By Pushkar

The 1980s and the 1990s qualify as the lost decades in India’s higher education. The central government not only neglected higher education in terms of funding but nudged it on a path of decline. Since the 2000s, however, the government has devoted greater attention to the much-needed expansion of the higher education sector and improving its quality. Higher education spending increased substantially during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) and this has continued for the 12th Plan (2012-2017).

This year, even though the country is in the middle of an economic slowdown, the 2013-2014 budget increased spending by 17 percent in higher education and by 20 percent in science and technology, as well as setting aside generous sums for innovations that benefit common people.

Even for the humanities and social sciences, which were literally buried for an even longer period, there have been positive developments. For example, the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) is inviting research proposals for grants in the range of US$30,000-150,000 under the 12th Five Year Plan.

Other than substantially increase spending on higher education, the government has over the past few months unveiled a series of new initiatives and reforms. Under the framework of the Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (National Higher Education Campaign – RUSA), the government plans to change the process by which it funds state universities. Unlike the past, new guidelines will require state governments to fulfill specific prerequisites which are designed to reward well-performing institutions.

The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), an autonomous body responsible for grading higher education institutions, has been given more teeth. The central government has decided to make accreditation mandatory from February 2013 and only those institutions which receive at least a B grade will be permitted to avail funds under the “Colleges with Potential Excellence” scheme. Interestingly, a legislation to approve the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill haslanguished in parliament since 2010.

The larger goal of these measures is to revive higher education in the country and improve its overall quality. According to a study conducted by the NAAC in 2010, over 90 percent of colleges and 62 percent of universities were average or below average.

The bigger question of course is: Will these initiatives work? How effective will they be in improving the overall quality of higher education, especially at the state level? Can the government succeed in pushing the higher education sector in a direction that will allow it to overcome what some critics label as “a culture of mediocrity”?

A majority of India’s students are registered with universities and colleges run by state governments. Given the country’s federal system, the national government has limited control over these institutions. Most states give little priority to education at any level. Not surprisingly, the quality of education at state colleges and universities tends to be poor. Neither do these institutions have the feel of educational institutions in terms of basic infrastructure. A visit to most of them only confirms the worst – spider webs in classrooms, broken furniture, empty laboratories, and stinking toilets.

The revival of higher education in India will depend as much on the content and direction of new reform initiatives as on the ability and willingness of state governments to implement them. Further, the exigencies of coalition politics – with no political party being able to secure a majority at the national level for more than a decade – have meant that the central government is unwilling to push the buttons in states where its coalition allies are in power. It is also pertinent to point out that more than a dozen higher education bills are pending in parliament for at least a couple of years.

Given the widely-acknowledged importance of higher education to a nation’s prosperity and future prospects, there is surprisingly little academic research on India’s higher education. While there are several edited volumes, multiple thick and thin policy reports and scores of journal articles and op-eds, I have come across only a handful of full-length studies, many of them dating to India’s pre-liberalization era. Developments in the higher education sector since 1991 (or even the earlier period) have not received the kind of serious academic attention that it deserves.

At a time when the Indian government is seeking to reform, revive, build, and re-build higher education institutions, it is curious that so little academic attention has gone into a proper understanding of why a majority of India’s institutions are sites of mediocrity in the first place. Do policy-makers really know all that they need to know in order to not make the same mistakes again so that they could be least bothered? Do they have access to sufficient number of studies on why India’s higher education institutions have failed at teaching and/or research or are the answers far too obvious?
At least some of the problems in India’s higher education have to do with the under-funding of the sector. However, spending more money alone will not bring about anything more than moderate gains. Higher education experts like Pawan Agarwal, Adviser (Education), Planning Commission, who has also written extensively on the subject, recognize that higher spending can hardly be a magic pill.

Other than the need to spend in competing priority areas, given that corruption in higher education is as pervasive as in other areas, there are predictable widespread doubts over how much money will actually be used to fix classrooms, laboratories or toilets, whether new faculty and staff will be hired on the basis of merit and whether libraries will actually buy books or subscribe to journals.

In a broad sense, there appears to be a consensus – among journalists, educationists, public policy experts, and lay people – that politics is the cause of the degraded state of higher education. Surprisingly, however, there is very little comprehensive in-depth research on how politics and/or other factors have contributed to the dismal state of higher education. For example, even Pawan Agarwal’s Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future, while an excellent handbook with a wealth of information and competent analyses of a variety of issues, sidesteps any substantial discussion on the political challenges in reforming India’s higher education.

The roots of higher education failures are as much political and administrative as financial in nature. While much is made of financial and administrative problems, the political causes – though perhaps well-understood by those in the know – tend to be ignored. The political causes are rooted in India’s federal system and in the nature of competing political parties. They have to do with the changing role of the state and the market in the economy and across a variety of social sectors (including health and education). At the same time, Indians value education greatly so it is curious why it has not become an issue for political parties to take up as a priority in order to reap electoral benefits. These are all themes which one hopes will be taken up by some of the recipients of ICSSR research projects.

Meanwhile, the gaps in the scholarship on India’s higher education is somewhat compensated by incisive and fairly detailed commentaries by academics and public intellectuals – Philip Altbach, Andre Beteille, Devesh Kapur, N. Jayaram, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and others – who have not been hesitant in emphasizing the primacy of political factors in their critiques of higher education in India. Their writings are indispensible to an understanding of the rights and wrongs in India’s higher education sector today.

Many of the ongoing and planned higher education reforms are steps in the right direction. While not all of them are well-conceived or planned, there are still some signs of hope. However, the outcome of these reforms will remain uncertain unless the government is able to overcome the political obstacles that it faces.

Pushkar is with the Department of Humanities and Management at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS Pilani)-Goa. He has a PhD in political science (McGill University) and previously taught at the University of Goa, Concordia University, McGill University, and the University of Ottawa.

Courtesy: Asian Scientist, March 13, 2013




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