India 2014: Higher Education on The Manifesto

Now that BJP manifesto is out, it is interesting to read and compare the manifestos published by two leading parties on the issue of Higher Education.

Admittedly, this is only a minor issue in this election. This election is, as I have written about before, more about the idea of India and how the republic will be shaped. Minds are focused on bigger issues of identity, and should be. Trying to deconstruct manifesto approaches on one issue or the other is surely inconsequential in the face of what's at stake. Besides, parties hardly keep manifesto promises, and BJP almost did not have a manifesto ('Modi is the manifesto', someone said in jest, but got it right).

Besides, if Manifestos are inconsequential, Higher Education is inconsequential among other issues addressed in the manifestos. Indeed, there are bigger issues and clear themes that cut across these manifestos, and dare I say that there are clear ideological undertones. Congress seems to be saying 'youth, youth, youth' and BJP seems to be saying 'development, development, development', which make these documents more point-of-sale material than policy documents. However, no one is saying 'education, education, education' and the message is that there are more important issues at hand: As we know, if one thinks there are more important issues than education, there will be.

But, manifesto reading to make a sense of where the parties stand in terms of Higher Education is a worthwhile exercise, simply as it shows other, deeper things about where the parties stand for. For example, BJP's manifesto talks about 'neo-middle class', something that may confound demographers and sociologists, but clearly this will be one thing to watch for if they come to power. The term is left unexplained, but the emphasis on serving this class is clear in the manifesto: By extension, this is clearly something distinct from the old middle class (which is perhaps understandable, given the old middle class, the intelligentsia, may stand for old values, not the ones BJP stands for).

Or, the Congress promise of many commitments to extend reservation, financial support to underprivileged and minority students. This is indeed in line with traditional Congress politics, but the fact that Higher Education is now one of the things that they would want to bring to their traditional clientele is interesting in itself. This seems to be an acknowledgement of their rising aspirations, just as the BJP's 'neo-middle classes'.

The BJP's manifesto is twice as long as Congress', and perhaps written after the Congress manifesto was out. The BJP manifesto was much business-like, and, in fact, if I may be forgiven for this comment, seems to have been written by businesses. 

For example, the contrast among these statements are clear:

"The Corpus of the Maulana Azad Education Foundation has been more than tripled to over Rs 700 crore in an attempt to encourage candidates from the minority communities to pursue opportunities in higher education. We will work to create a ready corpus, along the lines of the Maulana Azad Educational Fund for young entrepreneurs. Skills development programmes for minorities which have been carried out successfully in various districts, will be implemented across the country." (Indian National Congress Manifesto, 2014)


"To focus on higher education, we launched the Rashtriya Uchhatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) to provide strategic funding to improve college and university infrastructure. RUSA will help create 70 new universities, provide infrastructure in current universities, upgrade autonomous colleges to Universities, and create a new model of general degree colleges and professional institutions." (Indian National Congress Manifesto)

With the statements such as these:
"We will run short-term courses, in the evenings, focusing on employable skills." (BJP Manifesto) 

" Would set up Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and virtual classrooms to make it convenient for working class people and housewives to further their knowledge and qualifications." (BJP Manifesto)

Indeed, one shouldn't try to read much in the Stylistic differences apart from the fact that the incumbent party is drawing on existing policies while the opposition is throwing in all the good ideas they can without having to decide how it will be done. If we complain that some of BJP's suggestions seem to knee-jerk, their retort is likely to be that they have suggested setting up a National Commission for Education, which should come up with a recommendation within two years about what to do with education: That, they will point to, is when their manifesto promises will be substantiated.

Apart from these, there are other interesting points to notice. Congress manifesto is indeed more of the same, continuation of the skills mission (which appear in BJP's manifesto too, with significant differences), more universities (70 more, apart from conversion of autonomous colleges into universities and expansion of infrastructure of current universities, as above), reformation of regulatory mechanism to look into Private and State universities, expanded funding for minority and disadvantaged students. The most interesting bits relate to an expressed commitment to sports, with a National University to be set up, scouting activities to increase etc., which is somewhat novel but in line with the 'youth' mantra of the party. The Congress manifesto also mentions foreign participation in India's education sector, a mention that will warm many hearts in Western university circles, and that the party has found it significant enough to include in the manifesto is surprising. Congress' manifesto also makes an unambiguous reference to encourage private participation, and talks about development of a "new public-private model" (though its reference is restricted to the context of secondary education).

Among the most important acts of omission in the Congress manifesto is any specific reference to Lifelong Learning. India's education problem is not just restricted to its school-goers (Congress manifesto is explicit in its commitment to reduce drop-out rates) and its youth, but the vast mass of middle aged workers who are already in the workforce but have little or outdated skills and abilities. Congress' manifesto completely overlooks them, not surprising given the party's youth obsession, but somewhat symptomatic of the limitations of the manifestos as well as Congress' own habit of naval-gazing (where its own message to itself is considered more important than what the world may want to hear).

Apart from the stylistic differences mentioned above, BJP's manifesto, as is expected, refuses to follow the existing policy line, and rather hinges its policy, apart from some of those trendy pronouncements which Manifesto writers may have thought would make them look savvy and in-touch, on setting up a National Commission for Education, which should recommend what to do with education. For an opposition party, this is fine: They don't have to commit to the policies of the old administration, and they are perfectly entitled to prompt a rethink. However, one could read more than what is stated here: Given the ideological nature of the BJP, National Commission for Education may indeed enjoy a wider brief than what's stated here. One of the key agenda for any incoming BJP administration will be to gain greater control of what's taught - the last BJP administration attempted to change curriculum wherever they could and tried to restrict institutional autonomy - and with a person like Mr Modi at the helm, this will surely become a matter of policy. So, the apparently innocent suggestion about the National Commission may not be insignificant at all, and one has to watch out for further developments.

Despite BJP's stated ambition of keeping some of the money the Indian students spend studying abroad in India, BJP manifesto is silent about any foreign participation in India's education sector. Combined with their rejection of foreign investment in retail, this may be seen to be typical. But this may have a political motivation - an ideological party like BJP and an administration like Mr Modi's, if there is to be one, will need complete control of ideas. So, the issue of foreign participation in education is not one like in retail: The former is a direct problem for 'national resurgence' (or 'BJP-fication) of India, the latter is only a concession for friendly industrialists. The BJP's educational goals are stated to be "national integration, social cohesion, religious amity, national identity and patriotism", and given the cultural nature of these objectives, one can't see an open door policy for multinational universities.

The BJP manifesto is clearly committed to the 'neo middle classes' and goes a long way in addressing the Lifelong Learning problem so conspicuously ignored by the Congress. Apart from the slightly off-hand commitments like 'evening classes' and 'MOOCs', BJP is talking about creating structures of adult vocational learning with pathways to academic qualifications. This is an interesting departure from the Congress policy, which placed the emphasis on skilling the unskilled, rural youth, and combatted the 'degree fetish' in India. While the BJP manifesto does not explicitly suggest a shift of emphasis in skills 'mission' (their word), the suggestion that they don't see the academic/vocational divide the way Congress sees may only suggest that they see adult vocational learning being accessed by other people, urban middle classes, for example, who may want to have degrees in Culinary Arts, for example. I shall argue that this stands for a subtle shift of emphasis in the Skills Mission, as it stands today.

There is indeed more, and semantic differences abound. However, one shouldn't read too much into the manifesto, apart from general statements about intent. In that sense, Congress remains firmly committed to its Social Democratic roots, but places its faith in big business, as it has done in the recent years. There is a Pro-youth, pro-private business, pro-open market theme running through the manifesto, with the balancing acts of funding and opportunities for minorities and rural youth. BJP's start point, unsurprisingly, is urban 'neo middle class', and its policy intention is pro-urban, pro-national business, and with a strong national culture emphasis. These ideas manifest in all the areas, as well as in Higher Ed. That is, indeed, the idea of a political manifesto. 


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