The Tragedy of Higher Education
Despite its huge 1.25 billion population, India wasn’t able to win even one gold medal at the London Olympics 2012. Not a single Indian university is ranked among the Top 200 in the World University Rankings 2013-14 league tables of the highly-respected rating agencies QS and THE. Why? Because both sports and education are dominated by government. Regardless of which party is in power, government control breeds mediocrity. The legions of officials, clerks, and other functionaries who form the massive government machinery are products of the rote and prejudice system that is, was, and unless there’s radical reform, will remain in higher education.
All talk of global success stories scripted by individuals or diasporas are about marginal phenomena. India’s 735 universities are the dysfunctional crown of an education system which starts with mass illiteracy and progresses to schools without teachers, irrational quotas, poor matriculation rates, and impossible college admissions. As such, there’s no room in the universities for the poor even if they surmount the odds against graduating high school. Those who can afford to, skip Indian universities altogether: they enroll in US, British or Australian universities on the strength of money power or skill in bagging scholarships. The plain unvarnished truth is that Indian higher education institutions simply cannot cope with 21st century demands such as innovation, creativity, ethics, and wisdom.
The current system churns out job seekers, careerists and political cannon fodder. Simultaneously, consumers — students and parents — regard education as a stepping stone to jobs, income, wealth and influence. They seldom make qualitative demands, just a ticket to rewards. They are preoccupied in the first instance with securing admission; then coping with irrelevant syllabuses; managing inadequate teachers and the gargantuan academic bureaucracy and finally confronting the uncertainty of placement.
How have things come to such a sorry pass? At the root is the firm conviction of the academic bureaucracy that higher education for the middle class is more important than universal literacy; the belief that the poor need roti, kapda, makaan and that the government’s role is to create schemes and programmes which provide these basic necessities. The provision of universal primary education could have empowered the poor, equipping them with the basic literacy, skills and tools to earn their livelihood. Instead, the bureaucracy seems to have persuaded the political leadership that paternalistic policies of handouts and subsidies are more appropriate for lifting the illiterate masses out of poverty.
In the education sector, you need only to look at the acronyms of regulators to understand how completely the bureaucracy controls it: NCERT, AICTE, NCTE, SCERT, UGC, ICCSR… and what not! These opaque organisations set syllabuses according to the flavour of the political season; oversee staff recruitment respecting quotas; conduct examinations and hand out grades based on arbitrary invigilation. The academy itself — teachers — has become a unionised anachronism and its young wards unmotivated and cynical. Campuses are dominated by the crowd and stormy wings of established political parties. The best students who discern the Potemkin nature of Indian education hold their breath until graduation and take the first flight out. The ones left behind scramble for admission into the fiercely competitive universe of engineering, medical and management studies. Others flounder, begging for jobs, beseeching influentials, and mostly end up in government employment. The vast majority join the ranks of the jobless, hanging around at street corners, or in the offices of political parties looking for trouble and opportunity.
The first flush of liberalisation presented an incredible opportunity for semi-educated youth from the country’s rundown universities and high schools. Domino’s Pizza, KFC, McDonalds, PVR and a huge universe of global consumer firms offered jobs and training to youth from families without the connections to get them government jobs. The benefits of reform also extended to upper middle class youth who found administrative and professional jobs in large international firms which established businesses here, and later in the domestic corporate sector that had to gear up to meet the competition of multinationals. But the major enemy of reform — the bureaucracy — resuscitated old colonial-era laws to halt liberalisation. The media focussed on larger issues and completely ignored the fact that bureaucratic and industry lobbies have conspired to derail reform in crucial infrastructure, financial, and other sectors. Political parties, especially of communal and casteist complexion, exploited this to their advantage.
This mess is not of today or yesterday; it harks back to the dawn of independence. An all-controlling bureaucracy, ignorant and venal politicians, and apathetic citizens combined to form a system susceptible to extremist appeals. The question has always been about leadership, never about its quality… and so any Tom, Dick, and Harry can aspire to the top slot, given a slick propaganda campaign run by global communication agencies.
This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Education World.