Higher Ed In India: All Change

I have been off-Blog for a while, trying to come to terms with my new set of priorities, which included planning for a slightly longish stay in Britain than originally planned, an impending career change and a focus on acquiring a new set of skills. So, I missed out on writing down the comments about the incoming cabinet in India. As expected, this is nowhere near my wish list, but then, most people I wished for are there. Except Rahul Gandhi, who seemed to have decided to follow his father's footsteps and ascend straight into Prime Ministership when time comes. [Or, to be fair to Rahul, may be his mother's footsteps of staying out of administration and focusing on the party forever, though it looks highly improbable]

But then, one appointment is far too significant to be ignored, that of Kapil Sibal in the HRD Ministry. I like Kapil Sibal, an erudite man and a successful lawyer, and wished to see him as the Minister of Law. Our legal system is indeed in the need of an urgent overhaul, and I thought he will be the man for it. However, I was not aware of his conflict of interest issues - his two sons are practising lawyers - and the fact that he did not want to take the Ministry reflected well on his judgement. While my wish of renaming the HRD Ministry to the Ministry of Talent Development [or, if that's too much, just Ministry of Education] was overlooked, Kapil Sibal looks a man fit for the job [I wished Rahul Gandhi takes the job].

Because, this indeed is the biggest ministry, in terms of long term impact, in India. And, it is even more important than ever before, while Indian economy is chugging along and the Indian education system is breaking down. There has never been a time so crucial to revitalize the Education system, if we have to maintain the economic growth and realize the dreams of India arriving at the Global top table.

For many years after Independence, Indian Education system was built for, by and of the old gentlemen of the British Imperial Babudom. We invested in world class technology colleges, administrative staff education system, military academies and later Management Colleges. We endowed these institutions vast sums of money, and granted them independence and autonomy. In doing so, we created one of the world's best Higher Education system, accessible to about less than 1% of the population. In all fairness, the system was highly meritocratic and therefore, there was some sense of fairness in the disproportionate focus on these institutions of excellence. But, then, academic merit in India is largely measured in English language in India, and this being the language of privilege [you won't learn English at school, mostly, unless your parents can afford to send you to a Private School], the logic of pure meritocracy does not mean much.

The scandal, however, was in what we did with rest of our education system. The British Empire was built on a privilege based system, with central universities designed to meet the requirements of clerks and officers in the British colonial structure. The reach of education was primarily urban, largely segregated [along religious and gender lines] and severely out of touch. The reach of Primary education was fairly limited, leaving most of India illiterate. That suited the British administration well. However, after Independence, we did very little to change the general education system. We underfunded the primary education, and left more than half of our people illiterate. We underfunded Secondary Education and allowed private schools to create a privilege-based pseudo meritocratic system, which allowed us to function as a democratic society without disturbing the social order. And, we let the colleges and the universities rot, stuck in the same old curricula for half a century. We created a mirage of education, while letting the nation's talent go wasted.

Despite all the hoopla about liberalization and general sense of progress, there are many people in India who look back at Nehruvian socialism with admiration. Including me, admittedly, because I do believe (1) that was indeed a very progressive thing to do in the context of that time, when all the world looked at the Welfare State model; and (2) that it did build our economic capability and allowed us to become competitive in the world stage. But, undeniably, the same experiment made us corrupt and lethargic, and this pushed us back many many years. The biggest damage arising out of this Nehruvian legacy is in Education though, where that's exactly what we are, corrupt and lethargic, and not even in a mood to look at the world.

To its merit, our education system, as is, is politically cosy and socially convenient. It is a great way of assuring that rich families remain rich and most poor families remain poor. It guarantees continuity, by maintaining a power elite who keeps running the affairs of the state regardless of the ministers. It keeps continuity in business, media and public life. And everyone is happy. The motto of Indian higher education so far has been - Do Not Disrupt.

But, then, that does not get us to global top table. Today, to repeat a cliche, it is all about talent. Suddenly, population is no longer seen as a problem - as it used to be in 1990s - and it is a resource to feed the economic engine. Suddenly, all our ideas are reversed - opportunity is no longer a constraint. Our Babu-biased education system is suddenly out of sync and our economic growth is suddenly hitting the talent short supply.

The most obvious example of this is in the IT and ITES industry, where the companies are no longer restricted to recruitment from elite institutions. They hand out much lower salary to the graduates from other Engineering colleges, but that was still good enough for them because their starting annual salaries were equivalent to what their parents retired with. But then, that also is reaching its breaking points and suddenly there is a salary inflation pushing the margins hard. I remember, about five years back, when I came to Britain and started looking for outsourcing contracts, it used to be five days work in India costing equivalent to a day's work in Britain; by 2007, it came down to three days' work, a more than 50% cost increase though the British salaries went up as well.

The problem is that while the costs increased, the productivity of Indian workers were not going up. This is because the Indian universities could not only match the expanded demand, but also failed to improve the quality of the graduates. The reason, well, is linked to how we approached this issue at a policy level, and somewhat related to the nomenclature of the ministry I love to hate.

Of course, we wanted to develop Human Resource and therefore, our solution to the demands of the industry for more Engineering Graduates [and also, for Management Graduates, Teachers, Nurses, Doctors - so on and so forth] was primarily a Resource problem. We sought a quantitative solution, more resources. We went around giving out Private University licenses. Of course, we remembered the dictum - Do Not Disrupt - and so tightly and corruptly controlled education that it became a money game. The Indian businessmen saw the demand-supply gap and jumped into it, trying to dish out degrees for a price without maintaining the pretence of education. And, the Ministry of HRD, under the stewardship of two very reactionary ministers who are clearly past their sell-by date, Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh [we wasted more than a decade under them, without any new ideas], was happy too - they were presiding over the worst ever hijacking of education in any modern country.

Kapil Sibal's appointment, hopefully, indicates a departure. First, it projects a sense of urgency - something must be done. Also, as the speeches of our Prime Minister over last few years indicate, the government sees education as a priority and wants to 'reform' it. This will actually mean liberalization, retiring the license raj that currently gags education and becoming serious about the mafiosi which has currently taken control of higher education in India.

I can not hide how excited I am about the prospect of change in Higher Education in India. This is make or break moment for the country. I am optimistic about this government, which I indicated before, and I think they understand the enormity of the task. But, Kapil Sibal and his colleagues are serious people, right for the job. I shall keep watching the IndianHE space with hope and excitement.


Unknown said…
Let's hope for the best.. for our future generation. Hope they would be better off in every respect and would be entitled for all the facilities of a real global modern, education system in India irrespective of their social class. Their talent would be properly identified and rewarded accordingly!

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