The most eloquent comment on the crisis in Indian higher education comes in the form of the long lines of anxious students outside colleges at this time of year. Students, who have worked hard to get marks in the nineties, fear they may not get admission to the colleges of their choice because there are ‘cut-off’ rates that can even be 100 per cent. The very idea of ‘cut-offs’ is peculiar to India, as are these queues outside colleges. But this is so normal for us that the media paid more attention to the ugly spat between the UGC (University Grants Commission) and the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University.
The UGC should not have interfered in the university’s right to devise its own courses, but the academics, activists and political commentators who supported the Vice-Chancellor failed to ask why there should not be autonomy all the way down the line. They never asked why the licence quota raj that controls the building of more colleges and universities should not be ended. It is because nobody asks the right questions that standards of higher education are so low today that Indian universities and colleges never rank among the best in the world.
Another question we do not ask is why no former Minister of Human Resource Development has ever managed to end the licence raj. Why has it been allowed to breed corruption, poor standards of learning and education mafias? Since new colleges and universities are built by quota under the licence raj, it is usually senior political leaders who end up getting the licences. This enables them to grab expensive urban land in the name of building a college or an institute of technical training.
It was this licence raj that prevented Kapil Sibal from allowing 1,500 new universities to be built. The former HRD Minister told me in 2009 that India needed 1,500 new universities to be built urgently to cope with the rapidly increasing numbers of students who now choose to go to college. Ironically, those who do not manage to find admission in Indian colleges find it quite easy to find a place in foreign universities.
So it is not the lack of ability that cuts short their learning, but lack of opportunity. All this has happened in the name of making college education affordable for students from financially backward communities. In fact, what the leftist thinkers who control academia did was restrict learning and lower standards. The only solution now is to disband the UGC and its technical cousin, the AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education). People who run private technical colleges say that the powers of the AICTE to micromanage technical education are limitless. So technically, you can be fined for helping your son do his science homework.
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The new Minister of HRD has the chance to do for higher education what Dr Manmohan Singh did for Indian industry in the Nineties: abolish the licence raj. When she makes her new education policy, she needs to begin by stating that she wants 1,500 new universities to be built over the next five years and anyone who wants to build them will need no licences. The UGC can be restricted to setting standards for accreditation. And, providing financial assistance to needy students instead of to institutions, as it currently does. Student loans and scholarships should become its main endeavour instead of interference in academic courses and salaries. Experts estimate that Indian universities face a shortage of more than 5 lakh faculty members and that one big reason for this is the low salaries on offer. So the best Indian professors prefer to teach in foreign universities.
The crisis in higher learning is so daunting that instead of worrying about Smriti Irani’s educational qualifications, what we should worry about is whether she has the guts to make a real difference. She has the choice of just tinkering as her predecessors have done, or of going down in history as a liberator. If she makes the second choice, she will need immense courage because of the vested interests lined up against her. What might help persuade her to dismantle the licence raj is if she keeps in mind that unless she does this, there is not the smallest chance of the Prime Minister’s dream of a shining new India coming true.
This dream can turn into a real nightmare, as the Prime Minister himself often points out, if the Indian economy is unable to create jobs for the 15 million young Indians who come into the workforce every year. These jobs can only be created if these young Indians are educated enough to be employable. How can they if we leave higher learning in the hands of officials whose main aim is to keep their own jobs safe by not letting go of quotas and licences?
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh