New York Times on Higher Education in India: A critique

New York Times on Higher Education in India: A critique

T.P Sreenivasan

When the ‘New York Times’ carries an article on Higher Education in India, even if it is an opinion piece, one expects fairness in the treatment of the subject and objectivity in reaching conclusions. But in an article entitled ‘India’s Higher Education Troubles’, Nandini Sundar, a sociologist at University of Delhi lays out the ills of the higher education system, but denigrates the steps taken recently by the Central Government as ideologically oriented. Her diagnosis is that India’s public universities need better funding and greater autonomy, but she finds that the structural changes being introduced are politically motivated.

Sundar begins with the usual lament that none of the Indian universities figures among the first 100 world class institutions in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, published in May this year. Since the Indian Institute of Science has made it to the first 200, the regret now is that none has made it to the first 100. She ignores the fact that the criteria for determining the world class universities, such as Nobel Prizes, patents, foreign faculty, foreign students, research that leads to creation of knowledge etc cannot be met by the existing state universities in India for a long time to come. Only the new generation private universities can be moulded in such a way that they can aspire to become world class institutions. The methodology adopted to determine world rankings does not favour new institutions as the jury goes by reputation rather than by a detailed examination of the suitability of the institutions for the countries concerned. The emphasis is on research rather than on teaching. In any case, while the world rankings provide a benchmark, India’s immediate requirement is to modernise and liberalise the education system and make it relevant to the 21st century. The sense of crisis is not on account of global indexes, as Sundar suggests, but the realisation that our system has become obsolete.

Sundar lists three policy decisions taken by the Modi Government with far-reaching consequences recently, emphasising quality over quantity. These are designation of a few Indian universities as “Institutes of Eminence, granting of “autonomy” to 60 other universities and colleges and replacement of India’s University Grants Commission, the federal body regulating higher education for decades, with the Higher Education Commission. The government has also decided that the new institutions of excellence would be allowed to recruit foreign faculty and students, charge students “appropriate” fees, without any obstacle from India’s affirmative action laws, and design their own degrees.

The author then jumps on to the “disbelief and biting sarcasm” generated by the inclusion in the list of “Institutes of Eminence” of the Jio Institute, which is promoted by Mukesh Ambani, the chairman and largest stakeholder of Reliance Industries Limited and the richest man in India.

The Jio Institute does not exist. It has no known campus, academic leader, courses or faculty. The criterion that helped the Jio Institute make the list is an official clause that requires potential promoters to have a net worth of about $729 million. This was obviously an error of judgment, but it is not “a parable for the crisis of higher education policy in India.” The promise to build a world class university from scratch is welcome, whoever is behind such a venture. Drastic solutions are imperative to deal with desperate situations.

Sundar rightly criticises the so-called “saffronisation agenda” of the Modi Government, which consists of measures to make the students aware of their glorious, ancient vedic heritage, rewriting history to erase India’s “Muslim past” or reduce the centuries of rule by Mughal emperors and other Muslim rulers to one of darkness and enslavement. Such efforts to distort history are certainly unacceptable, but they are being justified to increase national pride like the Soviet Union used to do. They used to believe that while the future is certain, the past is a matter of projection and presentation.

Sundar goes on to give a catalogue of the propaganda of the BJP and the administrative decisions taken by the Government to fill the institutions with its favourites and misses the logic of the reforms being introduced. Every Government tries to bring in their people to key positions to make sure that their policies are implemented and these decisions will be reversed when the Government changes. An unofficial spoils system has been in existence in India for years. Student protests over administrative delays and discrimination are also not new. An academic study should not degenerate into accusations, particularly when an Indian author writes in a foreign journal.

The author does make the valid point that exclusive focus on rankings is not what India really needs. “More funding, greater autonomy and more studentships for existing public universities and a concentrated push toward universal and effective school education are what India’s students and teachers really need,” she concludes.To be objective, the Modi Government has shown determination to reform the education sector to the extent of disturbing the status quo. What India needs is a liberal education without politicisation and bureaucratisation. Private investments have to flow into education to make it relevant to the needs if employment and development. The demographic dividend that India dreams of on account of being a country with the largest number of young people can be achieved only if our methods of teaching, learning and testing are completely transformed. Infrastructure, training of teachers, use of technology, better research, greater autonomy and greater internationalisation are key to a modern education system. The fact that the Modi Government is moving in the right direction in these respects should not be lost in the overzealous words and deeds of individuals, even if they are in the Government. We should look beyond rhetorical positions and look for real change. The new Higher Education Commission envisages a student centric, faculty centric structure with promise to bring professionalism into education. Similarly, building of institutions of excellence, whether in the public sector or private is the way to herald changes. Such an approach is preferable to the tendency of certain policy makers to dread changes and hold on to antiquated concepts.