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Challenges of India’s Higher Education

Nikhil Govind ( is the head of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University, Manipal.

Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education edited by Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2017; pp 284, 895.


The book under review, Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education, is a welcome addition to the still rather meagre volume of scholarship on higher education in India. Without prejudice to the centrality of school education, the higher education sector has its own demands, urgencies, opportunities, and significance. Beyond the media panic around the lack of Indian universities in the top global brackets, an honest and realistic introspection is required of what the constraints are, and in what direction reforms ought to be mobilised. In the Introduction, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta touch upon several points, such as democratic goals of mobility and stability, training for varied and unpredictable labour markets, India’s demographic bulge, as well as trust and governance crises across the board. The explosion of higher education, they argue, has been “driven primarily by low-quality private sector institutions that focus on professional education, which has allowed increased access to all social groups” (p 3).

Commoditised Education

Stated government targets for everything—from the number of undergraduates, to PhD scholars, to the number of credits per degree—alongside the eruption of state-funded higher educational institutions, have also put pressure on the quality of courses, as well as faculty and students. Such targets do not always match what is needed in either the employment or research sectors. The resulting obsession with employability and professional degrees leads, instead, to situations where the student, after paying a considerable sum, is given a purely commoditised education. Such education does not enable her to either have relevant job-skills or higher-level research skills in any language (p 6). One of the contributors, Sachi Hatakenaka, reminds us that 7,000 higher educational institutions were created in 2010 alone (p 72)! Further relevant points Hatakenaka makes from her comparative international perspective include the cautionary stories of Japan’s PhD and, then, postdoctorate glut, when purely governmental directives and targets paid little attention to actual research or employment limits (p 89). She emphasises the need for “small research institutions which can set quality standards for the whole” (p 91). Finally, she bemoans the lack of philanthropic understanding or support even for contextual research beneficial to India.

This extreme regulation has created the paradox of commoditised education. If a college cannot innovate in its courses, evaluations, or pedagogies, it will inevitably be under the reign of standardised, unimaginative, and punitive education. This is the reason for the rise of the many low-quality private professional schools. Regulation is paired with a poor appointment culture. Academics are often given governmental positions on various bodies with little transparency, and it is not clear why certain academics (alongside the ubiquitous non-academic government officers) have been chosen over others. Courses and subjects proliferate—as they must, given the accelerated global research environment—and hence it is imperative that only credible academics be appointed for oversight. All this is clearly a case of poor external governance matching poor internal governance, as another contributor, Pankaj Chandra, asserts at length. The consequence of all this specialisation is that, at best, even the well-meaning official/academic ends up asking purely processual questions instead of the inspection being an opportunity for a sincere, accountable conversation with the regulator on how to improve the institute.

Further, Chandra continues, an unintended bearer of increased regulation is the faculty, especially in private institutions. Universities would rather increasingly load the faculty with administrative work, rather than appoint more expensive, relevantly-qualified personnel. Regulatory insistence on process rather than substance saps quality faculty. The solution must be to build a strong, internationally credible peer network for evaluation, guiding, and making recommendations. As all this politically sensitive, labour-intensive work is very unlikely to actually take place, Kapur and Mehta argue for a more output-oriented model like the bar examination. But one may argue that it is the poorly designed examination systems—professional and humanities entrance examinations, the National Eligibility Test and such others—that are the primary choke points of the system in the first place. Where is the guarantee of the design and the meaningful evaluations that must accompany examination systems?

Judicial Intervention

While a certain kind of student–political action is celebrated, the more mundane notion of the “political”—politicians invisibly controlling college funding and approvals—makes less media headlines. Indeed, the media has failed to investigate and expose (as opposed to merely editorialise) the easy target of college and university corruption; one imagines that the large amount of advertising that is routinely contracted by universities plays no small role. One may wishfully dream of a stronger and more informed citizen and consumer movement that calls such education into account. However, if parents are ill-informed and tempted by relatively inexpensive education, and there is the additional potent social pressure of professional courses, then it is hard to be optimistic. In that case, the problematic recourse is often the judiciary, as Devesh Kapur and Madhav Khosla explain in their contribution. According to them, the judiciary has created a morass that is fascinating, complex, unpredictably well-meaning, and unfortunately not particularly helpful.

Kapur and Khosla bring us up to date on the judiciary’s interventions, noting that the court is a key arena where private and state interests clash. They usefully deduce 10 categories under which disputes could be classified: reservations; minority institutions; right to education; faculty, administrative staff, and curricula (the largest category); remuneration; fees; admissions; disciplinary actions against students, and examinations; grant-in-aid; and establishment/recognition/affiliation disputes. Other than the staff category, most prominent were issues related to internal governance such as fees, admission, and disciplinary action (p 213). As the authors point out, this means that the judiciary is often willing to intervene even when there are no entirely obvious reasons as to why they should do so. Perhaps, the reason is their sense of the keen centrality of the moral notion of “commercialisation” and “profiteering” (as opposed to “reasonable profit”).

Problems of Commercialisation

K P Krishnan, the only government representative in the volume, has a substantial intervention on “commercialisation.” Krishnan is Secretary, Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, and his chapter discusses improved financing mechanisms. He reminds us that the expenditure per student for education is actually declining (the many college libraries that seemed to have stopped buying new books for decades are intuitive testaments to this). The government is increasingly unable to fund them, and costs are shifted to students, though ideally new players should emerge: philanthropy, alumni networks, etc. One may note that the difficulty in India regarding need- and merit-based scholarship is that there is much fudging of income, and the middle classes use the instances of the truly disadvantaged to avail themselves of subsidies. A further problem is that “merit” is defined by ill-designed standardised tests, and so scholarships do not go to the best people. According to Krishnan, student loans are already having significant impact on households. These are becoming impossible to pay back, especially in “semi urban” areas (p 196). As this state of affairs cannot continue, there may be a return to a policy of lending only to the already advantaged households. Therefore, it is important to make universities partly accountable for their high fees in terms of their social role, placements, research profile, and other criteria. Right now, unscrupulous marketing—such as publicising the salaries of the odd successful student, instead of offering publicly available and verifiable information on median, average salaries and unemployment—should be curbed. The media can clearly play a role here in investigating claims. Krishnan rightly argues that universities need to be invested in the continuous customisation of the quality and purpose of education, rather than just be content with scoring varying kinds of fees.

Questions of Employability

The above point goes well with the chapter by Manish Sabharwal and Srinivasan Kannan, who are, perhaps, right in wishing that separate regulatory regimes of small research universities be separated from larger vocational universities. However, one should make sure that there is fair chance for motivated students from disadvantaged sections to access research universities. There should be a moratorium on irresponsible statements. The authors, for example, mention a conference of education ministers of states and union territories in 2012, which decided that one can simply “start 100 community colleges on a pilot basis in 2012–13 and scale it up gradually”(p 103). One would be curious of the fate of these colleges now, in 2017, and wonder if any of these were ever set up, and, if so, how they were doing, there being so little real political accountability. Sabharwal and Kannan’s chapter is inaccurately titled “The Case for Vocationalizing Higher Education.” At its best, it is a case for a careful parsing of research and vocational institutions. It may be a realistic idea to separate expensive, high-quality research from skilling, provided there is an honest effort to publicly educate students and parents about the stakes of each. This public education needs more thought, and the chapter, while preliminarily useful, seems also pasted from diverse generic policy documents and not quite self-aware of actually existent Indian conditions. Likewise, Megha Agarwal’s related chapter on skill development also relies too much on government bodies who have had a poor record thus far of data collection and design; their targets only seem to get progressively more ambitious with every failure. One cannot quite get a feel of the classroom in these chapters.

Jeemol Unni and Sudipa Sarkar discuss, in sectoral detail, issues such as the true match of employment and education, and make some of the following observations. The uneven quality of education forces employers to ask for higher degrees even when the work required does not necessarily entail them, and

workers in all knowledge-intensive service industry had a higher probability of being younger, male and from the upper social groups compared to their peers in the [high-tech] manufacturing industry. (pp 171, 172)

Their work is a useful context for Pankaj Chandra’s chapter, which discusses, at a more normative level, ideal internal governance. He avers that being neither governmental nor market-driven, universities need to be both peer-driven in terms of content, as well as nimble with regard to strategic management vision. Like many others in the volume, he also affirms that civil society needs to forcefully demand that universities be intellectually nourishing, respectful and respected spaces, rather than way stations to be leapt over for jobs. In truth, we as civil society (and as parents, students, and faculty) are all complicit. A strong, enlightened citizen–consumer interest in education would have halted the decline of universities into degree-mills with the narrowest and most rigidly centralised curricula and evaluations. Chandra rightly says that cumbersome governmental regulations forced all institutions, in practice, to lose any international orientation as one was always so alarmed of the regulator. This is supremely ironic because the University Grants Commission always says that it is trying to get Indian institutions to international levels.

I have left Apoorvanand Jha’s chapter for last. In truth, it is less an article and more a personal elegy for the inner spiritual desert that Indian colleges have become. In an earlier time, even if there was no professionalised research, there was sometimes a sense of intellectual growth, warmth, and community; many of the major cultural figures of Indian public life emerged from this setting. Universities were inspiring places for continuous learning, and were not captive to the current examination system that encourages students to only make an appearance at the time of examinations. The mingled graces of a more leisured, and yet intellectually nourishing time is brought vividly to life. There are many concrete insights, such as the cost (and, perhaps, part-gain) of language nationalism played out in school syllabi (p 46). There are superb descriptions of the malevolent entrepreneurships of financiers and politicians; of hapless, tragic lecturers (including Jha’s father) caught in the mofussil; of violent caste and communal politics.

Higher education is a complex topic, with always more dimensions than a single volume can bear. But the book succeeds in covering a wide range of topics, methods, possible interventions, and imaginations. One may not be wrong to conclude that all stakeholders (government, state and private colleges, parents, students, administrators, employers, and researchers) still seem very much in an age of innocence to even understand the scope of the task ahead. Yet, few questions demand successful and non-partisan resolutions with as much urgency as those posed by the intractable problems of India’s higher education.




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