Terrible as it was to see students and cops at battle in the capital last week, it was more shocking to hear the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) claim that a deficit of 45 crore is what forced it to raise hostel fees, the trigger for the showdown. Tragic would be more appropriate a word because if one of the country’s top institutions of higher education can be throwninto turmoil for such a piffling amount, what hope is there for thousands of others away from the limelight of the capital? And let’s not even go into the size of the deficit or the fact that any of India’s 138 billionaires could have taken care of it by sacrificing a private jet or two.

But beyond the politics, beyond even the raging ideological debates, the current impasse at JNU is an appropriate correlative for the crisis in India’s higher education, one that constitutes the biggest threat to its growing economic and political aspirations.

To be a dominant global player in any sphere of activity, a country has to earn for itself the right to win, either by exploiting its natural advantages or by building specific skill-sets in large enough numbers. After World War II, Japan gave itself that right by building a culture of total quality management, not just in its manufacturing but also in the way citizens treat their environment. Earlier, through the 18th century, Britain built on its ship-building and maritime strengths to dominate the mercantile world.

India has built no such right to win even as it aims to become a $5 trillion economy in the next few years. Having lost the manufacturing race, its only chance now is to look for success in the knowledge economy. Here, too, the window of opportunity is small and rapidly closing, with a country like China transitioning from being an industrial heavyweight to creating intellectual capital. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), in 2018, US-based applicants filed 56,142 Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications, followed by 53,345 applicants from China, and 49,702 from Japan. By contrast, there were a mere 2,013 applications from India.

For India, dividends from its push for engineering education through the 1970s and 1980s—which led to the software services success story of the 2000s—are beginning to whittle down, as evidenced by the slowing growth rates in the sector. After the Y2K bonanza, the next big leap should have come from an early embrace of cloud computing. Indian information technology companies missed that bus and Amazon, Microsoft and Google in 2018 had a stranglehold over a $272 billion market, expected to grow to $623.3 billion by 2023, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. Artificial intelligence and machine learning represent the next big opportunity. There is little to suggest that, at the ground level, our colleges and universities are even prepared to impart the kind of learning that will throw up large enough numbers of people capable of competing with the world’s best in these areas.

Indeed, on every measure of an efficient education system, India is a laggard. Not a single Indian university figures in the Top 300 of The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2020. Nor is the problem merely one of quality. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, the country faces a big demand-supply gap, with an estimated shortfall of 200,000 schools, 35,000 colleges, 700 universities and 40 million seats in vocational training centres.

Compounding this is the acute shortage of teachers. It’s a problem that seems to be insoluble. In August 2012, in response to a Rajya Sabha query, a JNU official stated that positions for 77 professors, 100 associate professors, and 87 assistant professors in the university were vacant. Five years later, replying to a similar question in the Lok Sabha, the university stated that the vacancies had gone up to 96 professors, 125 associate professors, and 87 assistant professors.

That same narrative is being played out across the country. According to an Economic Times report, the country’s higher education sector—central, state, and private universities—is facing a shortfall of more than 500,000 teachers (bit.ly/34pgMyJ).

Plainly, there has been criminal neglect of education, and no one is willing to take responsibility. State governments, with the exception of a few like Delhi, believe their job is done once they have allocated land for schools and colleges. The traditional construct of education—in which the state saw its role restricted to basic schooling—is hopelessly outdated. Packing classrooms with students and administering learning like some standardized vaccine just doesn’t work. What we need is a serious mindset shift. A middle-income country can’t use the same models for skills building as a third-world economy.

What’s more, the knowledge-economy doesn’t need just science, engineering, math and technology graduates. As our politics and society undergoes radical changes, we need thinkers, philosophers and analysts, men and women who can peer into the future without bias and produce work that can help us make better decisions with some thought to their long-term consequences. China’s one-child policy or the communist government’s 1981 decision in West Bengal to drop English as a compulsory language for primary school students are perfect examples of thoughtless decisions. JNU’s financial shortfall is tiny and can be wiped out easily by a farsighted bureaucrat’s pen. But who will stem the rot in India’s higher education?

Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint

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