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Home > Contents > Article: Makarand Paranjape
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The Crisis in Higher Education:
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A Reflection


Makarand Paranjape
To start on a self-conscious note, it might be useful to question the possibilities and limits of reconstruction. Reconstruction can be fragmentary or integral, systemic or individual, macro or micro. I wonder if we have thought of all the ramifications of this word "reconstruction" though we speak about it so often, especially when there is a change in government or leadership. But often such occasions are merely pretexts to meet and brainstorm over issues, without arriving at any concrete ideas or plans of action. Do meetings such as these have a utility beyond an exchange of views? Such are the questions that come to my mind as I approach my topic. I think it would only be fair to accept, at the outset, that while our individual efforts cannot be entirely dismissed or discounted, we are all aware that without large-scale re-hauling, we may not be able to reconstruct higher education in India. Higher education in India needs a system change, not just individual efforts. Yet, the two are not unrelated; that is to say, we cannot do nothing, waiting for the system to change. We must change first before we expect the system to change. Therefore, though not much that is far-reaching can happen through meetings like these, we might not consider them entirely wasted either. I began such a self-conscious note only to underscore the limitations of the kind of exercise we have embarked upon. To be perfectly candid, national reconstruction is something we can only talk about, not actually effect-but this talking, if it can create the ideas and the vision, can certainly be a change-agent.
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Yet, this very meeting bears traces of our confusion and lack of organization For instance, yesterday I talked to some students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where I teach, who had come to participate in our deliberations. They said that they had only listened to some of the talks and gone off to Marina beach while others were trying out the madrasi shopping malls, as they put it. I asked them, "Since your traveling and accommodation expenses have been paid by the organizers, shouldn't you have been more conscientious?" They replied, "Well, we found ourselves losing interest in the proceedings, so decided to take off."
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To me such an attitude is perfectly symptomatic of the situation in higher education at some of our elite universities. For example, at JNU, of which I have some knowledge, we have no attendance requirements. This is a positive aspect of our system as students are not coerced to attend classes. In IIT-Delhi, where I taught earlier, students attend classes under duress just because of a
IIT Powai           minimum compulsory attendance. I found that many students felt that they were ahead of some of their professors and did not want to listen to the latter repeat what was in the text books. At IIT in my courses I started by saying that I would not take attendance. This was not just a gesture of liberalism, but a practical measure in large classes where just taking attendance would consume ten to fifteen minutes of class time, in addition to leading to malpractices such as proxy attendance and sneaking out of the back door after attendance was taken. So, not taking attendance liberated both teacher and student. What I found was that students still came in large numbers. On an average I had about 80- 85% attendance. However in JNU the opposite takes place. I teach Research Methodology for the M.Phil programme, which is the only compulsory course. We have a rule that M.Phil and PhD students who are yet to complete their course work are not allowed to work, but most of them still do, against the rules. Even when they are supposed to be attending classes full time during the first year of their MPhil, they don't do so. They avail of the facilities of the University, like the hostel and the mess, which is highly subsidized, and go to work outside to make a good deal of money. At the same time, they want to do well in their courses, even without attending classes or doing the work expected from them. Because attendance is not mandatory, they can "get away" with it. Such is the trend. In my class I have found attendance to be as low as 15 %. So, now I start off by saying that if you want to do well in my course, you must come to class.
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This contrasting account of two elite educational institutions in India is meant to suggest that individual teachers must sometimes go contrary to the prevailing culture of an institution. So in one institution you have a culture of excessive discipline, while in another a culture of utter laxity. Both need to be balanced by individual initiative. But underlying both institutions is the common fact of state dominance, even interference, in higher education. Indeed, these two examples I gave do not convey the great variety and complexity the system of higher education in India. In fact, one of our problems is that we have a system which is multi-tiered, hierarchical and has been interfered with right form its inception by the government and used as a tool for all kinds of political/non-academic ends. The result is that we have created a culture of entitlement and manipulation as apposed to a culture of excellence and accountability. This is a very big crisis, which we need to contend with.
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There have been studies comparing India with China (http://www.iouedu.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=129&Itemid=121; 18 December 2008). What they have found is that India had a much better start. In 1947 we had many more institutes of higher education than in China but now they are ahead of us. The study shows that only 10% of Indian graduates from non-professional institutions are employable because 90% have no skills which are marketable. It is not that the other 90 % remain unemployed, but they supplement what they have got in the colleges through vocational courses:
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If we look at the Indian IT revolution, especially at its genesis, then it is clear that the large numbers of trained programmers and engineers required often did not come from any conventional university of institute of higher education. Perhaps, the higher echelons did come from IITs and IIMs, but the hundreds of thousands who actually slogged to create the revolution came from private institutions like NIIT and APTC. The official website of the former (http://www.niit.com), for instance, claims that they have trained more than 5 million programmers so far. So our IT revolution was not powered by the official institutions into which the government has sunk in hundreds of crores but by "non-state" teaching shops that arose out of the colossal demand while the government and it's agencies were napping.
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As somebody who has spent all his life studying or teaching, I think that as a country we are not only falling behind other countries, we are not even going to be competitive for too long if we continue like this. The only reason that we have survived is because of the tremendous creative energies of our people who find informal and unorthodox solutions extremely complex problems. The entire future hangs in balance and if we lose our competitiveness it is difficult to imagine how we can remain at the forefront of the new economy, which is a knowledge economy. This neglect of our education system is especially lamentable if we remember that we have been a knowledge society for about 5000 yrs. It is only in recent times that we have fallen into this tremendous ignorance and apathy. A lot needs to be done. So what is it that we can actually do? The answer to this question, in my opinion, is a two-fold one.
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On the one hand, for those of us who are dissatisfied with the dominant or official system, it is upon us to change the system without simply complaining because we are a nation of great complainers. Society can be divided into two types-criticism deficit societies or criticism-excessive societies. Neither is really desirable. Saudi Arabia may be considered a criticism-deficit society, as may be China. We are the other extreme. We have a surplus of criticism and do not do anything more than that. However it is the duty of those of us who are dissatisfied with how things are, to find an viable alternative. This we do not do. Instead, we complain and co-exist with the problem. We leave problem-solving to the more dynamic Western societies. Yet, I believe that if there is the constant presence in the public discourse of an alternative blue print, then such an alternative generates its own urgency and change-imperatives. If we continue to supply alternate viable ideas which give us pragmatic options, sooner or later, society is going to pick them up. So while the dominant system with its own vested interests is difficult to alter significantly, it is also important always to simultaneously present other options. So our efforts should be in that direction. Of course I feel I myself need a reconstruction because there is a kind of loneliness in the academy when you are trying to do things which you believe in but which seem irrelevant to others. You find yourself being questioned as to why you are so bothered and why you are trying to change the system, while everyone else is happy enough with things the way they are. But, really speaking, no one is really happy; they have simply compromised with it for their own selfish ends.
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With these preliminary remarks, let us see what the difficulties and the solutions are. If we take a bird's eye view of our higher education system, we quickly discover that it is a very complicated one. We have about 11,000 institutions, which train about 11million people. The system can be broadly divided into professional and non-professional types of courses. In the non-professional, that is the Arts and basic Science courses we find a pyramidal structure. At the top are 23 Central Universities (twelve more have been recently added), 251 state universities, 114 deemed universities about 11700 colleges, and more than 5000 technical institutions.
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Similarly in the professional courses we have, seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) (eight more to be added in the 11th plan), four Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), seventeen National Institutes of Technology (formerly called Regional Engineering Colleges), one Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and three other Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) (six more to be added in the 11th plan), Bangalore and its neighbourhood alone produces about 30,000 engineering graduates from scores of engineering colleges. Some of these colleges have no teachers, class rooms, or labs. But they conduct examinations and grant degrees-all for a fee, of course. Students often live in rented room nearby, get tuition or other inputs, and somehow appear for exams on their own. Of course, gradually, these very colleges improve; they get buildings, hostels, labs, and, even fairly decent teachers. In the end, it seems to work out.
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In brief, in both the non-technical and technical institutions, you find a pyramidical structure with few institutions of excellence at the top, many mediocre ones in the middle, and a vast majority of really useless institutions at the bottom. To restructure such a complex system is very difficult. But it not impossible. That is because whatever we have accomplished in our half-hazard or inefficient way, is not entirely useless. In fact, we might even say that it has a lot of potential. It need not be completely over-hauled, let alone destroyed. There are many good things in this system. Some people believe that all that is required is a cultural turn, to make these institutions and their curricula into more responsive to our national needs. But I think what we also need is to change the culture of education.
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An excellent study, done in Harvard by Devesh Kapu and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, says that the Indian education system can be characterized by Gresham's law- "the bad drives out the good":
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The prevailing political ideological climate in which elite institutions are seen as being anti-democratic, finds its natural response in political control to influence admissions policies, internal organization, the structure of courses and funding. As quality deteriorates, students are less and less willing to pay the very resources without which quality cannot be improved. In India's case, the growth of private sector higher education institutions has been the answer and, increasingly, the consumption of education abroad. However, as our analysis suggests, private sector investment has been confined to professional streams, bypassing the majority of students. Furthermore, it is plagued by severe governance weaknesses, raising doubts as to its ability to address the huge latent demand for quality higher education in the country." (28 "Indian Higher Education Reform: From Half-Baked Socialism to Half-Baked CapitalismCambridge, Mass: Harvard University CID Working Paper No. 108 September 2004 ).
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What Kapu and Mehta argue is that the majority of Indian institutions of higher education are only placeholders. They keep people out of trouble for a couple of years, giving them a place and a name to attach themselves to.
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I want to take up the professed intention of our political leaders to see how better to serve it than to completely disregard it all. The professed intention is to use higher education as a tool to produce egalitarianism in society. The methodology that has been used to do this is to block some and promote some. The result is that across the different states we have a system which is as complicated as the caste system was when Swami Vivekananda visited Kerala; he said that it was a mad house of caste confusion. The system reminds you of the very caste system against which these reservations are supposed to be an antidote. It does not mean that the government should not be egalitarian, but I think that this is the wrong method.
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In one of my visits to China, I went out in a tour bus with several Chinese colleagues. All of them had only one child, which is a state policy, and with which you may or may not agree. But the upshot was that the child of the Vice President of the University and the university driver's child were going to the same school. The point is that if you want an egalitarian system you need to start at the grass roots. Every child born in India must have access to a fairly high quality of primary education. The government doesn't want to do that which is a fundamental right according to the constitution. Instead of that they tinker at the higher end of the education spectrum. Why do they do so? Because its effects in terms of jobs and status are most visible here. No wonder that a large number of our universities were started due to some political demand or the other. For example the University of Hyderabad was a response to the Telanaga agitation. The university was not located in Nizamabad or Adilabad, but in Hyderabad, the capital. So, naturally, the really deprived Telanga people remain disgruntled. They complain that the elites from coastal Andhra have hogged up the jobs and the positions. These in turn resent competition from "outsiders," that is non-Andhras. The Dalits are a powerful lobby who insist on minimum grades so that they can continue from Masters to
Hyd. University MPhil/PhD courses. This is just one example. Every university has a similar tale. Many of these institutions were handed out to the disadvantaged people of society and as soon as they started, the politics of local versus non- local began. For a central university this is akin to hara-kiri.
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Essentially, I would say that the government should be mainly be in the business of primary and secondary education. Looking at the end product rather than the beginning has been the mistake. As Gandhiji has pointed out, the government should not be in the business of higher education. Society can determine its own needs and fund what is required. Regardless of the opposition, society will find a way of fulfilling its needs. The British tried to block the foundation of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Lord Curzon himself opposed it, even though Jamshetji Tata was paying of it from his own funds. In the end it was started and is today one of premier institutions of higher learning. Similarly, today, though we are blocking privatization, it is coming in through the back door as capitation fees, "donations," minority institutions, and so on. Does this mean there should be no government interference? No. The government can intervene to stop spurious universities. Ninety-seven universities ceased to exist in Raipur alone as a consequence of a Supreme Court order.
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That there is something wrong with our very culture of decision making is obvious. Over-bureaucratization and political interference are the order of the day. Successive administrations have through to use higher education as a weapon, not just for vote gathering, but to foster a politics of pseudo-egalitarianism. This consists of encouraging some and blocking others, largely on the basis of caste or some other mark of backwardness. The latest example of such misplaced intervention is "Religion based Gross Enrollment Ration (GER)" of the UGC (Anubhuti Vishnoi, "Religious divide in higher education: UGC report," Indian Express, December 25, 2008.) What does this show? Enrolment is highest among Christians at 19.85% (19.72 for males and 19.98 for females); Hindus comes second with 13.13% (151.19% for males and 10.86 % for females), then come the Muslims (7.70, 9.09, 6.16); the urban rural-divide, too, is the least among the Christians. How will this data be interpreted? Instead of trying to design fairer systems, they will intervene to prop up one group at the expense of the other. The census of the British created modern caste in India; similarly, "religion" is also being created by these policies.
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If we address the whole issue of reservation, I do not argue that reservation should be scrapped or that it does not work. It has produced a silent social revolution in our country. For people who have been excluded for many generations to be able to receive some affirmative action has been a good. But the rider is that you cannot have reservation without de-reservation because it is self-contradictory. If you have reservation into perpetuity you are replicating the older caste system, which you wanted to get rid of. The strategy should be to place the onus of upliftment of the most excluded and least privileged upon the most privileged members of those communities. The question to ask is how many generations of reservation are needed before a person or his progeny can stand on their feet. We should ask, don't you think that by giving another generation reservation you are depriving another who is less privileged than you are? In IIT, most of the S/C, S/T students that I taught had parents who were IAS officers, senior level bureaucrats, judges, or other members of the elite. So how long do these people need reservation? Till they vacate their seats, how will others below them get a chance? If we place the onus upon them then I think it will work rather than placing it on the privileged section of society, which creates huge social divisiveness. Surely the daughter of the former president of India cannot be considered a Dalit. If by Dalit you mean someone who is not just oppressed but depressed, then for that person to become an IFS officer through reservation means that even making someone the President of India cannot up them up. This would be a contradiction in terms. So at some point maybe after three generation or so we could have de-reservation. To sum up: no reservation without de-reservation. The solution is not more reservation, but vacating reservation in favour of the more needy. The demand must come from the Dalits themselves. But let the people who have reservation benefits decide.
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Finally if the opportunities in your own country are being squeezed out of existence, you have a phenomenon in which many young Indian people who can afford it go abroad to study. The estimates are that to the United Stated alone about 70,000 students from India go each year as students and almost the same number to Australia. Not all of them have financial aid. So the rest end up paying hefty fees. You not only have a brain drain, but also financial drain. U.K, Canada, New Zealand, and Singapore are also popular destinations. So you have created a system in India, which encourages the flight of both talent and capital. If this money could be invested in India, we could upgrade many of our universities. But here, as in JNU, even if you want to increase fees by five rupees, you have an agitation on your hands.
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I will now, briefly, touch on what can be done within the system, that is, without restructuring it altogether. One simple way to do so at the micro level is if every university teaches a classical language, like Sanskrit, Tamil, or Persian to all its graduates, regardless of their discipline. That is one way to counter the alarming heritage-destruction that we face. Whether we make it optional or compulsory, we could put it into the curriculum in some way. For example in Israel everyone learns Hebrew. This is a practical solution to find ways in which we can learn about our heritage.
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Systematic syllabus reform and pedagogical innovation are also important. The classroom is the ultimate frontier. It is our last bastion against all the negative forces. In India, no body interferes with what you teach in your classroom. So regardless of what the system is, the teacher can inspire the students; whatever the subject is, you can teach it in a culturally sensitive, patriotic and "nationalist" fashion. From my own experience students are hungry for this kind of direction because the atmosphere that prevails is characterized by blasť indifference to these issues. But beneath the surface, every young mind is looking for the nourishment that is required to get a life-long education, essentially how to live a life which is meaningful. We teachers must make ourselves a part of the solution, not of the problem.
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In the ultimate analysis, though, piecemeal changes will not suffice. We need an integral approach to bring about these and even more far-reaching changes. Whatever you may teach, you need to ask the fundamental question as to how it is relevant to you in India. The conventional books do not make an attempt to make it relevant. When the Germans read Shakespeare they read it in their own way; so there's a whole German tradition of reading Shakespeare. We do not have an Indian tradition of reading Shakespeare because the de-colonization of the Indian mentality has not yet happened fully. So we ourselves have to think very hard and need to crate those bridges even when they do not exist. So even a syllabus, which is conventional, can be taught in a way that is meaningful to us. For example the book on Glimpses of Indian Scientists by C.V Raman is a book which, from Samvad India Foundation, published to help young students know something about India's scientific contributions and heritage. This is something that is seldom taught in our schools or colleges with the result that everyone in India still thinks that we had no science in India. I would like to conclude with the words of Kapu and Mehta:
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India is facing a deep crisis in higher education, which is being masked by the success of narrow professional schools. The veneer of the few institutions of excellence masks the reality that the median higher education institutions in India have become incapable of producing students who have skills and knowledge. The process neither serves a screening or signaling function nor prepares students to be productive and responsible citizens. Consequently, students are forced to spend more years (and, increasingly, large resources) in acquiring some sort of post-graduate professional qualification as they desperately seek ways to signal their qualities to potential employers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that India's current system of higher education is centralized, politicized and militates against producing general intellectual virtues. The fact that the system nonetheless produces a noticeable number of high quality students has to do with the sheer number of students and the Darwinian struggle at the high school to get admission into the few good institutions. The most acute weakness plaguing India's higher education is a crisis of governance. Its most visible manifestation is a crisis of faculty. The generation that was inspired by a broad commitment to the public good has retired or will do so soon. There is little likelihood of sufficient replenishment, given entrenched mediocrity in institutions with life-time appointments, few competitive pressures and abysmal governance.
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This is a frank and incisive assessment of what ails higher education. Unfortunately, the authorities do not seem to be paying any heed.
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Makarand Paranjape is Professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This paper was earlier presented at the National Reconstruction Conference held in Chennai, Tamilnadu on 25 & 26 December 2008.
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The issue of why the state is preoccupied with intervention in higher education is a vexing one especially when education at the lower levels is neglected. Government primary and higher secondary schools are in worse shape than ever but there is an emphasis on elite education - the IITs, the IIMs and the newly instituted IISER, which is intended for higher education in science at the research level. One explanation could be that the state recognizes the Indian elite as its 'clients' and it is therefore serving them by providing higher education at costs much lower than might be incurred by them outside India. As this paper brings out forcefully, reservation in higher education is also serving only the same elite, although formally in the guise of a 'backward' segment. Effective intervention at the lowest level would be far more fruitful - in every sense - but those who would benefit are not the 'clients' of the state.
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Editor


Courtesy: in.geocities.com
Courtesy: hyderabad.clickindia.com

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