Fake Degrees is Not the Problem, Obsession with Degrees is

Our universities continue to churn out students with credentials but with hardly any worthwhile education

Every few months, the media is convulsed by a fact of Indian life that is so common in its occurrence that it is remarkable that we still think of it as ‘news’. This is the so-called fake degree scam. Recently, it was all about the alleged fake degree of AAP’s MLA Jitender Singh Tomar. Another one is playing out in Maharashtra, regarding the credentials of minister Vinod Tawde.

By treating fake degrees as the problem, we paper over and ignore the actual problem faced by our university system. Fake degrees are just a symptom of a massive crisis in the higher education sector. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard had pointed out that we should never refer to ‘Watergate’ as a scandal because that assumes that there is a ‘good’ political system out there that is under threat. Similarly, I suggest we stop referring to the circulation of fake degrees a scandal, for it also prevents us from engaging with the fundamental crisis that afflicts the Indian university sector.

The first aspect of the crisis is the issue of rampant credentialism: the belief shared by large sections of the population and seamlessly encouraged by the state that degrees and diplomas of any kind are compulsory towards finding respect in society. Crucially, credentialism is also about mandatory qualifications for certain kinds of jobs. Hence, all over India there is a huge number of young people who are enrolled in a variety of MBA courses as this qualification appears to have become a prerequisite for jobs ranging from shopping mall ‘customer executives’ to door to door salespersons.

Credentialism has spawned a massive industry that provides specious education and spurious qualifications. The result is a nation of ill-educated young people in dead-end jobs. The unfortunate part is that a vast number of our public institutions are also part of the system that provides indescribably sub-standard education that leads to worthless degrees. And yet, because of credentialism, young people are desperate to acquire a degree or diploma by any means possible.

Abysmal state of universities

Because the state continues to be the key provider of higher education, the state of our public universities should cause us the deepest concern. We pay far too much attention self-serving global marketing strategies that regularly rank western universities above the third-world counterparts, and too little to those conditions that make our universities the tragi-comic institutions that they are. I have only recently finished marking over 900 answer scripts for post-graduate entrance examinations in my subject (sociology) at one of India’s elite universities.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that around 85 per cent of the examinees were largely unaware of the basic tenets of social analysis, as well as possessing extremely weak capacities of expression in the language of their choice. That is, the vast majority seemed unable to properly express itself in either Hindi or English. The fact of the matter is that at the undergraduate level, the overwhelming number of our universities provide sub-standard educational training. Given this, the so-called demographic dividend we talk about so much will remain is a figment of our imagination.

One of the key reasons for the appalling state of the university system is that a vast number of university teachers utilise their position to perpetuate patron-client relationships rather than participate in or encourage serious and rigorous research. Hence, each year around the country, thousands of MPhils and Phds are supervised and – mysteriously – passed by examiners. All along the line it creates a network of patrons and clients who scratch each other’s backs. The effect of this is a mass of doctorate-holding individuals who find employment within the university system and who – in turn – perpetuate the same educational standards they have experienced. It is an endless cycle.

Massification of university system

Another key aspect concerns the massification of the university system with ever larger numbers of students and, leaving apart the explosion in private universities, the expansion in the public university system itself. Announcing new central universities has become almost a hobby for whichever party is in power. The massification of the university system is based on a false understanding of empowerment of marginalised sections of society. More and more universities with more and more students do not lead to empowerment: it merely leads to a wider distribution of third-rate pedagogy.

Can it be seriously argued that marginalised populations will be benefitted through enrolling at a central university where the teachers themselves are ill-equipped to provide critical pedagogy or have an interest in research? This only further marginalises the marginalised, and degrade both individual human capacities as well as the higher education system. The politicians (and teacher-politicians ) seem to like it, though.

Empowerment and social mobility cannot be achieved by insisting that ever increasing numbers of the disenfranchised go to university. It can only be achieved by firstly, de-linking social and economic empowerment from degree-mania and, secondly, ensuring that those who really wish to pursue university studies get a worthwhile education. B.R. Ambedkar’s exhortation to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ was surely about a certain kind of education.

At present, a vast number of those enrolled at universities would be better off pursuing other – non-university – avenues of social mobility. That is to say that a far more effective means of empowerment might lie in encouraging the under-privileged to acquire an education in skills that lead to well paid – either as self-employed workers or employees – work rather than degrees that provide no escape from the miseries of economic and social marginalisation.

This, however, calls for two related acts: firstly, the provision of well-equipped technical institutes and, much more importantly, a change in the thinking that there is something demeaning about technical education and skills. Has the rapid proliferation of public universities really ‘empowered’ the most downtrodden? The answer is a definitive ‘no’ since they end up getting the worst kind of ‘higher’ education in the most degraded of institutions of ‘higher’ learning.

The massification of university education has had exactly the opposite effect to that which might have been intended: vast numbers of young people have been reduced to unemployable graduates. In turn, our universities have become places for academic sinecure with little or no demand on faculty to be either serious teachers or competent researchers. The false equation between a university degree and prestige has ensured an excess of supply of students and hence a complacent body of teachers.

Including social education

It may be argued that the suggestion that the most disenfranchised be directed towards ‘technical’ education is an elitist perspective and that this will only serve to further consolidate the hold of the privileged minority over the higher education sector; that the underprivileged will not gain the ‘political’ education required to understand and interrogate economic and social inequality.

There are two counters to this: firstly the vast number of our universities are actually centres of deep social and political conservatism and their teaching staff is both ill-equipped and disinclined to question existing forms of discrimination, hierarchies and power structures. It is entirely a myth that universities in our society are centres for imparting skills of critical thinking. Secondly, we can genuinely empower the disempowered by designing technical courses that are not divorced from social education; do not our IITs also have departments of social sciences and humanities?

Gainful and well paid employment – and not an elite notion of credentialism — is the basis of dignity for poor and the marginalised. Even a cursory understanding of the university system around the country should tell us that – for the majority – our university system actually retards social and economic mobility through producing ill-educated graduates. Fake degrees are not a scandal, the scandal lies elsewhere.

The writer teaches sociology in Delhi University.