We don’t want no education ….

Pulapre Balakrishnan

Higher education in India is once again in the news, though not for the most attractive of reasons. Recently, the heads of more than one of the country’s best known institutions have either resigned or been sacked following differences with the government. There are reports that the position of a vice chancellor of a prominent university is under threat. However, these instances are no more than shocks to the widespread despondency amidst the public over the state of this branch of Indian society.

Some time ago, the then Minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, had announced to a national meeting of vice chancellors that higher education in India was like a “sick child”. That he was partly responsible for its state, having directed it to expand by 50 per cent within three years as part of the Congress Party’s response to the Mandal Committee Report, was perhaps less of a failing on his part than the failure to initiate a diagnosis of the affliction. Were this done at that time, at least some of the subsequent damage could have been averted.

Not world class

One of the deficiencies of higher education in the country, identified by the government itself, is that its colleges are nowhere to be found in the global league tables. While rating need not bother us unduly, we must recognise that absence from the shortlist of Indian universities tells us something about the production of globally recognisable knowledge in this country. Had we chosen to ignore the global pool of knowledge, this would be of no concern. But, we cannot state this to be the case, as we drink deeply at this very pool. The fact is that in the production of knowledge globally, we are mere spectators, admiring the pirouette or applauding the tightrope walk, participating at best as cheerleaders. While I can say little with any confidence about the natural sciences, of economics it can be said that there is very little that is original being done here. Where we can speak of theory and methodology as being relatively independent, it is not only that we rely on theory developed in the anglophone world but even the empirical methods are often outdated, despite the fact that unlike in the past they are now quite easily accessible. Global best-practice methodologies are more accessible today because we are by now a far richer society compared to say the 1950s, and information and the software for processing it are no longer out of reach. Of course, this is very likely not the case in the applied sciences where material resources are still prohibitively expensive. Think “large hadron collider”.

Spending on education

It would be difficult to make the case that higher education in India has been starved of resources in the aggregate. A shift in public expenditure towards higher education had commenced in the 1950s, even though the social returns to primary education were very likely higher than the social returns to the tertiary. By the early 20th century, the ratio of public spending on higher education to that on schooling was by far the highest in India (UNESCO: ‘Global Education Digest’). It is interesting that in Japan, the government spends more per capita on schooling than it does on university education. Yet, Indian academics have migrated even to Japan to carry on their professional life despite the obvious linguistic hurdles. By the late 1960s, Amartya Sen was already writing about the high opportunity cost of starting universities in India and had suggested that higher education in India was being expanded largely only in response to middle-class pressure.

Quality control

Even though the expansion of higher education had commenced in the 1950s, a difference marks that phase when compared to the past decade or so, when the next major round of expansion — notably the near doubling of the number of Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) — was initiated by the Centre and in some States. At the beginning, the human capital necessary to operate the system was not in such short supply as it is today. Quality control was relatively less constrained. But more importantly, there was a recognition that there was no point in expanding education without assuring its quality. Egregious instances of this are the heads of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the atomic energy complex being personally headhunted by Nehru. Today, it is not only that the human capital is in relatively short supply, but the political leadership valorises access at any cost. Expansion has become the raison d’être of the public presence in higher education and the querying of the quality of education is discouraged as elitism. This is no more than sentimentality when it is not disingenuous.

In today’s age, the production of knowledge needs governance exactly as does any other activity with social consequences. If the quality of higher education in India is to improve, the focus of the governance must be on research and learning outcomes. Poor outcomes which are to be identified as poor quality of the education make a mockery of the expansion of higher education whether by the state or the private sector. The state offering poor quality higher education with much fanfare is the moral equivalent of ostentatiously inviting hungry people only to feed them leftovers. The private sector in India is often not far behind in promising the moon but leaving students with little to show. This has been flagged as rampant in so-called professional education. Shailendra Mehta has written a paper titled “Why is Harvard#1”?” putting it down entirely to governance. While there is no reason whatsoever for India to emulate Harvard in all its aspects, we may yet want to pay some attention to its governance model if we aspire to ever play in the top league of global knowledge production.

While the consequences for quality of a reckless expansion are quite easily seen, that of another subtle but definite trend is less easily discerned. The latter may have had an important role in killing-off our universities. This is a political development which has two aspects to it, namely the adoption of a corporate-centric approach by governments and the spread of illiberalism within society. The connection between these two developments is far from obvious but one thing is clear. It is that the rise to dominance of a politics incorporating both these elements is not helpful to the pursuit of knowledge. It has led to a sort of “closing of the Indian mind” once open to myriad influences and mindful of the virtues of truth and beauty. Going back a little further, we can see the vestiges of such mindfulness in our spectacular achievements in fields as diverse as philosophy and architecture. One does not have to agree fully with the poet Keats when he had declared that the link between truth and beauty is all there is to know to acknowledge that such an awareness must infuse our higher education enterprise! If you think “truth and beauty” is for the birds, you may want to read the astrophysicist S. Chandrashekar on “Motivation in science”. The severely bureaucratised environment in India’s universities has managed to expunge all creativity from the system.

Political driven

When social forces act to snuff out a vibrant and free-spirited learning environment, we are largely in the hands of the political class, for it is this class that wields the levers of power that can counteract the reaction. But when the political class abets these very forces, we are left pretty much in the lurch. There is something of this kind at work in India today. First, for decades now, members of the political class have been very heavily invested in the profitmaking segment of higher education. Private engineering, medicine and management education have offered full-time politicians a happy hunting ground. Naturally, there has been no concern for knowledge creation here. On the other hand, the archipelago of Central higher education institutions has been treated as a handmaiden to advance party-political agendas. This has been the case under both the fronts that have ruled India over the past decade-and-a-half. The initiatives have ranged over making an IIM education virtually free, to expanding enrolment without any concern for the consequences.

Almost a century ago, Kalidas Bhattacharya, a philosophy teacher in Calcutta, delivered an address to his students which was published as a tract named “Swaraj in Ideas”. Though the address must itself be seen in the context of the Indian national movement, its message remains as fresh as ever. Bhattacharya had argued that political independence by itself would amount to little if Indians did not have the mental capacity to imagine a world in relation to their own needs. The prerequisite for this is the development of cognitive means, an ethical sensitivity and a historical understanding. This alone can be called an education. We watch with shock and awe as everything handed down from Delhi of late suggests that the political class don’t want one for our young. Higher education in India is being throttled by the regulator, and no one is screaming murder.