WHAT has been happening in Indian education is the story familiar to the rest of Indian society. The corrupt impress of politically inspired and bureaucratised grand larceny seized virtually all aspects of Indian society after independence. In the 1990s, the economy was partially relieved from bureaucratic rationing of output, but a new alliance emerged between politicians, bureaucrats and business, inaccurately described as market economics.
The entire India story remains a vehicle for cornering as much of the economic surplus as politicians, bureaucrats and their business allies can get away with while chanting nonsense about secularism. Indian education is not fundamentally different though there are some regional variations in the scams and abuses that characterise it. In Left-ruled states higher education has been bent to the will of semi-literate political apparatchiks who are mainly engaged in nepotism on behalf of the party and theft of educational resources.
Indian higher education was mainly a preserve of the public sector historically and since it was pretty much free insufficient funding ensured it would remain in limited supply. At present around eleven per cent of the eligible student cohort is enrolled in higher education and though that is higher than most developing countries it is low by Asian standards. It is significantly below what has been achieved in neighbouring China. In advanced economies fifty per cent or more secondary school students enter higher education. There has been rapid growth of Indian private higher education in areas like engineering, medicine and management, but that only affects a minority of potential students.
As for the quality of what is provided, especially in the public sector, the less said the better. Instead of well-considered attempts to expand quality supply, the political class did and is doing what it does best, politicise, obfuscate, steal resources and mismanage. Indian higher educational access within the public system is now irredeemably impaled on the cross of caste quotas while teaching and administrative appointments are also dictated by crass political goals, outright auction of appointments and corruption. Private higher education is now increasingly taking up some of the slack. But donations and vast entrance fees charged by private entrepreneurs highlight its alarming trajectory as vehicles for making easy money, confirmed by the fact that politicians have entered the fray as major owners of private colleges. There are important exceptions to the parlous state of Indian higher education as it expands privately, but rapid growth is no guarantee of either equity or quality.
Not surprisingly, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11 featured six universities from mainland China, two from Turkey and none at all from India. This league table points to the ugly truth that quality in India higher education is not a priority. The recent announcement of the establishment of 14 “innovation universities” meeting world-class standards is typical political sloganeering. A Google Scholar search for the University of Delhi produces 30,000 results compared with nearly 330,000 for “Zhejiang University” in China. It is noteworthy that Delhi has almost 138,000 students enrolled in formal education programmes against Zhejiang’s 39,000. Such poor research productivity reflects both a lack of recognition that it is a critical attribute of a world-class university but indifference towards nurturing talent as well. Only one in 50 students at the University of Delhi is enrolled in a doctoral programme, compared with one in six at Zhejiang. This is why the vast numbers of engineers being churned out by Indian institutions are mediocre and not even India’s hallowed IITs figure among international elite institutions.
Schooling at the primary and secondary level is also abysmal, particularly in northern Indian states though government schools perform better in the south. Despite significant policy changes and increased funding since 1990, preceded by the promulgation of the National Policy on Education in 1986, followed by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan of 2003, aiming to provide schooling for disadvantaged groups, outcomes have so far been disappointing. The recent Right to Education of 2010 for 6 to 14 year olds, guaranteeing free and compulsory education is unlikely to succeed despite the alleged threat of PILs to enforce it, not only against public bodies but even parental failings. How does a legal framework address the problems of dire poverty and frequent mobility in search of work in order to survive in resolving educational opportunity for numberless poor children?
Literacy in India has grown from an abysmal 18 per cent to 70 per cent reputedly since independence, but does not actually imply the ability to read and write in any meaningful sense. Access to school education has also grown, but drop out rates remain high and the quality of educational provision poor. Corruption, mismanagement and resistance by vested interests have combined to thwart progress. Politicians often sell teaching posts oblivious to appropriate criteria for achieving learning outcomes. And administrators oppose changes that might reduce their role, for example through decentralisation of curriculum management and teaching unions are more interested in their personal interests than pedagogy. The attempt to force private schools to educate a quarter of pupils from disadvantaged sections of society for free (without selection) is an ill-conceived cross-subsidy. It might be a better idea to increase this quota, police it determinedly, but make school fees, up to a specified level, tax deductible. In the end, this will remain an urban experiment and the vast northern rural heartland is where the most severe problems fester.
The failures of Indian education have translated into a mismatch between supply and demand for education. Vicious caste quotas are denying adequate educational opportunity to the meritorious of modest means and exporting the well-to-do abroad, who are spending 25-30 lakh rupees of precious resources abroad annually to gain a degree. In addition, there is now a serious shortage of qualified employees that is acting is a brake on India’s economic advance. The appropriate policy would be to expand the supply of quality education at reasonable prices that reflected its value to both the individual and society.
Instead politicians have cynically conspired to keep higher education in short supply in order to provoke intense and socially divisive competition for the limited supply of relatively better quality education. This limited supply is then distributed in accordance with ethically bankrupt as well as socially and educationally counterproductive quotas that produce political dividends. The private colleges themselves also have every incentive to oppose the creation of additional supply that would entail competition for them and reduce their inflated fee incomes.
The UPA government is now trying to finesse the situation by allowing unrestricted entry to foreign educational institutions, in a confession of utter failure, without first making efforts to remedy the shortcomings of local educational provision. What foreign entry will not do is improve existing public higher education in India by creating a competitive environment. This is a typical economists’ fantasy that attempts to address a complex social problem by manipulating a single causal factor. Instead existing public higher educational institutions will be reduced to skeletons that continue to absorb public funding with even less contribution to national well being and progress. And if foreign educational institutions do not find ways of repatriating income that will be a miracle unless they were intent on purely charitable endeavour in India in the first place. The rank greed of international schools in Delhi provides an inkling of their motivations, charging over 5 lakh rupee admission fees in addition to over forty thousand in monthly fees.
Unfortunately, few Indians from privileged backgrounds regard education as anything other than a way of getting a well-paid job and ensnaring a desirable spouse. Primary and secondary schools compete to attain educational benchmarks that require parroting barely digested facts and the problem-solving skills of a quiz contestant. Universities and institutions of higher learning either advertise their prestige as places to meet others of high social status and/or impart knowledge designed to satisfy outdated examination curricula. That a small number go abroad and achieve genuine success is unsurprising since India’s vast population will always contain some highly gifted individuals who will shine despite any hindrances to their progress.
Ironically, as the four hundred year-old Anglo-American imperial era of conquest and domination comes to a close with the onset of the twentieth century India is poised to adopt its socio-economic and educational detritus wholesale. A civilisation that once reached the extraordinary insight that knowledge was the truest path to the divine is increasingly in the thrall of every type of crammer and business school. An unfolding educational disaster is moulding Indians to become empty vessels of instrumental opportunism. And they are also spending hundreds of millions of dollars to imbibe the selfsame narrow educational commercialism by travelling abroad while India’s super rich are falling over themselves to donate vast fortunes to institutions that cultivate it.