Home/ Opinion / Online Views/  The higher education racket in India

“There is urgent need for more autonomy, less bureaucracy, less interference from the government, greater internal democracy, and participative decision-making...While role models in themselves are not undesirable, blind allegiance to authority that is deemed superior is detrimental to free thinking. Being always reasonable or politically correct saps the environment of true voices of constructive dissent. Age is often equated incorrectly with wisdom.

An over-cautious attitude has not served us well in the past and it will certainly not serve us well in the future. Indian chemistry today faces a crisis of leadership. Adherence to quality by scientists and the ability to take risks by fund givers...are critical, even mandatory."

The above excerpt is from a perspicacious essay, ‘Chemistry in India: Unlocking the Potential,’ published in January 2013 by the journal Angewandte Chemie. What the authors have said about the state of chemistry education and research also applies broadly to higher education in India, and this has grave consequences for the Indian economy.

There is a crisis of leadership in the highest echelons of India’s education policy-making. There is a need for leadership that increases autonomy, reduces government bureaucracy and interference, promotes internal democracy and participative decision-making in the administration of educational institutions, as the authors of the essay have outlined.

But what prevents this from manifesting at the highest levels of policy-making? Evidently, pursuing these objectives would mean that those with authority should abdicate their control for the greater good of institutional development and excellence. Taken to its logical end, it would imply a drastic curtailment, if not outright disbandment, of centralized power centres like the Union human resource development (HRD) ministry and its assorted mandarins who are charged with creating educational policy from Delhi.

This requires self-denial on the part of those occupying seats of power—and therein lies the governance challenge. The story of the establishment of Hyderabad’s Indian School of Business (ISB) illustrates this challenge. ISB’s founders wanted to locate the institution near Mumbai, India’s business capital. Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray, whose party was governing the state at the time, reportedly asked that reservations be made for the local Maharashtrian population, a condition that wasn’t compatible with the institution’s commitment to meritocracy. One could also speculate that many of Maharashtra’s politicians, who own higher educational institutions, didn’t want a business school that competed with their commercial interests.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu then moved quickly and brought ISB to Hyderabad. Today, ISB is ranked among the top business schools in the world. When Naidu lost the elections, he was widely berated for being a “CEO-style" administrator—few remember his contributions to Andhra Pradesh’s economic development, not the least of which is bringing a world-class educational institution to the state. The ISB story shows that it takes political courage for which there may not be any short-term electoral rewards. This is why reforms are difficult—and require political commitment from the top.

The reforms that are needed in higher education are well-documented. The Wall Street Journal’s Geeta Anand, writing in 2008, recounted how the principal of a pharmacy college in Mumbai could not add more students because of a regulation that mandated 168 square feet of space be provided for every student in a technical college. These rules also specified “the exact size for libraries and administrative offices, the ratio of professors to assistant professors and lecturers, quotas for student enrollment and the number of computer terminals, books and journals that must be on site," Anand reported. S.P Jain Institute, a leading business school, had its request to increase enrollment of students denied umpteen times by the mandarins in the HRD ministry. Thousands of students were being turned away because institutions could not meet all these diktats formulated by bureaucracies like the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC), which both come under the HRD ministry.

Sam Pitroda, adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said in the same article that “the system as a whole is overregulated."

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi complained in a recent speech that the capitation fee at an Indian medical college is higher than the cost of going to Harvard University. Minister of state for HRD Shashi Tharoor said at an education summit that the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management are “islands in a sea of mediocrity."

The question is why don’t these leaders do something about it then, starting with eradicating the red tape that stifles educational institutions in India?

It is easy to offer platitudes—it is difficult to implement reforms, because “education as a whole is a vote getting patronage item," as Ajit Rangnekar, who is now ISB’s dean, told Geeta Anand then.

There has been plenty of debate on the contours of reform in the last five years, but not much has changed on the ground. Former HRD minister Kapil Sibal pushed to dissolve AICTE and UGC, but then came up with draft legislation that would create a higher education super-regulator that was “the most outrageous proposal to centralise power in higher education that could be imagined," in the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the think tank Centre for Policy Research.

A fresh round of consultations was undertaken in 2010 and a reworked Bill ostensibly drawn up—as of December 2012, the parliamentary standing committee reviewing the Bill said in its report that not enough was done to assuage the concerns of state governments. The committee also said that existing regulatory mechanisms be strengthened instead of being subsumed by a super-regulator.

Meanwhile, the racket in higher education carries on. Every year that goes by without reform results in many more millions being turned away by colleges and universities that are beholden to politicians in Delhi. Many observers foolishly salivate at how Delhi University and IIT are more selective than Ivy League schools, without realizing how brainless the comparison is.

Why is the government failing to build consensus and pilot through legislation in a timely manner? There is an enormous cost to such ineptitude in governance. According to UNESCO figures, India sent some 200,000 students abroad in 2011, resulting in an outflow of billions of dollars. Since 2000, the number of students going abroad has nearly quadrupled. Tens of thousands of students who cannot afford the high costs of studying abroad are invariably left out, with almost no avenues to attain skills and knowledge to participate in the formal economy. This worsens the income divide.

At the same time, growing corporations cannot find skilled people to meet staffing needs. All this, because a few people in Delhi are protecting the extortion racket, euphemistically termed “overregulation," that emanates from the HRD ministry. In return for protecting the racket, higher education is used as a patronage tool by politicians to garner votes, whether by quotas (in student admissions and faculty appointments), or through a dole for the parliamentary constituencies of the powerful: Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have set up petroleum universities in their constituencies, while Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s constituency is now receiving an aviation university.

Other countries are positioning themselves to take advantage of India’s suicidal folly—a strong grassroots movement is gathering momentum for immigration reform in the US, and this will make it easier for those studying in American universities to stay on and contribute to the American economy upon graduation.

If the racket in Delhi that has sanction from the highest levels of India’s political leadership doesn’t stop, there will be a permanent loss of human capital to nations that offer better educational and economic opportunities. Without human capital, economic growth will suffer in India—and without growth, there will be social instability.

The stakes are very high, and time is running out.

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Updated: 15 Apr 2013, 12:57 PM IST
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