Rethinking Indian Higher Education : The diagnosis

The new education policy that the Indian government is rolling out is significant, only if it's the first such policy pronouncement in over 30 years. 

The last one was in 1985. As the saying goes, past was a different country and they did things differently then. In the meantime, India has grown to be reasonably prosperous, demographically vibrant and disproportionately confident. The geopolitically realities have changed: The cold war is distant past, Russia has fallen and risen again in a new guise as China shook the world in the meantime. This new education policy, therefore, has to be really new and see the world with a fresh pair of eyes.

From that perspective, the refreshing honesty of the draft of the policy is a great start. One huge obstacle of any change in India is that no one wants to admit that there is any problem. Kishore Mahbubani's diagnosis of India being an open society with a closed mind is right on the money. What's worse is that any discussion of shortcoming has become inherently partisan. More difficult still it is for a person like me, an Indian living abroad, as I can always be labelled as ignorant and disloyal at the first hint of criticism.

Therefore, the new education policy - the part of it that relates to Higher Education more specifically - makes a great start laying out the inadequacies of the sector. In summary, the following limitations were identified:

(a) Fragmentation - too many Higher Education institutions, with many having less than 100 students;
(b) Narrowness - rigid disciplinary divisions, with a narrow focus on one or another area;
(c) Limited Participation - access to Higher Education still too difficult and provisions are not geographically dispersed;
(d) Lack of autonomy - lack of flexibility and complete absence of incentives to innovate and excel for the Higher Education providers;
(e) Lack of opportunity and career progression for faculty and institutional leaders
(f)  Suboptimal governance of the HEIs
(g) Suboptimal regulatory system - one that constricts innovation of those trying to remain compliant but can't close down those who openly defy the regulation
The policy document follows this up with a set of prescriptions - more statements of ambition, really - as to how India should love forward. There is an intriguing proposal of creating clusters that reminds one of Clark Kerr's reorganisation of the Californian Higher Ed, though, from a reading of the policy, I could not be entirely sure how this would work within India's federal, multi-lingual Higher Education context. But, nonetheless, the diagnosis of fragmentation is entirely correct, and something needs to be done to create scale in the sector. Many of the other issues, such as career progression opportunities, lack of able administrators and lack of quality research can be addressed if the scale issue is addressed.

The governance and innovation issues are somewhat related to this as well. Creating clusters would enable localised and multi-tier governance and hopefully provide individual institutions with a level of flexibility and autonomy within the cluster. One would hope that this would also strengthen the regulatory system by creating multi-tier oversight, though why this should be introduced when the model of affiliated colleges are falling out of favour should be asked separately.

Finally, I believe the most difficult question here is that of narrow curricular focus, which is somewhat related to both the history of Indian higher education as well as the recent developments in the Indian economy. It's not being discussed, but the success of the IT Services industry in India has affected the priorities of Indian Higher Education quite significantly, rewarding this very model of narrow specialisation handsomely. For the readily available jobs, the candidates did not need anything but an engineering degree and they did not need to be very good engineers. A suboptimal level of education is just one price that the country will pay for its unthinking dash to become the capital of global gruntwork.

I intend to write more about this last point in subsequent posts but I shall not belabour the point here. But many people in India know that the model of undergraduate education needs to change in India, but not sure how to break the mould. Many of my most interesting conversations on this subject end with an abject surrender to the status quo, citing student apathy to any experimentation. While my experience is otherwise - it's the university administrators trying to predict what students may think rather than the students - the trouble is that change in educational models is hard and change in India is impossible. 

However, I am keeping my faith for now and hoping that the national education policy will make a new beginning. 





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