India's Education Dilemma: More Indian or more global?

A close reading of India's New Education Policy illustrates a dilemma at the heart of India's Higher Education: Whether to become more Indian or more global? 

For a service economy servicing a global clientele, a Higher Education system that prepares people with global service economy skills is critical for India to build. Higher Education is one sector in India that needs 'liberalisation', thirty years after the rest of the economy opened up. And, besides, it is hard to avoid the global drift when the Higher Ed policy narrative is framed within the human capital paradigm.

On the other hand, there is a deep cultural agenda of the policymakers to make Indian Higher Ed more Indian. It is not just revivalism or Hindu fundamentalism. This is also based on an accurate reading of the chasm at the heart of the Indian society, between an English-speaking elite and vernacular rest, which is threatening the cohesion of the state. This is also about undoing the colonial legacy, the empire of the mind that Churchill spoke about. In one way or the other, India carried on the English-imposed education system uninterrupted after the independence. The present government wants to change that and create a 'Second Republic', and reshaping the higher education is central to that agenda.

Of course, one could justifiably claim that there needs to be no conflict between the two positions. After all, China is Chinese and yet a global economy. However, this observation misses an essential point: Despite all the humiliation China faced in the Nineteenth century, its education and cultural systems have never been 'colonised' the way India's was. And, indeed, since then, the Chinese have had their cultural revolution, simplification of language systems and near-total literacy, unlike India.

Besides, China's global economy comprises of a extensive manufacturing sector supplying the world and a service sector primarily servicing domestic market (and the overseas Chinese), which is very different from the Indian economy, which consists of a troubled manufacturing sector focused on the domestic economy and a service sector looking outward. India needs a very different Higher Ed than the Chinese can get away with.

Of course, there is an obvious answer: India needs a diverse Higher Education system, where the cultural agenda can coexist with the economic one. The trouble is that this needs the Indian State to step back from dictating Higher Education, but this is not the way things get done in India today. If anything, the state has become more - not less - intrusive recently. The Indian government seeks to control Higher Education as closely as possible, right from the appointment of Vice Chancellors down to what might be acceptable as topics for PhD research.

This state-directed Higher Education is a colonial legacy. I would like to claim that the bureaucratic university was invented in India. Its universities, at its very beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, were little more than government departments limited to issuing degrees which did no teaching and research at all. While universities evolved in form since the beginnings of the Twentieth century, the post-independence higher education was very much an arm of a socialistic state, intent on close control and training for the leadership of a public sector driven economy. That legacy shapes the aspirations of the  indianisation of the academe: Instead of going back to the pre-colonial models of community-led education, the recent drive was built around continuing the colonial model of education: Directed from above, just with a different hue - Saffron perhaps - this time around. 

Since the liberalisation of the economy in 1990s, India has looked to build a two-track system - the state subsidising the humanities and science education, with the private sector providing for an education for private benefit. Or at least that was the intent, though in reality, the middle classes hijacked the agenda again and directed public funds to professional areas, using the logic of meritocracy and argument of national competitiveness. Along with intrusive and inefficient regulation, publicly subsidised professional education meant that a model like Malaysia, where the private sector is encouraged to build an almost parallel, professionally focused higher education system (under a very stringent MQA) with exceptional opportunity to bring in international partnerships, did not develop in India.

As a result, for all its noble aspirations, India's New Education Policy remains caught in the no-man's land. It guns for the overtly mechanistic education system, but leaves the state intrusion - that is the root-cause - uninterrogated. It aspires to build a world-leading education system (with a jealous nod to China perhaps) but can not overcome the anxiety with globalisation. It aims for a new start but can not wean itself away from the colonial habit of paternalistic state. 

This is a tragedy for a country that has to educate and feed millions of young hungry graduates. Higher education in India become the race between development and disaster - and the New Education Policy being the hinge on which the outcome rests. The question - whether to go more Indian or more global - can not be left unanswered for too long.

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