What A Cabinet Reshuffle Tells About Indian Higher Education

Just after the new Government in Delhi was installed in May 2010, I was asked, while speaking at an event in London, how I saw its choice of Human Resources Minister, of relatively inexperienced Ms Smriti Irani. I was unsure but hopeful: I said, if this was about bringing a fresh perspective to education, which India sorely needs, she should be welcome; on the other hand, if this was a signal that the Ministry was deemed unimportant, there was a grave danger.

Ms Irani turned out to be an unmitigated disaster nonetheless. She tried to bring a fresh perspective to education, but of wrong kind. Instead of seeking to restore autonomy, she worked under the assumption that the education sector is under the influence of 'wrong kind of politics', and sought to spread the 'right kind of politics'. Instead of seeking to create a more global open and responsive system, she looked to 'indianise' the system, discouraging connections, exchanges and research collaborations, and creating, as an example, government-sponsored ranking system of educational institutions. Her ministry energetically meddled in key appointments, tried to control the student politics and peddled an ideology as a policy. At best indifferent, her legacy, though short, would bear negative consequences for India far into future.

It is not without reason, therefore, that the recent Cabinet reshuffle, which unceremoniously moved her to a less important Textiles Ministry, has been dubbed by some as 'the biggest reform in Indian Education, ever'.

This is an experimentation that indeed failed. In a country like India, where 25 million turn 25 every year, not going forward is going backwards. There is no comfort in stagnation in a country where three-quarters of the jobs are being threatened by automation of global value chains. The biggest risk, though, is to see the failure of an experiment as the failure of experimentation, and to try to return to safer grounds and one or the other tried and tested formula.

Despite the fundamental shifts in the Indian and the global economy, India has not had an attempt an education policy making for thirty years, the last time being in 1986! This somewhat indicates the educational priorities of the Government. There are other indicators too: Whereas all future Prime Ministers of Malaysia had to serve as the Education Minister on their way in, Human Resource Development ministry in India is usually the way out in India, a safe abode for retiring leaders (we can only hope that Ms Irani will still have a future).

However, it is naive to celebrate the reshuffle. One can only guess but what may have cost Ms Irani her job may be her incompetence in managing the public opinion, particularly in the wake of the New Education Policy, now in the works. This is likely to be a fundamental restatement of the Government's educational approach, including a greater role for private sector and perhaps a clearer definition of how international universities can operate in India. However, newspapers reported a very public friction between Ms Irani and the committee drafting the recommendations, and Ms Irani was on unsure grounds when, against the wishes of the drafting committee, chose not to make the recommendations public. Her excuse, that the Government wishes to have recommendations from the State governments before making anything public, was weak, as the drafting committee would have consulted the state governments already. This also demonstrated what is really wrong with Indian policy making - that the general public is usually excluded from it. However, Ms Irani's folly was not to exclude the public, as most of the Government, past and present, operates similarly, but to end up causing a flutter, and the choice of her successor, an ever smiling and discreet Prakash Javadekar, may indicate what she was deemed to have done wrong.

So, with this episode behind us, all eyes are now on the New Education Policy, due later this year or early next year. The point of Ms Irani's existence was to deliver a nationalist transformation of Indian Higher Education, and run an interventionist administration with an agenda. With Mr Javadekar in charge, the approach may be more nuanced now, but the ideological agenda is unlikely to recede in the background; it is likely to become more discreet, and hopefully for the Government, less controversial.


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