Why India must open its Higher Education sector?



The statement that India's Higher Education sector is in crisis and needs a 90s style liberalization draws the riposte: Education is not commerce. But instrumentality is at the core of India's Higher Education system and 'liberal' education, an education without the immediacy of objective and specificity of purpose hasn't taken roots in India. Even after Independence, no Indian D'Annunzio called for making Indians after India has been made. There is no hiding away from the reality that Higher Education is a significant sector of economic activity, which is a major employer with a long-term impact on productivity and prosperity.

The situation in Higher Education is rather like Indian commerce prior to liberalisation, when even car-making was done on ‘national interest’ and the Indian government protected different industrial sectors for the sake of shielding well-connected business groups from global competition. The question of education is more urgent: India reached a demographic moment and not raising the standard of higher education would be much more dangerous than Indians riding clunky cars designed in the 60s. While it is not my intention to undermine the importance of education by comparing it with cars, the point of this comparison is to illustrate the point that a globally competitive economy must be underpinned by an open and dynamic education system, and not be the handmaiden of vested interests.

It is time to acknowledge that Higher Education is of strategic importance. In a technology-driven world, China, our big neighbour and regional competitor, has stolen the lead. Chinese companies are at the forefront in the development of new telecom standards and now match the United States in sophistication in cyber-monitoring and security. There is a mistaken belief in India that while China leads the world in manufacturing, India is the global leader in services. Indian IT companies, however, are still stuck in low-value grunt work while Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent have taken on the American behemoths. In this race to global and regional leadership, China’s universities, which have grown both in size and stature over the last decades, have played an outsized role. To expect India to innovate, compete and lead, whether in defence or in commerce, with its universities and colleges permanently crippled and abandoned to vested interests, is like expecting an athlete to win a race in shackles.

Indeed, one may choose not to evaluate Higher Education on the basis of economic competitiveness, nor see China's and India's interests fundamentally opposed. But even the other functions of Higher Education are poorly served within the current structure. The private universities limit themselves to courses with job prospects, avoiding the commitment to research and creation of new knowledge, often blindly following models created elsewhere (it is not unusual for resource-poor Indian universities to announce new courses with cut-and-paste curriculum from the Internet). The public universities remain overcrowded and poorly funded, with appointments driven by political affiliations, participation at the mercy of politicised unions and no greater purpose than to please the government of the day. The meritorious students, as well as the rich ones, leave the country for greener pastures as soon as they are able. Even if one wants to see a Higher Education sector that encourages the development of democratic values, foster the national community and strengthen the nation, this fragmented, directionless system is surely not fit-for-purpose for that goal.

But while some may accept that a systemic change is needed in Indian Higher Education, what is not acknowledged is that the earlier attempts at building a new model have failed. The early endeavour of creating the IITs, world-class institutions in their own right, has created islands of excellence in the midst of mediocrity, and instead of being captains of industry and society mindful of public good, IITians often left the country to realise their full professional potential (40,000 IIT graduates living in California represent several years output of the entire system). More recently, the headlong rush to create capacity by encouraging private sector participation - India licensed 10 colleges with 5000 additional seat capacity every day between 2008 and 2014 - created underfunded colleges which can't find qualified professors.

Indian students have resounding rejected the latest attempt to expand capacity. While the number of Indian students leaving the country for advanced studies has increased exponentially, India's Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) has hardly budged. In the meantime, China's GER, and the number of students in the Higher Education system has doubled. Creating new universities have not created any incentive for innovation; rather, as the new universities were often licensed based on political patronage, the expansion of capacity has disincentivised the search for new models and solutions.
And, finally, the new edifice that India has built, from its newly-minted IITs to all the way down to the humblest colleges, taken for granted a certain climate of globalization which is coming to pass. Just as the voters angry with globalization are tearing apart politics as usual in North America and Europe, the Indian Higher Education system has built itself on the assumption of its permanence. The smooth road from school to competitive examination to engineering college to one of those massive 'campuses' to do back-office work, the real vision of Indian education, has increasingly become full of roadblocks. Technologies have started eating into the jobs that made the urban magic of Bangalore possible. And, yet, the policy-making has continued to sleepwalk, building more of the same, well past its sell-by date.

I agree my portrayal is moribund. But I have travelled the world looking at the universities and studying their history. My observations are not to be taken as a denial of India’s greatness, but only that its higher education system does the country a great injustice. India's great future is obvious to any observer, but India can’t claim its rightful place without unleashing the aspirations and realising the abilities of its people. Instead, the present Indian Higher Education system has become a machine to break the will and waste the possibilities of millions of young people, giving them a poor, derivative education devoid of ideas and inspiration. There is no other way to explain why some Indian colleges pay their professors less than one would pay a semi-skilled worker in urban areas; why some universities would copy and paste curriculum from other university's web pages; why Masters’ students' coursework would appear so badly researched and poorer than school children's; why some Vice Chancellors would demand bribe from private operators in return of approving franchise provisions; so on and so forth.

Now, to my solution: Opening of the Higher Education sector is the only way to induce a structural change. India is the world's fastest growing market for Higher Education, with a quarter of the world's future college-educated workforce being trained there: That will interest any serious institution interested in global reach. Indians, who have made their mark in research excellence and creativity, would find ways to realise their potential and to contribute to local economies, without having to leave the country. Bringing the education to people would allow a lot more Indians, rather than a lucky few, to do this. The virtues of competition would raise the standards at the Indian institutions too, not least by creating a pool of highly educated educators who can take up teaching positions. Such diffusion would allow the necessary flexibility in the system necessary to cope with a rapidly changing global economic and technological environment. 

I am quite aware that India has a historical distrust of foreign education. After more than seventy years, India has not come to terms with its humiliating colonial experience. The never-ending conflict with Pakistan and the domestic discord in its wake have been daily reminders of the residue of the colonial legacy. Its relationship with Higher Education has been shaped by the colonial legacy: It has remained an instrument to get jobs rather than a character shaping exercise, a mere pursuit of the present and the particular rather than a forward-thinking enterprise. But India's ancient universities, those monastic institutions which we are so proud of, were one of the most global, with a long tradition of congregating scholars from all over the world under their roof. And, while Arab invaders destroyed them, they brought to Indian education global connections of a different kind, with Muslim scholars coming to Indian institutions and maintaining the flicker of the Islamic golden age in institutions in Northern India long after the Iberian and Central Asian scholarship were in decay. Isolationism of any kind, for any sector, runs counter to the Indian experience. India has always been, throughout its history, a globally engaged country, except for the period just after Independence when India reflexively shut itself up. As we seem to agree now, this has not served us well. Counterintuitive as it may seem, engaging with the world, so that, in Tagore's words, 'India receives the light if ever a lamp is lit anywhere in the world', would be the right way to resurrect Indian education. It would make good economic and strategic sense too.

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