The recent (and ongoing) discussion on the irrelevance of the UGC, the University Grants Commission of India, and fears of what might well happen to higher education in the country in the wake of the Hari Gautam Committee report brought this question to mind yet again. And coincidentally, a recent issue of The Economist is all about University education, although the take there is that too many people across the world are aspiring for a university education, and they (The Economist, that is) worry that this may not necessarily be a good thing. (Which leads to my knee-jerk reaction that in that case it surely must be!)
Experiences at the University of Hyderabad apart, I have had this concern for a longer time, at least since I came across Stefan Collini’s What are Universities for?, an extremely thought provoking book, more germane to our situation than the formidable The Great American University by Jonathan Cole, both of which are probably required reading for any academic administrator. Probably also for any academic, at the very least to provoke cogitation along the trammelled path of “why are we here and where are we going?”.
The basic question can be phrased in many ways… What(ever) are Indian Universities for? What are Indian Universities for? What are Indian Universities for? In any case, there is nothing particularly Indian about our universities- they are for the most part, imitations of a very western model and are by now some mix of the English, European and American university ideal. What they are for, ostensibly, is also clear- education of our youth. But just how they do this, what they do in the process, and how effective they are- these are all issues that need an extended discussion.
To begin, some background. There are something like 700 institutions that are classified as universities in India. Some are Central, some are State, some are Private, some are Deemed. (The last category inspires the not so tongue-in-cheek remark by a now retired Professor at an IIT, that if some are deemed, then there are others where the education is dumbed down, their future is dimmed, and in general they are all damned and in the end, all these institutions are doomed.)
Regardless of the classification all are regulated, and some quite strictly, by the UGC. One could argue that without governmental intervention, all of education would be at the mercy of the market, but it is clear that in the sixty plus years that the UGC has been in existence, its role and status has dwindled to the extent that neither does one have respect for the institution as a setter of standards or as a watchdog for quality in education. And yet, because of the way in which governmental funding is channeled through the UGC, almost all Central and most State Universities have to pay obeisance at its portals. And because of its regulatory role, all others- the private and the deemed- must similarly fall in line as well.
But there are other guardians of quality. All professional degrees are, for instance, regulated by specific bodies. The AICTE for all technical education, including business management, the Bar Council for law, the MCI for medical education, not to be confused with the INC for Nursing, and so on. I counted them once and tallied about 17 in all, and finally understood why we really don’t have comprehensive universities in the country. It is simply impossible to be answerable to so many regulatory authorities, especially since each of them in one way or the other prides themselves in being statutory bodies with the responsibility of establishing and maintaining high standards of […] education and recognition of […] qualifications in India. It registers […] to practice in India, in order to protect and promote the […] of the public by ensuring proper standards in the practice of […]. (This manifesto is taken from the MCI and made subject neutral-one can fill in the […] by appropriate nouns and adjectives.)
Oftentimes these regulators can be in conflict with each other as well. Their intentions are noble and important- any profession is valued only when there is certification, but the background against which these councils operate in our country is one where standards and safeguards are flouted with impunity- not to mention extortionate fees for some subjects, inadequate levels of teaching and often a complete disregard for quality, and so on. But when a council requires that teachers of its accredited institutions should be fingerprinted- however necessary that might seem- one gets the feeling that one has reached a nadir of some sort as far as education management is concerned.
The idea that the proof of the pudding should be in the eating is, regrettably, not that widespread. Looking at outcomes is not that common in our country- more attention is given to getting into the system than looking at what comes out. One’s JEE rank is finally quite a bit more important the grades one might have earned at the IIT, or for that matter how good an engineer one actually is. (One has to eavesdrop on any conversation among IIT graduates to realize the truth of that…)
There are exceptions, most notable among them being ISB, the Indian School of Business. A strong desire to not be subject to such regulation, without necessarily being unaware of quality or standards has made the ISB shun a formal degree (which would have brought them under either the UGC or any one of the 16 other councils or commissions that regulate higher education in India). The value of what students are taught there, as well as the high costs involved have together made the ISB a brand (and an expanding one, at that) to reckon with, one that competes with and often surpasses the IIMs. (Caveat: The ISB example cannot apply to many areas of study and is therefore singular, and there are flaws in that model as well, being accessible to a vanishingly small fraction of the population.)
To my mind there still is a lesson here. For the most part, the purpose of education at this time is employment, and degree or no degree, if that objective is served, this is a measure of the success of the system, howsoever limited that might be.
But there is a much more important part to education, the part that helps create a scholarly ethos. It is that as a society we need a place where one can discover, invent, archive, catalogue, train, explore, think- in short, a place where we can do all the things that are possible at a modern university. There are more uses of the university life, but above all, it is one place where we can invest in our futures in a somewhat abstract way and very consciously for the long run.
The question in the title invites a more extensive exploration, one that will occupy subsequent posts in this blog. The future of the Indian higher education system is something that concerns us all very deeply, and its future is inextricably linked with our future as a nation and as a people.