may prefer to stay in Ladakh if they have access to quality education, choice of subjects, good infrastructure, and well-qualified teachers. It will take time for UoL to develop into a full-fledged university as it is still in its nascent stage.

The UoL must devote resources to build relevant infrastructure to augment the needs of its students. This includes sports’ infrastructure, digital library, access to online resources, laboratories etc. It must also conduct seminars, conferences, and workshops regularly to help students hone their academic skills, gain valuable experience and stay updated with developments the world over. In this regard, UoL must also organise educational tours and exchange programmes for its students.

UoL must also develop state-of-the-art hostel facilities for boys and girls on all its campuses. This will provide viable options to students who can choose to study at any of the colleges. In addition to academic pursuits, UoL must also encourage extra-curricular activities for all-round growth. In this regard, UoL must adopt best practices from different universities around the world. It must develop at a very fast pace unlike other universities in the erstwhile state. We have to open admissions to all students inside and outside Ladakh. Higher education in Ladakh must also be made affordable to ensure that all students are able to pursue their educational aspirations. UoL must explore the possibility of extending free or highly subsidised education to students who cannot afford the expenses. This can also be done by providing scholarships to such students. All this can become a reality in a few years only if the UT administration provides financial resources to the Higher Education Department.

It would be rather simplistic to conclude that the current status of higher education in Ladakh is not encouraging. It is still in its infancy. Ladakh still does not have colleges for medicine, engineering, Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.), dentistry, paramedicine, nursing etc. It will take at least a decade to establish these colleges in Ladakh. Until then, the UTs of Ladakh and J&K must develop a harmonious environment to admit Ladakhi students in various educational institutions in J&K.

The current notification from University of Jammu categorically states that only domicile residents of J&K can apply for various courses. Similarly, the J&K Board of Professional Entrance Examinations ‘advised’ applicants to submit a domicile certificate along with their online applications for various courses.

In my opinion, students of Ladakh must be permitted to apply at all educational institutions in the UT of J&K till Ladakh is able to develop its own facilities. The LAHDCs along with the UT administration of Ladakh must discuss this issue with the Ministry of Home Affairs and UT of J&K. The reservation for Ladakhi students at NIT, Srinagar is a welcome step by Government of India. This should be extended to all institutions in UT of J&K to ensure that Ladakhi students do not suffer and can continue their higher studies.

In the meantime, UoL must ensure that it stays true to the basic goal of society, which changes with time. It should not only impart formal knowledge but also play a fundamental role in shaping a student’s perspective.

By Ghulam Mustafa

Ghulam Mustafa is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Economics at University of Jammu

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