Open Essay

The Worst Ejects the Best

The Crisis in Indian Higher Education
Makarand R Paranjape is Professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His latest books include Cultural Politics in Modern India (2016) and The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (2015)
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The crisis in Indian higher education

IF WE TAKE a bird’s eye view of our higher education system, we quickly discover that it is a very complicated one. We have over 33,000 institutions, which train close to 20 million people. The system can be broadly divided into professional and non-professional colleges, publicly funded, partially funded, and fully private. In the non-professional, that is the Arts, Sciences, Social Studies, Commerce, and so on, we find a pyramidal structure. At the top are the 42 Central universities, and below them a hodgepodge of 275 state, 90 private, and 130 universities.

When it comes to professional courses, we have seven All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), 20 Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), an equal number of Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), 31 National Institutes of Technology (formerly Regional Engineering Colleges), seven Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), and one Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

Hubs like greater Bengaluru or Coimbatore produce nearly 200,000 engineering graduates between them, from nearly 200 engineering colleges. Earlier, some of these colleges had no teachers, classrooms, or labs. They only collected fees, conducted examinations, and granted degrees. Students had to live in rented rooms nearby, get private tuitions, and somehow appear for exams on their own. Of course, gradually, these very colleges have improved, with proper buildings, hostels, labs and even fairly competent teachers.

In brief, in both the non-technical and technical institutions, you find a top down structure, with few institutions of excellence at the top, many mediocre ones in the middle, and a vast majority of really useless institutions at the bottom. Studies comparing India with China have found that India had a much better start around Independence. In 1947, we had many more centres of higher education than China, but now they are far ahead of us. According to some of these studies, hardly 10 per cent of Indian graduates from non-professional institutions are employable because 90 per cent have practically no marketable skills. It is not that the other 90 per cent of our graduates remain unemployed, but they must supplement what they have got in their college with vocational courses.

To restructure such a complex system is very difficult. Some believe that all that is required is a cultural turn to make these institutions and their curricula more responsive to our national needs. But much more is needed, not just radical structural reform, but proactive and corrective legislation and policy-making. In short, what we need is nothing short of a major change in the philosophy and politics of education.

THE FIRST QUESTION to ask in today’s embattled context is whether there is a difference between social justice and entitlement. What, in other words, is it that we are fighting against or disputing? In a fundamental sense, being entitled to rights and privileges by virtue of birth actually militates against the idea of natural—even though it appeals to distributive—justice.

In other words, even if we were to argue that offering reservations in educational institutions and subsequently government jobs on the basis of one’s caste or community is an attempt to offset past deprivations, such a claim would still not qualify to be considered under the framework of ‘justice’. At best, it might be termed ‘counter-entitlement’, ‘compensation’ or ‘recompense’. By its very nature, such redress cannot be extended unto perpetuity, else it would only institute another system of hereditary privilege, albeit topsy-turvy.

On closer and dispassionate examination of the claims and counter-claims over reservations, we notice that it is quite a different cup of tea from affirmative action. The latter implies that all other things being equal, the deprived should be preferred over the privileged. But nowhere does affirmative action imply fixed and rigid quotas, without minimum qualifications or competence. What we have in India, instead, is differential scales of ‘merit’ for different castes and communities. In effect, though within each category an internal order of merit is followed, it is abandoned across categories. In such instances, the only criterion of suitability is, paradoxically, one’s birth. Imagine what it would mean, reductio ad absurdum, if one’s only qualification for a Nobel Prize or an Olympic Gold Medal is being born in a certain caste or community, or to set up, say, a ‘Dalit Nobel’ or an ‘OBC Olympics’, where only those so certified could participate or be considered.

Nearly seventy years of confused or dishonest policies have made Indian higher education the playground of a dangerous and dastardly political game

I was confronted with this lesson when a ‘category’ student told me, “I am against reservations for my children; I will persuade them not to claim them.”

“Why?” I asked, slightly taken aback. “Because if they get things without struggling for them, they will never learn to better themselves or compete with the rest. In time, the whole community, with free hand-outs, will become thoroughly incompetent, if not corrupt.” This student and several like her have gone on to do extremely well. They used reservation as an entry-point, after which they struggled to acquire real skill-sets and proficiencies in their chosen fields.

What this has taught me is that reservation makes no sense without de-reservation: that is, once they serve the purpose for which they were designed, the person ought to exit the advantage conferred by them. Such an exit has already been legislated in the case of the ‘creamy layers’ of Other Backward Communities (OBCs). The principle is that once a just compensation is offered for a disadvantage, it cannot be claimed over and over again. If we do not follow this principle, caste-based reservations will destroy the idea of the annihilation of caste. They will only serve to reify caste, thus dividing society and creating resentment. It will then be hardly surprising that those screaming the loudest for perpetual reservations are actually disguised supporters of the caste system, only with themselves on top. They are the least interested in equality or social justice, let alone competence or merit.

Our strategy should be to place the onus of upliftment of the most excluded upon the most privileged members of their communities by showing how the latter end up blocking the rise of the former. The question to ask is how many generations of reservation are needed before a person or his progeny can stand on their feet? By claiming reservations for another generation, aren’t these privileged ‘backward elites’ denying benefits to those less privileged than them? In IITs, for instance, most of the SC, ST students have parents who were IAS officers, senior-level bureaucrats, bank managers, or other members of the elite. How long do such already-advantaged need reservation? Till they vacate their seats, how will others below them get a chance? Surely the daughter of the former President of India cannot be considered a Dalit if by ‘Dalit’ we mean someone oppressed and deprived.

We might not be able to altogether scrap reservations, but we must alter their basis, broadening it from caste and community alone to other parametrics of dispossession, including plain old poverty, whether rural or urban. Else, in our real or imagined fear of majoritarian consolidation, we will have institutionalised the perpetual fragmentation and weakening of Indian society.

IN THIS REGARD, the findings of a study conducted over ten years back at Harvard University by Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta are still relevant. They assert that the Indian education system can be characterised by Gresham’s Law—"the bad drives out the good."

By over-politicising higher education, we send out the wrong message: what matters is not competence but entitlement. Not by really learning anything useful or productive but by playing one’s caste or community card does one progress

   'The prevailing political ideological climate in which elite institutions are seen as being anti-democratic, finds its natural response in political control to influence admission policies, internal organisation, the structure of courses and funding. As quality deteriorates, students are less and less willing to pay the very resources without which quality cannot be improved. In India’s case, the growth of private sector higher education institutions has been the answer, and, increasingly, the availing of education abroad. However, as our analysis suggests, private sector investment has been confined to professional streams, bypassing the majority of students. Furthermore, it is plagued by severe governance weaknesses, raising doubts over its ability to address the huge latent demand for quality higher education in the country.'

What Kapur and Mehta argue is that most Indian institutions of higher education are only place-holders. They keep people out of trouble for a couple of years, giving them a space to be in and an affiliation to attach themselves to.

Nearly seventy years of confused or dishonest policies have made Indian higher education the playground of a dangerous and dastardly political game. We tinker with higher education to hide or disguise our failure to provide free high-quality universal primary education. That, in fact, is the mandated responsibility of government, with its huge resources. But there is no will to do what is required at the base of the pyramid, where all other social and economic inequalities have their origin. Instead, in token or high visibility gestures, it is higher education that is interfered and tampered with. This only serves the vociferous elites, ‘Dalit Brahmins’ as some have dubbed them, whereas the masses of the truly deprived still remain greatly disadvantaged.

By over-politicising higher education, we send out the wrong message: what matters is not competence but entitlement. Not by really learning anything useful or productive but by playing one’s caste or community card does one progress. The result is that we spend most of our time and energy on identity politics rather than learning and growing intellectually. In the end, identity politics is all that we have learned. Such dumbing down of Indian higher education has made a mockery of our academic standards. Most Bachelor degrees in the humanities and social studies, not to mention commerce, science, and other disciplines, are practically worthless. No wonder in institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), they never want to leave; where else will they get nearly free lodging, subsidised board, plus a stipend, that too for doing so little? Unfortunately, these same ‘users’ and ‘losers’ end up becoming future teachers, mostly reproducing their own inadequate training or levels of incompetence.

On one of my visits to China, I went on a bus tour with several Chinese colleagues. All of them had only one child, which is the state policy. The upshot was that the child of the vice-president of the university and the university driver’s child went to the same school. If you want an egalitarian system, you need to start at the grassroots. Every child born in India must have access to affordable high-quality primary education. Government does not want to take up this challenge in earnest, though they have legislated education as a fundamental right. Instead, they toy and tamper at the higher end of the education spectrum. Why do they do so? Because the impact in terms of jobs and status is most visible here. No wonder, a large number of our universities have been started to cater to some political demand or the other.

This neglect of our education system is especially lamentable if we remember that we have been a knowledge society for about 5,000 years. But today, we have fallen into tremendous ignorance and apathy

One of the underlying problems is too much state interference, even dominance, in higher education. The government, as Mahatma Gandhi said long back, should mainly be in the business of primary and secondary education. Looking at the end product rather than the foundation has been the mistake. Society can determine its own needs and fund what is required. Regardless of the obstacles, it will find a way of fulfilling its needs. The only ‘Nehruvian’ exception we might allow is institutes of national importance and excellence, where quality should never be compromised for political considerations.

If we look at the Indian infotech revolution, especially at its genesis, it is clear that the large numbers of trained programmers and engineers required did not come from conventional universities or institutes of higher education. Only the higher echelons come from IITs and IIMs, while the hundreds of thousands of programmers who actually slogged to write code came from private institutions and coaching classes or were skilled by the companies themselves. The official website of one such service provider claims that they have trained more than 5 million programmers. So our infotech revolution was not powered by the official institutions into which the government has sunk hundreds of crores, but by ‘non-state’ teaching shops that arose out of the colossal demand while the government and its agencies were napping.

During the colonial period, too, the British tried to block the formation of the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in Bengaluru. Lord Curzon himself opposed it, even though Jamsetji Tata was paying for it from his own funds. IISc could only be started in 1909 after Curzon left and Tata died. But today it is one of premier institutions of higher learning. Similarly, though we are blocking the privatisation of higher education, isn’t it coming in through the back door via capitation fees, donations, minority institutions, not to speak of a slew of un- or semi- regulated universities mushrooming all over India, with little standardisation or accountability? Some years back, 97 universities ceased to exist in Raipur alone as a consequence of a Supreme Court order.

AS SOMEBODY WHO has spent all his life studying or teaching, I am worried that as a country we are not only falling behind, but will soon cease to be competitive if we continue like this. The only reason that we have survived is because of the tremendous creative energies of our people who find informal and unorthodox solutions to extremely complex problems. The entire future hangs in balance. If we lose what little we have now, it is difficult to imagine how we can remain at the forefront of the new economy, which is a knowledge economy. This neglect of our education system is especially lamentable if we remember that we have been a knowledge society for about 5,000 years. But today, we have fallen into tremendous ignorance and apathy.

Failing to find opportunities in our own country, we witness the phenomenal flight of young Indian people out of India. Estimates say that 100,000 students go to the United States alone each year to study. Only about 10 per cent of them are on scholarship. The remaining 90 per cent pay huge fees, often taking massive loans to cover costs. We not only suffer from brain drain, but also from capital flight. The same is also true of the UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore and so on. Thus, we have created a system in India that encourages the export of both talent and money. We spend an estimated $15 billion on these students each year, enough to fund over 150 JNUs in India.

We can change all this. India can be a profitable hub of education not only in the global south, but in the wider world. Brands such as IITs and IIMs have global recognition and bandwidth. In a positive development, the Government has finally allowed the former to open a campus abroad. But there are several other Indian universities and institutions that can also be competitive, attractive and affordable if they become true centres of learning and excellence, rather than just of politicking or picnicking. If we don’t respond fast, foreign universities where our best youth will prefer to study despite charging hefty fees, will overrun our own country. That, unfortunately, will be the prelude to the recolonisation of India.

A lot needs to be done. The question is: do we have the political will to do it?