What's the Indian Higher Education Growth Story?

There is a lot of excitement about the expansion of Higher Education in India. A telling and oft-quoted statistic is that over the last five years, every day on average 5000 additional students were offered a place in a college and 10 new institutions have opened doors. Besides this, there are big macroeconomic trends, demography, urbanization and rising income, that point to big expansion of Higher Education.

However, that's not what is happening. In fact, the opposite is true: Colleges are now closing in India. The whole sector seems to be feeling besieged: The public sector because of the lack of cash, the private sector because of the lack of students. Engineering seats, once a scarce commodity and objects of desire, are going vacant. Once mighty institutions, Osmania University in Hyderabad, Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu, Bengal Engineeering and Science University (formerly Bengal Engineering College) in West Bengal are shadows of their former self, mired in scandals, failing finance and infrastructure, and governance.

One may say that this is only about the bottom end of the education spectrum, and the elite institutions are doing well. After all, IIM Ahmedabad climbed 30 odd spots last year in the Economist Intelligence Units global Business School rankings. IIT Kharagpur appeared on the Times Higher Education University rankings, first time an Indian university broke into the Global Top 200; two other IITs also made it to the Global 400 ranking. Lady Sriram College in Delhi could afford to demand a perfect score, 100% across all subjects, in intermediate examinations, as the criteria for application.But then, the newly setup IITs are struggling to find people to teach in them. (See this story) A similar story is playing out with Indian Institute of Management, which has also been extended and now, the newer institutes, those in Kozikode, Indore and Raipur, are set to affect the overall perception of the whole IIM brand.

However, the policy-makers seem completely oblivious of any trouble. And, even otherwise sensible commentators talk rather indifferently about the need to enhance quality as well as quantity. Various people interested in opening up education as a new business sector projects that India needs 1500 odd universities and 40 million higher Education students, up from the current 660 universities and around 20 million students.They believe the current disaffection is due to quality problems, and it will go away as the hand of the market plays out.

I shall argue that this is where we need to be more careful. Education is not a simple consumer good, where inefficient producers are simply driven out of market. In a certain sense, bad education is 'radio-active' and has fall-outs spanning many generations. The lack of students in newly set-up colleges may signal a certain disaffection, and it may take generations to repair the damage. And, those who see educational quality problem as a passing phase, I suspect they wouldn't be comfortable driving over bridges built by badly trained engineers and submitting themselves to the poorly educated dentists.

So, this is my problem with Indian education's growth story: The macro-level perspective of education, counted in Gross Enrollment Ratios and Graduate Numbers, hides as much it says: The excitement obscures the personal stories of badly educated, of those with degrees but no capability, of those with ego but no hope, of those wasted years and desolateness.And, this isn't a quality problem, which is going to go away: Rather, it may lead us into mediocrity, decline and intolerance, a reversal of economic growth and deep-rooted social problems.

However, this is not just confined to Indian education's growth story, but about what's happening in India in general. Despite all the development, we can't escape the fatalism: We take it for granted that India will develop and become a preeminent country. Anyone who disagrees - and I am aware of my fate for a long time coming - is treated as a collaborator of malign foreign powers or a traitor. However, I shall argue that even this idea of 'manifest destiny' is foreign, and indeed, we have taken it too far. We have forgotten that India will not become a great country unless Indians make it one. We have outsourced our responsibilities to God and the Market, and solely confined ourselves to making money.

I think this description captures Higher Education's growth story: We have taken the growth of Higher Education as a given, confined ourselves to making money and hoped that markets will sort out the quality problem. We have created an 'anything-goes' culture, solely confined education to credentialing and allowed complete charlatans to enter the field just because we need more colleges and universities. In the Indian spirit of having to do nothing, we have tolerated a broken regulatory regime for decades; however, we have not tolerated and stamped out anyone who might have raised a dissenting voice from within the academe. In the end, we want the rhetoric of growth in education, but harbour, deep down in our hearts, the same suspicion of educated Indians that our colonial masters had. Nowhere in our discussions about education, we have talked about excellence or innovation, and just contended ourselves with meaningless statistics.

That the bad education is paying off badly is already evident, but the anger is still missing. The consultants are claiming that Higher Education was mentioned several times in the Union Budget and that is a progress, but one is astounded by the rarity of discussion about education in the Parliament, in the State Assemblies, in the Media, and in the political discussions. No one seems to care if we have built a substandard education system, and even worse Higher Education system: It just does not count as important.

In summary, the Indian Higher Education's Growth Story so far has been one of cruel indifference and callous neglect.


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