Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education sheds light on the complex issues surrounding higher education in India and suggests possible solutions to some of them.
With the publishing of ‘Mortgaging the Future? Indian Higher Education‘ almost ten years ago, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta staked their claim to being the pre-eminent voices on the political economy of Indian higher education. Filled with wit and insight, the paper – which in a prior avatar had the irresistible title, ‘Indian Higher Education: From Half-Baked Socialism to Half-Baked Capitalism’ – remains an indispensable guide to future scholars. But for Kapur and Mehta, both of whom have PhDs from Princeton, higher education is only one of their many interests.
Kapur is the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. As the president of the Centre for Policy Research and contributing editor at The Indian Express, Mehta is one of India’s most respected public intellectuals. They returned to the subject again this year, having co-edited a book titled Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education published by Orient BlackSwan. It brings together a series of essays by a diverse cast of academics and professionals on a range of pressing issues. From the need for vocational education and multidisciplinary research universities to issues of internal governance and finance, the individual chapters are useful contributions. But what the book seems to show most starkly is how little headway has been made in higher education scholarship on India over the last decade. Despite J.B.G. Tilak remaining as productive as ever, Philip Altbach’s eyes occasionally falling on India as his gaze travels the globe and Pawan Agarwal giving it the full-length book treatment, it remains a relatively shallow pool.
This isn’t without just cause. Structural issues hamstring most attempts at a holistic review of the system. Consider, as an example, the lack of reliable statistical data. In their introduction, Kapur and Mehta, citing the annual report of the University Grants Commission (UGC), state that there were 666 universities and 39,671 colleges as of March 2014. The All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), which has been operational from 2010 and which has subsumed the data collection function of the UGC as of 2015, gives a completely different set of numbers. As of September 2014, the AISHE states that there are 760 universities and 38,498 colleges. For those who need help with the math, that’s a hundred more universities and a thousand less colleges after six months. The UGC’s own numbers vary from year to year in each annual report, causing many a staunch empiricist to swoon from vertigo.
But all swooning aside, this flaw is yet another example of the central problem as articulated by Kapur and Mehta – a surfeit of regulation and a deficit of governance. Indian higher education is very highly regulated – the authors refer to it as the last ‘license raj’. At the apex of this regulatory environment are the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the UGC. But under and alongside them are a plethora of councils, boards and miscellaneous bodies that control everything from the curriculum to the canteen. All of these organisations exist with the implicit aim of guaranteeing a certain minimum quality of education. But quality assurance is a complex task – way more complex than simply keeping count of the number of universities.
Kapur and Mehta make a convincing economic argument for deregulation but how to ensure that it is accompanied by greater governance is a lot less clear. The problem of guaranteeing a minimum level of quality to students doesn’t go away with the removal of market distortions. The correct incentives need to be built into the system, but again that is easier said than done.
Unfortunately, it is possible that solutions aren’t the authors’ forte. In one peculiar section of Mortgaging the Future, they discuss, very much hypothetically, the possibility of eliminating all non-performing institutions and implementing in their place a series of national exams (something like what existed in ancient China) that students can prepare for however they please. While they are right that “it is hard to see how it could be worse than the status quo”, it is equally hard to see how it is much better. But barring that, it is the hints in Mortgaging the Future that their nuanced analysis would lead to equally nuanced policy suggestions that set up high expectations for Navigating the Labyrinth. These expectations, which were possibly unfair in the first place, are not met. While the authors, having brought together a diverse set of voices and methodologies, can’t be faulted in terms of vision – at least one of the chapters seems to be in direct conflict with the arguments put forth in Mortgaging the Future.
The chapter in question is written by Manish Sabharwal and Srinivasan Kannan from TeamLease Skills University on the case for vocationalising higher education. Sabharwal and Kannan are keen to proselytise: “It is time to consider having two different regulatory regimes: one for small research universities (whose objective is global university rankings) and the other for large vocational universities (whose objectives are scale, employment and strong employer connectivity).” It is very hard for someone with liberal democratic views to find something in there with which to agree. Sabharwal and Kannan might just as easily have said that we ‘consider’ dividing society into two classes. While there might be an economic excuse for both, there is no moral one.
“A compelling need for vocational universities and their collaboration with industrial and government enterprises is made by the need to increase the social and practical relevance of higher education, and to draw students whose backgrounds and circumstances demand a pragmatic and employment-focused approach.” First of all, while increasing the “social and practical relevance of higher education” sounds like a good thing, it is hard to shake the feeling that to Sabharwal and Kannan, literature and political science don’t make the cut. Secondly, there is only a tiny sliver of the population for whom higher education is not about employment already. The Gross Enrolment Ratio or GER, which is the percentage of the population between the ages of 18 and 23 that are enrolled in higher education, has already far exceeded this miniscule subset.
Therefore, we can assume that higher education as a path to employment is an idea that has already taken root in the mind of most Indians. Accessing it is a function of other factors, not least of which are affordability and awareness. And while it is true that there is no consensus on the purpose of higher education, reducing it to job training leaves it emphatically impoverished. Both Martha Nussbaum and artificial intelligence wonks agree that the future of work and democracy dovetail in the need for critical thinkers. But that said, no one can claim the right to lecture Kapur and Mehta about how segregation is fundamentally illiberal, which means the only fair assumption is either they have a more benevolent interpretation of Sabharwal and Kannan or they didn’t agree but published them anyway.
Of course, most chapters aren’t so problematic. Apoorvanand Jha eloquently describes the rise and fall of two colleges in Bihar, and through them, the larger story of Patna and divisive politics. Sachi Hatakenaka’s argument for multidisciplinary research universities draws on a wide international context but its conclusions are mostly predictable. Megha Agarwal lays out an excellent overview of the recent skill development measures instituted by the NDA government and their governance structures. Jeemol Unni and Sudipa Sarkar study the changes in the percentage of graduates in various professions. They note a large increase in the graduate intensity of professions not normally associated with formal qualifications such as ticket collectors, shopkeepers, salesmen and merchants.
While this can be interpreted – as they do – as a possible change in the nature of these professions, they fail to mention that it could also mean that graduates are being underemployed. In their review of litigation patterns and the influence of the Supreme Court on the development of private higher education, Devesh Kapur and Madhav Khosla justifiably indict the Supreme Court for blindly articulating the need for the education system to remain de jure non-profit while ignoring that it has become de facto commercialised. While they are a tad uncharitable to the intentions of the court, there is no denying that the current status quo allows private investment and commercial operations to parade as philanthropy. K.P. Krishnan provides a chapter on financing higher education that turns out to be limited to only student loans. While his suggestions for a new student loan programme might be sound, protections for the students themselves, in acknowledgement of the horror show currently playing out in the US, would not have gone amiss.
The last chapter of the book returns to the problem of governance. Pankaj Chandra, the chairman of the Board of Management of Ahmedabad University, summarises the magnitude of the challenge at hand: “Sometimes it seems as though all the foundation stones of the modern university have not been laid yet (or have been removed by ignorant vandals), since many of the key governance processes that help to run and renew academic institutions are noticeable by their absence. There have been several reasons for the same – poor understanding of what makes the university work on the part of government and academia, a high propensity towards control by the bureaucracy, violent intrusions in its autonomy by politicians, poor leadership in the university, self-preservation by the faculty and a poor understanding of their role and a very tenuous engagement of society with the university. The university has to be virtually reconstructed if quality is to be restored.”
None of this will be solved by the market alone. It is clear that political will is required to engage in large-scale reform as well as provide significant financial backing if the reconstruction project is to work. The finance minister Arun Jaitley in his 2017 Union Budget address dropped hints yet again of a plan to overhaul the UGC. But while those reforms could have great positive potential, such pronouncements will be justifiably met with scepticism and wariness. Given the track record of the Narendra Modi government, where intervention is more likely to mean an ABVP riot than policy change, it’s very likely that the reforms will lead to something worse rather than better – as hard to imagine as that may be.
Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016.