Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Let me start with a blunt statement: India’s higher education
is in general a decrepit, dilapidated system, it’s afflicted by a deep malaise.
The National Knowledge Commission—Report to the Nation (2006-9) put it only a
bit more mildly: “There is a quiet crisis in higher education in India which
runs deep”. Three widely acknowledged criteria for judging an education system:
Access, Equity, and Quality. We have failed our young people by all three
On account of financial hardship, inferior schools, lack of remedial education
and social compulsions for early marriage for girls, the majority of young
people from poor families drop out of school at or before completing secondary
education. So they have no access to higher education. In addition, for socially
disadvantaged groups discrimination at workplace and occupational segregation
lower the rate of return from (and hence demand for) higher education for them
compared to other groups.
Even for those who complete secondary education and are
willing to enter, entry into premier higher education institutions is riddled
with various kinds of inequity (only marginally relieved for some people by
lower-caste reservations). For example, the currently almost indispensable
intensive entry examination preparation in coaching classes (or private tuition)
with high fees is often out of reach for poor students. (NSS data suggest that
in 2014 nearly 60% of male students in the 18-24 age group cite financial
constraints or engagement in economic activities as the reason for discontinuing
The quality of most higher education institutions in India is
abysmal. Let me elaborate on this.
In terms of quantity the expansion of higher education has been impressive. At
the time of Independence, we had about 20 universities and fewer than 500
colleges in the whole country. In 2014-15 there were 760 universities and more
than 38,000 colleges, catering to about 34 million students. But the expansion
in quantity has often been at the expense of quality.
There is extreme faculty shortage, apart from stark
deficiencies in the matters of library books, laboratory facilities, computer
and broadband internet, classrooms and buildings, etc. As much as 30 to 50% of
faculty positions are vacant in many institutions. Many faculty posts are filled
by under-qualified “temporary” recruits.
Two-thirds of enrolment in higher education are in private
institutions (the majority of them, according to NSS data, say that there were
not enough government institutions nearby or where they could get admission).
Fees at private institutions are more than double those charged at government
institutions. In parts of western and southern India with a large expansion of
for-profit private colleges with high ‘capitation fees’ and politically managed
loans from public banks, politicians have entered into the business of higher
education in a big way, turning colleges into lucrative degree-giving factories.
There are many familiar accounts of rote-learning, outdated
curriculum, and just cramming for exams. There are severe learning deficits in
our institutions of higher education. Just to give one example : in a recent
survey of M.A. 2nd year students in Economics in a reputed state university in
Maharashtra, reported in the Economic and Political Weekly, students were asked
6 simple questions from the basic class VI school textbook in Mathematics; only
11 out of 200 students could answer all of them correctly.
The (erstwhile) Planning Commission had estimated that only
17.5% of our graduates are employable. Many of the graduates lack even basic
language and cognitive skills. In the Information Technology sector the main
chamber of commerce, NASSCOM, estimates that even for engineering graduates,
only 20% of graduates of engineering colleges in India are employable in IT
In terms of quality of post-graduate research, while some of it is no doubt
significant, over all our research quality is much below the world average. It
has been widely noted that India does not have a single university in the top
200 in the world rankings (China has about 10 universities in that list).
The international rankings are far from perfect, but many of
the Indian complaints against them sound like ‘sour grapes’. There is no doubt
that India lags behind (compared to even some developing countries) in most
metrics, particularly in terms of population or GDP—full-time researchers,
papers published, scholarly citation impact, no. of patents taken out, and so
So if most of our graduates learn very little and are not
employable, and the very poor drop out anyway, and there is meagre world-class
research going on, what is the point of this higher education system?
Reformers, like many in the past, have tried to tweak the system here and there,
with very little effect. One has to think in terms of a quantum leap.
I know in today’s circumstances thinking of a complete
overhaul over the next 20 years or so may be recklessly utopian, but not
completely useless if we want to think big and draw up a plan for fundamental
changes. I am obviously skipping the formidable (though not insuperable)
problems of transition and for now mainly concentrating on the major goals.
Below is my suggested plan in broad contours. On account of constraints of time
and space I am leaving out many of the nuances and qualifications which should
be part of a fuller treatment. The financial requirements of the whole plan also
need to be worked out.
In my plan all school-leaving students should have universal
access at near-zero tuition fees with option to join two alternative streams:
One towards local vocational institutes to learn different
skills (like plumbing, welding, carpentry, auto mechanics, driving, nursing,
policing, firefighting, and so on) These institutes should be spread out all
over a state, with facilities also for evening classes.
After 2 years students with enough class credits and after
passing a test will earn a diploma.
Funding of these institutes should be shared between the state and the business
community (with a special cess on medium to large business)—the latter will
benefit for having the chance (and incentive) to monitor and directly employ (or
get as apprentice) some of the graduating students, with recruitment offices in
the institute itself. (This draws somewhat on the current German model).
The other alternative stream will go to a 3-year local
college where general science and humanities subjects will be taught. The main
purpose will be to train school teachers, clerks, accountants, actuaries, lab
and library assistants, basic programmers, and so on. After 3 years students
with enough class credits and after passing a test will earn a degree.
The funding will be borne entirely by the state. (This is
somewhat like the California Community College model).
The top 10% of streams (a) and (b), if they pass appropriate
entry tests, will be allowed to enter two alternative streams at a higher level
(d) or (e):
Professional schools (in subjects like Law, Business,
Engineering and Medical). Here the tuition fees will be high, but with
availability of a large number of student loans, repayable in the first five
years of the student’s getting a job. Some of these schools can be private,
Public universities, of which there should not be more than
50 in the whole country. The subjects taught will be specialized branches of
science and humanities. Again the fees will be high, but with availability of a
large number of student loans, repayable in the first five years of the
student’s getting a job. The financial and faculty resources that are currently
spread thin in more than 700 universities should be conserved and more
effectively used in not more than 50 universities (roughly 2 for each major
The top 1% of streams (d) and (e), if they pass appropriate
entry tests, will be allowed to enter a World-class Research University, of
which there should be not more than two in the whole country. Tuition will be
free and everybody will have a scholarship. The funding will be entirely by the
state. For the sake of stimulating in India the current world-wide trend in
collaborative research across disciplines, departments should be reorganized
with a focus on multi-disciplinary research.
With this structure in mind I shall now have some remarks on
the functioning and administration, faculty recruitment and promotion, etc. in
these higher education institutions, particularly in streams (d), (e), and (f).
No involvement by politicians, administrators or regulators
(like UGC) in personnel selection, particularly in any of those three streams,
neither in the selection of officials like a college principal or VC, nor in the
appointment or promotion of faculty, nor in the conduct of the examination
system. This is, of course, most difficult to achieve in India, and quite
contrary to the persistent Government initiatives (including the new Education
Bill with the Lok Sabha). Every education minister, either at the state or
central level, believes that as the government provides the money, he or she
(and the associated bureaucrats) have the right to interfere in the running of
the college or the university. This is a curse of the Indian higher education
system that must be exorcised. Every three years or so a public college or
university should, after an independent audit, be accountable to the legislature
on explaining how the total budget assigned has been spent, but the latter
should have no say on personnel selection or internal governance matters. The
best public universities in the world are mainly free of outside involvement.
Faculty selection and promotion should be entirely the
responsibility of the faculty in consultation with outside (both outside the
department and outside the university) faculty members in peer review. In (a)
and (b) institutions the main criterion for judging faculty will be teaching
quality (partly depending on serious and anonymous student evaluations for each
course). In (d), (e), and (f) institutions, of course, along with teaching,
quality of research will be evaluated by peers inside and outside departments
and impact of publications, including in recognized international outlets. In
new appointments, instead of interviews by closed-door selection committees the
candidates on a short list should be invited to present a research paper in an
open seminar, where the candidates should be answerable to questions and
criticisms by anyone present. After appointment, every three years each faculty
member, junior or senior, should have a merit review by a departmental and
university committee (with some outside referees). No seniority-based promotion
is to be allowed.
With a positive merit review salaries should be adjusted
upwards. The salary structure should be sufficiently flexible, within some
well-defined general parameters, so that exceptional merit judged by peer review
can be rewarded. The current system of academic salary structure linked to civil
service rules and scales, periodically revised by the Pay Commission, should be
The new technology of distance learning should be fully
utilized in upgrading the teaching and knowledge standards. Particularly in
streams (b), (d) and (e) we should take advantage of the basic courses currently
being offered in the international Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) system,
expanding on a big scale the current Indianised version being tried out in some
of the IIT’s and IIM’s. These courses should be aligned with associated
topic-wise tutorials by the current faculty. Apart from quality upgrading, this
can also partly relieve our acute shortage of qualified faculty. Of course the
constraints of inadequate facility of students in English medium of
international teaching and dearth of internet access will continue to limit this
for quite some time.
Our higher academic institutions remain in splendid
Brahminical isolation from the surrounding economy and society in their
locations, though, alas, not from the local sectarian and party politics. In the
US the connection between the ongoing research in universities and the
innovations in the local industrial and commercial economy is quite impressive.
The Indian experience is often dismal in this respect.
Just to give an example from a locality nearby: I have heard
stories that Howrah, which used to be a major centre of light engineering
products, declined over time throwing off thousands of jobs, partly because it
failed to carry out some simple technical innovations (which its competitors
around the world managed). Yet in Howrah there was a thriving engineering
college nearby (BE college, now a university), which was a potential source of
collaboration in these innovations, and but there was no established forum or
mechanism for any connection or interaction.
Similarly in social sciences there is ample scope for our
Economics and Sociology students to carry out their honours and post-graduate
research projects using field survey data from the local bazaars and
neighbourhoods (including slums where our maid servants and cobblers live).
Let me now discuss an important downside to the principle of non-interference by
administrators and politicians that I have advocated. With full autonomy some
colleges and universities can degenerate into cosy, nepotistic clubs of rampant
mediocrity. Sociologist Diego Gambetta has described such a system of collusive
mediocrity in Italian universities, which will not be unfamiliar in some Indian
universities—a culture of mediocrity where mediocre people get other mediocre
people around them and thrive in a cocoon of comfortable cronyism. Autonomy vs.
cronyism is the inexorable dilemma of a higher education system.
In the US this problem has been mostly averted by a culture of constant
competition among the better universities—they raid one another for the best
faculty, and try to generate a critical mass of good faculty and students.
Students also gravitate to where the best faculty are. When professors move from
one university to another they move with the whole paraphernalia of funded
research projects, labs and affiliated students. So it’ll be costly for a
university to lose its good faculty members, if it fails to provide a
It is, of course, not easy to reproduce this culture of
competition and mobility everywhere, but one can try, with some external
monitoring mechanisms in place.
Periodic reviews of a whole department by outside
professional peer groups (of academics, not bureaucrats), particularly if the
review report is taken seriously by the external financial authorities in the
allocation of faculty slots to the department, can be a significant deterrent to
indulgence in mediocrity. In many fields research grants from external funding
agencies are an important source of finance for a US university (in the form of
overhead costs charged to the grant), and mediocre people failing to get such
grants can become financially costly for a university. For this to work the
Indian research funding agencies (like UGC, ICSSR, ICHR, CSIR, etc.) themselves
need to be shorn of the current overload of bureaucratic control.
Apart from mediocre faculty, the other problem of autonomy
may be in encouraging low-quality degree giving. The solution to this is not
state or regulatory interference (we are familiar, for example, with many
scandals in the examination system under such interference). The ultimate
solution will have to be the market test. Job-givers will not value such degrees
given by colleges or universities that abuse their autonomy, and students will
soon find this out.
Finally, a word or two on the acute and potentially
overwhelming political and sociological issues. The vested interests in the
current stagnation are quite powerful—politicians, bureaucrats, mediocre
As Machiavelli had observed five centuries back:
“The reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old
order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new”.
Nothing will happen unless the potential beneficiaries of
change get organized. It is easy to run down any substantial proposal to improve
quality as elitist. When it comes to academic excellence, I am unashamedly an
elitist. Even in Communist countries, say in the erstwhile Soviet Union (or
China today), the Academy of the various Sciences, for example, were (are)
highly elitist. What is important to me is ensuring equality of opportunity to
everybody. But that does not mean equality of outcome.
In India the default redistributive option for politicians
has been caste reservations in admissions to higher education institutions for
the disadvantaged. But when these institutions keep on churning out graduates
who are mostly unemployable, I believe the consciousness will rise among our
poor and middle classes and castes that the way forward is to fight the vested
interests and move in the direction of improving education quality, along with
access and equity.
At the same time we have to understand that equity is not
ensured simply by ensuring free and universal access, as we have proposed for
our streams (a) and (b). It is also not just a matter of arranging for enough
scholarships and remedial courses for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,
many of whom are first-generation entrants to the higher education system. In
the social churning that India is going through many of our colleges and
universities have become sites of contestation for our larger social conflicts.
Given this context, we have to nurture an enabling and empowering atmosphere and
institutional culture for these new entrants in an alien environment of long
domination by upper classes and castes. Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide and last
letter at the Central University of Hyderabad last year point to the many
challenges we face in our long road to equity in the field of education. But
equity and quality need not work at cross purposes, and it is our duty to
convince the political leaders of all groups about the importance and
feasibility of these two goals working together.
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