India & the future of higher education

India is where the future of higher education is being decided right now.

Of course, the literature on the subject paints a different picture: This is mostly about the future of American Higher Education! The funding follows the same logic - funding technologies and enterprises based on the conversations in the United States. 

Implicit in this is the assumption that the United States, the world-dominating civilisation of the moment, represents the peak civilisation, and all the other countries are on a journey - and are at different points - to become more like the United States. Therefore, the future of the future of anything is being more like America. 

On the ground, the reality is very different. China has powered its way to global economic top table - and increasingly the academic one too - pragmatically picking and choosing elements of the American model, but steadfastly sticking to its own path. Now India comes to the party, belatedly acknowledging its vast waste of human potential due to failing education (and healthcare), and its government seems to be in a hurry to upend the model of higher education.

This is what it should be: After all, Indians will be the most numerous part (a quarter!) of the global workforce in the next decade. China will age, but India's demographic moment is now. Well-educated Indians will be crucial to the growth and vitality of the world economy. Still a poor country, India is also the testing ground for Higher Education's implied promise - that it can create economic and social mobility - and one that still retains its faith in education's transformational potential.

But it is not just the upside that we should be thinking about: Without the mobility - not just within the Indian society but also global mobility of Indian workers - India can be a demographic time-bomb. With 2.1 million reaching working age every single month, India is where the capitalism's promise of demand-driven growth and democracy's promise of collective foresight will be intensely tested. Big global challenges - rising sea levels, depletion of glaciers supplying drinking water, maintenance of peace when a big power rises, transformation of energy resources - will have to be dealth with, and higher education-powered inventiveness have to power its sustenance. Whether its a homegrown model or an imported one, India is where higher education will have to face its greatest test.

Indian higher education, for almost 75 years since the Independence, carried on the business-as-usual. The handed-down model of colonial higher education was indigenised and expanded; the worshipful mimicry of the western notions of the college was carefully preserved, with twists where needed to accommodate special interests. The idea of trickle-down society trickled down to higher education, with highly selective public institutions at the top producing the fodder for brain-drain and everyone else grinded down to mediocrity by the all-pervasive bureaucratic imagination.

All attempts to change this model, prompted by the changing economic and technological demand, ended where it started: Abject acceptance of the hierarchy of the global value chain and India's subordinate role to supply the grunt-workers of the twentyfirst century! An elaborate edifice of colleges and universities, mostly privately funded and aimed at land-grab in the literal sense than any intellectual aspiration, sprung up in the service of mediocratic society. At a point around 2010, 10 new colleges were being founded in India with 5,000 new seats, though the lack of generally educated population meant that most colleges did neither have students nor anyone to teach them. As one thing begets another, the number of PhDs magically shot up at some point around 2015, alongwith well-publicised cases of doctorate-for-sale, useless journals and even fake conferences. The overall student numbers grew only slowly and that too in urban centers rather than inland, and the graduate disenchantment became all too prevalent for anyone to miss it. Even before the pandemic hit, higher education failed in India.

There are many policy failures in this story, but most crucially, just as technological progress was making average redundant, the overarching goal of Indian higher education was to produce average students who would go on to become compliant workers. This colonial cage of the mind was totally out of sync with a young aspirational irreverent country, only somewhat kept in its place by the degree-fetish instilled in the mind of Indian middle classes for almost two centuries. For Indian academic entrepreneurs, college was meant nothing more than diploma mills, and all the global chatter about productivity or purpose did not even make a dent. 

All this sets up the post-pandemic test, as the bottom-drawer of the global value chain becomes crowded and the young India becomes restless, the question of higher education appears crucial and urgent. The challenge of higher education, one should remember, is not whether someone will do it through a screen or in a classroom; the bigger question is if future societies will continue to keep faith in college and which outcomes would it deliver. The excesses of easy-money fuelled valuation game would fade from popular memory in the next few months, but the choices being made today in India would have real implications what higher education would be twenty to thirty years from now. 








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