Reforming Indian Higher Education: All Change Please

Indian Higher Education needs reform, and urgently. The post-Independence system of education, built on the edifice of the colonial structure, largely made of State-owned and State-supported colleges and universities, largely failed to create the publicly minded citizenry it was set up to educate. Even its elite segment, set up at great public cost and access to which were tightly controlled through nationwide aptitude tests, and which has created a large number of Silicon Valley millionaires (and some billionaires of repute), fell short in terms of the local impact: As China powers itself into Higher Education, creating not just highly ranked universities but also stealing the march on technological innovation, the shortcomings of these institutions have become as apparent as ever.

But this is not all: The reform is needed because attempts at reform have failed. The wave of privatisation since 2006, encouraged by the state and the central governments in India, has created a system without a purpose, a huge mass of vocational institutions with a very tenuous connection and understanding of the Labour markets handing out degrees. These institutions, meant to build the 'knowledge economy', have in fact crowded out all serious attempts at Higher Education innovation. The expansion did more harm than good as it corrupted the regulating institutions, produced unemployable degree holders, froze out good quality Professional Training and most crucially, turned a strategically important sector into a mere instrument of money laundering.

Hence, the current predicament: As globalisation hits reverse gear, Dollar weakens and India's IT Services industry start shrinking, the country stares at a demographic doomsday. Indian youth can be kept busy with Cricket and cows for a while, but not forever: And, as it seems, we are at a point of return of history, when the failure of education - particularly Higher Education - has endangered the Republic. Indeed, powerful interests resistant to change still defines the Indian Higher Education policy, but one would hope that the employment crisis, a present and clear challenge, represents the penny-dropping moment, Higher Ed's equivalent of balance-of-payments crisis of the 90s, which opened up the Indian economy.

Sensing that the new private expansion has gone wrong, the government's policy in the last few years was to actively implement the rules and shut things down. It has forced a number of institutions to close, discouraged international partnerships and effectively disbanded the large and profitable distance learning industry that sprung up in India. These changes are welcome, as the free-for-all market was effectively turning into a 'market for lemons', driving out honest operators. But in its zeal to stamp out malpractice, the government has eliminated whole sectors and discouraged activity in key areas, such as foreign partnerships and online learning. And, indeed, all this has only strengthened the vested interests, cartels which control the land and own many institutions, as they saw off challenge from the upstarts and business-as-usual was reaffirmed.

However, not doing something new is hardly the panacea the Indian Higher Education system needs. Neither is piecemeal reform of any value, when the whole system is in crisis and tinkering with agencies and their mandates are equivalent to arranging deck-chairs on a sinking ship. Like the balance-of-payments crisis swept aside decades old systems of economic management, this moment allows the perfect pretext for root-and-branch change. The reform that Indian Higher Education needs now should start with the basic questions, and encompass the whole structure.

These basic questions are the ones that relate to the key issues that India faces, like globalisation, technology, environment, citizenship and the like. However, there are deeper issues that must also be confronted first. The key problem of Indian policy-making is that its Government does not trust its citizens but it has to still somehow work inside a democratic framework. The lack of trust prevents consultation and simple policies; the democratic imperative means that each policy needs to satisfy everyone by other means. Hence, even simple policies are made complex, and the Government wants to micromanage everything, even implausible ones. One should only look at the General Sales Tax (GST), which will be rolled out in India in a few days time: Though it is meant to simplify life, the bureaucrats can't just let go - Restaurant food, for example, has three separate rates (5% for small restaurants, 12% for standard ones and 18% for those with AC) - even though they have no realistic hope of managing the classifications right or making them fair. I bring this up as I believe the issue of Trust is fundamental in reforming the Indian Higher Ed. Currently, the regulators and the institutions are locked in a hide-and-seek game, and the approach is punitive. No one is going to try anything worthwhile unless this environment changes. 

Then, indeed, there is this question of globalisation. India wants to be a beneficiary of globalisation - that India will supply a quarter of world's workforce in a few years' time is the Prime Ministers' stock quote (and perhaps his best hope of avoiding social unrest) - but it has been deeply protectionist in its approach to Foreign Universities. This can not go on, if India really has to attract investment and projects, and build an world-class education system. Indeed, the problem so far has been that the Indian government wanted to micromanage which institutions can operate in India etc., and failed miserably: Indian students are flocking into universities abroad, and bootleg degrees have thrived in India. The government came up with ridiculous proposals all the time - limiting access to Indian market to certain ranked universities is one of them - rather than arriving at some basic principles. And, as I mentioned above, one of these principles should be that any guideline should be transparent and practical, something simple such as that an institution needs to be fully accredited in its home country to be able to open a campus in India, rather than getting into the details such as the university has to be one of the world's top 400 (raising questions such as which ranking table, why that table and not something else and what happens if the university is within top 400 at the time of application but outside it when it starts operation). 

Apart from creating a trust-based, simple and practical policy environment for Higher Education, any reform also has to address the basic issues about the purpose of education in India. This is no way a quaint issue, given that India is perhaps one of the most unequal and one of the most divided societies in the world. A society can hardly function if its members lack even the basic civic-mindedness, and remain closeted in their little worlds of work and family solely. And, yet, this is the building principles of the Indian education system, which has borrowed this from the Colonial, utilitarian roots. It is likely that such a grand question will never be addressed in reform initiatives arising out of a pure economic context, as it is now, but this has a clear economic consequence: India's dependence on foreign trained leaders, for its institutions, enterprises and social activities are going to continue till Indian institutions are changed and their purposes are revisited.

In conclusion, I am suggesting that India needs urgent and deep reform of its Higher Education system. This reform needs to be radical and all-encompassing, and this is not just about this curriculum or that curriculum. In fact, if anything, this reform needs to start from a point that there is no single answer to the job at hand, and the objective of the reform must be to encourage innovation - in different fields and forms - by introducing clarity, practicability and fairness in the policy framework. Despite many disappointments in the past, I remain optimistic that such reforms will perhaps happen, if simply because the alternatives are so grim.


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