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Challenges Facing New Education Policy in India : From EPW
The New Education Policy on the anvil should encourage academic talent and innovation to make the system of higher education more responsive to the needs of various stakeholders instead of just attempting to create a uniform standardised structure. To ensure this, political and bureaucratic interference in educational institutions, which has steadily eroded the quality of higher education in India, will have to be minimised, academic autonomy strengthened and diverse opinions taken into account while building a new policy framework.
The article is based on the author’s presentation made at the consultation meeting on “Linking Higher Education to Society” at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla on 27–28 August 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Silicon Valley in California, the United States (US) in September 2015 was about technology and attracting both talented Indians and investment in technology in India. It highlights the fact that the best go abroad, leaving the country short of talent. The gross enrolment ratio in the country has risen sharply in the last decade but industry complains that most students are unemployable. The President of India via video conferencing addressed students and faculty of institutions of higher learning in India and said, “India does not have even one truly outstanding institution among 700 universities and over 36,000 colleges.” He pointed to a “casual” approach to higher education and stressed the need to “improve academic management.”
Higher education has also come in for adverse comments from Amartya Sen, Narayana Murthy and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan. While none of them have experience of the ground-level problems plaguing higher education in India, their concerns are valid. If they remain unaddressed, “skilling India” and reaping “demographic dividend” will remain distant goals. Would the New Education Policy (NEP)on the anvil take up these challenges?
Interference and Autonomy
Sen expressed concern at the interference in top appointments in institutions. While the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) director quit under pressure from the government, people with poor credentials but the right connections have been appointed in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Censor Board of Film Certification, etc. Could the President be pointing to this aspect of academic management? Unlikely, since neither good institutions are built in a day nor do they decline within a year. The malaise afflicting our institutions of higher learning is old and needs to be identified if corrective measures are to be adopted in the NEP.
Political interference in top appointments is a crucial factor in the decline of institutions of higher learning, but this is not new. In 1952, A V Hill, the biological secretary of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom (UK), wrote to Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar who had just then been appointed the director general of the newly established Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). He expressed concern that the CSIR laboratories would drain universities of talented scientists, and asked who would then train the next generation? Bhatnagar replied that the universities are already in poor shape because their vice chancellors are political appointees (Kumar 2006). The implication is that the malaise goes back to the time of independence.
Often vice chancellors, directors and principals have been appointed for proximity to the powers that be and not their academic credentials. This makes them beholden to political bosses or in privately controlled institutions to the moneyed and that erodes their accountability to their academic peers. No wonder civil servants and army men have been appointed even though they lack academic imagination. The rot is now deeper, since there are persistent reports of money being the consideration for appointments.
The task of those at the top is seen as managing an institution rather than fostering creativity, or encouraging a questioning spirit. Such people aspire for more favours to rise in the system and, therefore, remain compliant with the wishes of their bosses rather than having the welfare of their institution as their priority. Vice chancellors have increasingly ceded ground to the bureaucrats of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) rather than providing leadership, as was the case up to the early 1970s. This is as true of premier universities like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as of the lesser-known universities in the states.
David Gross, the Nobel laureate, pointing to the leadership crisis, argues that it is due to the mechanical nature of decisions. He says,
…most destructive and silly is the government’s policy towards early retirement. …People are forced to retire here at the age of 60 (65 in some institutes). It is extremely difficult to find people in their 60s, which is the optimal age at which people can assume scientific leadership.
He added, “Some people at 60 have been sleeping since they were 20. Some people will go on being productive into their 90s.” It may be added that many who were academically weak since they were 20, but politically active, got into positions of power in institutions of higher education, while the creative ones were largely marginalised.
The MHRD has held conclaves with the vice chancellors, but can original ideas be expected from those appointed for their capacity to comply? Ideas from the Western universities are being mechanically borrowed for implementation in India. Take the idea of the Meta University. Can it work when it is known that university departments in the same building hardly synergise each other? JNU conceived around the idea of interdisciplinarity has little to show for it. Here, life sciences are taught in several departments with minimal synergy and the same is true of economics taught in four centres. Does a change of rubric change the reality? Similarly, the choice based credit system (CBCS) and massive open online courses (MOOCS) have been introduced even though teachers have protested that these ideas are not workable in the Indian situation.
Compliant leadership also surrounds itself with pliable others to push the agenda dictated from the outside. A vast number of senior academics in the decision-making bodies, like executive councils of various universities, rarely oppose questionable decisions of those at the top, since they also have learnt the value of compliance for rising in the system. No wonder, universities and colleges are run down and do not cater to their primary task of nurturing talent, and though society blames academics for this situation, it does not see the root of the problem.
Academic leaders often make their institutions playgrounds for caste, regional, political and community politics. Appointments are often made for reasons of such affiliations and/or by charging money (corruption), making academic merit secondary. Even when “good” academics are chosen, they understand that to survive, they have to cater to sectional interests. As the number of such appointments increases, decline of institutions is inevitable. The Allahabad University in the 1950s became the arena for the play between the Brahmin, Kayastha and Baniya groups and merit became secondary. In such a situation, many question the very idea of “merit” and see in it a design to exclude some.
The problem is compounded by the feudal culture prevailing in most institutions of higher learning. Obeisance to those above and compliance from those below is expected, thus marginalising excellence if not demoralising it. So, challenging orthodoxy and dissenting are becoming rarer even though that is a prerequisite for originality.
Narayana Murthy’s lament is linked to this. He said at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, “There has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that became a household name globally….” In the same vein, Raghuram Rajan lamented that a whole generation of economists has been lost. These are corollaries of nurturing sycophancy and suppression of dissent in academia.
Attitudes filter down into teaching and the learning processes of students who mostly learn by rote while questioning little. Exams test the capacity to mechanically reproduce what is mugged up. Richard Thane, an exchange student from the US, highlighted this fact in an article where he described his brief stint at the prestigious St Stephens College in Delhi University. He wrote:
In 2007 I was a student at St Stephen’s College for seven months as part of a study abroad programme offered by my home institution, Brown University. … What is remarkable is that all students in India know what I am talking about. … A real education being one that challenges the intellect and questions paradigms, not one of rote memorisation and conformity. … … my entire study abroad experience in India, from an academic standpoint, was an enormous disappointment. … Yet amongst my fellow Indian education alumni, I mostly hear a deafening silence when it comes to action (2013).
One can only imagine the situation in other lesser institutions.
Exams and degrees have become a passport to a job. If real understanding is not the goal, it can be more easily fulfilled through cheating; even classes need not be attended. Consequently, corruption has seeped into exams as the Vyapam and now the even bigger Dental and Medical Admission Test (DMAT) scam point to. The iconic picture from Bihar of rampant cheating points to its scale. The rapid penetration of private sector in education is correlated with growing irregularities, like question paper leakage, etc.
In premier institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the curriculum leaves students little time for critiquing content and that minimises questioning. To get into the IITs, students attend coaching schools (like in Kota) with a focus on exam skills. Consequently, many fail after joining the IIT. Murthy has been criticised by C N R Rao for his statement at the IISc for not doing enough to promote innovation in Indian institutions.
Teachers and the System
The problem of learning is compounded by the fact that most teachers also learnt by rote and they reproduce that in the classroom. The shortage of faculty aggravates this crisis. According to the MHRD, around 40% of the faculty posts are vacant in the central universities and medical and engineering colleges. Often, overworked, part-time and ad hoc teachers, lacking in skills, carry the burden and teaching suffers. Research guidance has deteriorated not only because of lack of competence among many academics but also because of the pressure of numbers. Some to be popular and others due to compulsion guide 20 to 25 students at a time.
While teachers are to blame, they face a perverse incentive system devised by the academic bureaucracy, lacking in academic imagination. “Reforms” have been introduced since the 1980s to improve standards. First, teachers were required to have an MPhil degree for promotion. Next it became mandatory for the teachers to undertake the refresher and orientation courses conducted by the UGC. This was followed by the requirement of qualifying in the National Eligibility Test/State Level Eligibility Test (NET/ SLET) for selection and then a PhD became essential for appointment and promotions to certain positions. Finally, with the Sixth Pay Commission came the mechanical Academic Performance Index (API) for recruitment and promotions.
The idea underlying these requirements has been that “standards can be achieved by standardization.” But a teaching job has a large qualitative element that cannot be evaluated the way an office or a factory job can, where productivity can be assessed by “time and motion studies.” Points under the API can be mechanically earned without an improvement in quality. Peter Higgs, the Nobel laureate, wrote that for 15 years in his annual report he had stated that he had no publication. He concluded that in a present-day university he would not have got a job. It is true that few are or will be Nobel laureates but there is a lesson in this for nurturing talent.
Today, many academics play the game cynically to earn points for promotion. Contact with students has been devalued since that gets few points. Poor quality dissertations, journals and conferences enable academics to collect points. Those playing the numbers game are accumulating points mechanically while genuine academics fail to do so for their promotion; mediocrity gets privileged over talent.
Ahistorical Perspective and Privatisation
The NEP must refer to the ground realities. A historical view is essential because the problems have not appeared overnight. Reports like the Ambani–Birla Report (1999) or the Knowledge Commission Report (2007) lacked a historical understanding of the evolution of the Indian system of higher education and did not address the ground realities of the system. They implicitly assumed that the system is flawed because of its public sector character and suggested its betterment and expansion through privatisation. The pressure from the World Trade Organization (WTO) is also in the same direction and concerned people worry about the commitments there.
One way to push the interest of the private sector is to engineer the decline of public sector institutions. To accomplish this, the autonomy of central universities and IIMs is sought to be curbed via amending the acts under which they were established, and a common syllabi is being imposed on universities and colleges so that the CBCS can be enforced. This will make the already largely mechanical teaching even more so. The UGC tried imposing a model syllabi in 2002 as well. This was resisted by certain departments in some universities, but many adopted them since these became the prerequisite to getting grants from the UGC under the Special Assistance Programme (SAP) and Career Advancement Scheme (CAS).
The government schools were set on a path of decline in the 1970s so that private sector schools could prosper. The recent Allahabad High Court judgment asking government functionaries to send their wards to government schools has the potential of being a game changer. The experiments imposed on the Delhi University since 2010 have sent the best university of the country into a tailspin.
Privatisation leads to an increase in resource availability but often also to a demand to cut public funding for education. It leads to a change in the mindset which is not suited to a good public education system and leads to its further decline. The existing problems and sharp practices are getting aggravated. The private sector is best suited to deal with the short-term issues and that reinforces narrowness of conception, which is counterproductive.
Education is characterised as a merit good, has externalities and scale economies and there is asymmetric information. These are situations of market failure and privatisation is not the solution but that is being ignored. The result is capitation fees in admissions, charging money for teacher training, recruitment of poor quality teachers, coaching and tuition instead of classroom teaching, cheating in examinations and fake degrees. These problems existed earlier also but they are getting aggravated. Further, demand for raising fees is growing, costs are rising, equity is getting diluted and emphasis is shifting from basic to applied subjects.
Many of the changes introduced in higher education in the last two decades may appear rational—but that is so only in the short run. A little reflection will show that in the long run they will have disastrous effects. With the increasing sway of the private sector over policy, the short run has come to dominate. However, success in one’s business is no guarantee of clarity about the needs of the students or of educational institutions. Higher education is about long-term accountability to society, independent of both market considerations and immediate political exigencies.
Critics point to the rundown nature of education and the public has accepted that it is because the teachers shirk work and are the problem. This decline in the status of academics has enabled the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen to intervene even though they neither understand the ground realities nor accept their own role in running the system down. Reports are that the NEP will be drafted by a committee consisting of bureaucrats who are likely to have only a limited view of problems of education in the country.
In brief, if talent is to be nurtured, the NEP must overhaul higher education based on the ground realities and a holistic perspective. For this, diverse academic voices need to be heard rather than only of those at the top and who have been the problem and whose agenda may not be real reform.
Kumar, Deepak (2006): Science and the Raj: A Study of British India, 2nd ed, Oxford University Press India.