Higher Ed in India - Incremental Improvement versus Paradigm Shift

Higher Education has become a subject for Prime Time TV in India. This is not because there is a sudden awareness that the system is not working, but rather a string of other events - the closure of a high profile institution which operated without a license for many years (see my earlier post here), a scandal that exposed Civil Services examinations in one state were rigged for a long time, a Nobel Laureate Economist writing about Government meddling and limitations of Academic Freedom - that brought the subject to the fore. The conversations, stoked by temporary concerns, would almost certainly fade away again, once these issues become old news. But, it is worthwhile to follow it while it lasts. [See one Indian-style talk show, where everyone talks, here]

One could claim that this is not new and the question of Higher Education has got political attention throughout the last decade. The Presidents and the Prime Ministers regularly talked about it. There was a huge expansion with private participation since 2006, which is still continuing in some states. The current Indian President keeps talking about the lack of high quality Indian Higher Education institutions - he points to Indian universities not making to the top table - and the previous Indian government expanded the public Higher Education provision so very significantly. The current government also treats it as important, and floated several ideas to reform the sector, which mainly meant to them greater government control. 

The talk show referred to above (appropriately named The Big Fight) is worth reflecting on as this does not only highlight the key discussions in Indian Higher Education, it also underscores the frame of reference. And, here, I shall think, lies the problem. A country like India, poor and populous, desperate to catch up with the rest of the world, may not have any ready-made solution for its Higher Education challenge. For all standard questions - whether one should accept Western values, whether one should educate for jobs or development of human beings, what roles tests and assessments should play - may have different answers for India, because its context is vastly different. And, therefore, a meaningful discussion in India will have to be an act of imagination, one that shifts the paradigm than trying to imitate the experiences of the West (or, for that matter, of Modern China).

The discussion I love to hate is indeed the question, rhetorically repeated by the presenter during the show, regarding where the Indian Oxfords and Harvards are. I face that a lot in my work, not just in India but many other countries, particularly in Africa. For a start, this is based on startling historical ignorance - not just these institutions are hundreds of years old (someone in the Indian show imply that some of them may be thousand years old, but none of the Western institutions may fall in that category), they have indeed evolved. One does not just set up an Oxford, it happens over a period of time. Just as one can not create heritage, it is a meaningless discussion. Worse, it overshadows the more meaningful and productive discussions about the right values and objectives of a modern education system, and obscures the need for any paradigm shift.

For example, India is a vast country where 12 million students are seeking to enter university education every year, and that still is a fraction of the number that potentially could. Add to that millions of mid-career people seeking lifelong education, and one quickly gets an enormous scale. Now, transpose these figures against the scarcity of competent teachers, let alone classrooms and seats, and one knows that India needs to seriously think how to make available legitimate and high quality online Higher Education, and yet this would never feature in any discussion. Yes, indeed, we know that there is a complete system failure in Online Education in India - this bit is the most corrupt and mostly ineffective - but this is exactly where the rest of the world is galloping ahead.

America went ahead of the pack in Higher Education because the pioneers in American Higher Education created an American model. Part of the ideas were borrowed from mother country, but also from Scotland and Germany, and the Research Universities were created. But, at the same time, in an act of extraordinary imagination, the studies of Useful Arts were encouraged by Morill Act of 1862 and the creation of the land grant institutions. India also needs such acts of imagination at this unique point of history of its development. That would need a wholesale abandonment of the search of incremental improvement within the existing frameworks and copying other models, and embracing a whole new future informed by a whole new imagination.




Popular posts from this blog

Lord Macaulay's Speech on Indian Education: The Hoax & Some Truths

Abdicating to Taliban

The Morality of Profit

A Conversation About Kolkata in the 21st Century

‘A World Without The Jews’: Nazi Ideology, German Imagination and The Holocaust[1]

A Future for Kolkata

The Curious Case of Helen Goddard

When Does Business Gift Become A Bribe: A Marketing Policy Perspective

The Road to Macaulay: Warren Hastings and Education in India

The Road of Macaulay: The Development of Indian Education under British Rule

Creative Commons License