In order to appreciate the implications of the recent controversies in higher education — particularly the PMO’s rejection of Sandip Trivedi as the new director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the resignation and its subsequent withdrawal by Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the standing committee of the IIT Council, the resignation of R.K. Shevgaonkar, director of IIT Delhi, and other similar incidents — it is necessary to see them in the broader context of the nation’s broken higher education system.
Nearly a decade ago, in 2006, the newly constituted National Knowledge Commission (NKC) had drawn attention to a “quiet crisis” in higher education. That was an understatement. The nation’s higher education sector was already broken by a long period of sustained and extreme political interference by state and national governments.
It is not an exaggeration to use the word “broken” to describe the state of higher education. Most colleges and universities are physically broken. They have broken classrooms and furniture, broken libraries and laboratories, and even broken, withering signboards at their entrances and elsewhere. Worse still, with the exception of a handful of institutions (a few Central universities, the IITs, IIMs and a small number of other institutions), most colleges and universities are mediocre. Of course, one could also argue that given the oppressive nature of the higher education regime, it is a miracle some of them are still able to do some teaching and research.
Much is made of the failure of our universities to count among the top 200 institutions in the world. However, that is a diversion from the real story — that the quality of education available in the majority of our colleges and universities does little to improve the life chances of our young population. Annual employability reports confirm that most graduates are unemployable. Indeed, one could make a case that colleges and universities are simply degree-granting institutions, whereas coaching centres have become the relevant sites for training young people to secure employment.
The reasons for this broken state are widely known. All through the 1980s and the 1990s, which merit being labelled as the “lost decades” for higher education, successive state and national governments completely marginalised the sector. Low spending combined with extreme forms of politicisation, widespread nepotism and corruption as well as the downgrading of the academic profession destroyed the sector. Since 2006, some things have changed for the better but the damage inflicted during the lost decades seems beyond repair.
Since the NKC called attention to a “quiet crisis” nearly a decade ago, we have seen a mix of feeble, unplanned and uncoordinated, incoherent, harmful, and occasionally even well-intentioned policies being considered and/ or implemented — all evidently designed to improve higher education. Other than improvements in access to education, progress on other fronts, notably the quality of education, has been negligible.
When Narendra Modi took charge as prime minister in mid-2014, many hoped that his government would inject some purpose into higher education. However, this sector has remained frozen. The government has so far come up short in terms of new ideas and in laying out a larger vision for the future. Indeed, recent controversies on the appointments of IIT directors and other functionaries suggest that the government — particularly the ministry of human resource development — has set for itself the singular task of asserting its supreme authority over all other stakeholders, particularly the academic community.
The perverse kind of political interference that routinely takes place in higher education is one of the primary reasons that the best of our colleges and universities lag behind. Curiously, government officials seem unwilling to learn anything from some of their own initiatives. Earlier this year, the government formalised the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India. GIAN will bring up to 1,000 US-based academics to India each year for short periods to teach, explore avenues for collaborative research and other academic activities.
But consider the following irony. GIAN has been set up for our academics and students to “learn” best practices from US-based faculty. However, our government officials have as much to learn, from the Americans as well as from others, about how to run public universities. In the US, as in most countries around the world that have robust higher education sectors, public institutions are not government “controlled”. Ministers do not have the power to approve or reject the appointments of vice chancellors and directors. Our universities will not realise their full potential unless the government stops meddling in matters it has no business messing with.
The government must step aside and not bully academic institutions into submission. Otherwise, all that it will achieve is further crushing our already broken higher education sector.
The writer is assistant professor at the department of humanities and social science, Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani, Goa