Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Changing Indian Higher Education System

The modern Higher Education system in India was built on the promise of Government Jobs and Social Prestige. A very colonial construct, this was sustained even after independence, and to this day, the students and their parents often approach Higher Education similarly. On the other hand, Indian economy is changing rapidly, with the expansion of the inner market, a result of a deliberate fiscal shift over the last decade towards the creation of rural demand: The Indian Higher Education, as it stands today, may not be fit for purpose in context of these rapid changes.
The discussions about ‘demographic dividend’, and the millions that must enter Higher Education, are omnipresent in policy-making. However, any serious discussion about Indian Higher Education must go beyond the headline numbers and take into account the complex realities of regional variations. The fact that Indian states are very different from one another, demographically, socially, economically, and that Higher Education has primarily been a state subject, funded and legislated on by different states differently, shaped the Higher Education system very differently in different parts of India. The expansion of the inner market, the rise in purchasing power of a large number of people without the necessary ‘social capital’ needed for mobility, brings these regional differences in rather sharp relief.
In the recent months, the structural difficulties of the Indian economy have been apparent. The fiscally supported expansion of rural demand has resulted in spiraling inflation because of the infrastructure bottlenecks and flailing productivity growth. The urban job creation has slowed or stagnated, salaries have decreased in real terms and middle class consumption has been squeezed by the rapidly rising interest rates. The rapid growth of urban prosperity that marked the first half of the new millennium has stalled, leaving a large and growing urban population in a limbo.  
Higher Education reform assumes a renewed significance in the face of these changes. It appears to be key to driving the productivity growth that the Indian economy, and its manufacturing and service industries, so sorely need. At the time when differences in regional attainment become so prominent, a regionally focused Higher Education strategy would help ease social and geographical mobility. A responsive and flexible system of education is needed to reverse the middle class disenfranchisement, and with it, one hopes, stem the political decline and the threat of abandonment of secular and democratic ideals of modern India.
The regulatory system in India has been the biggest stumbling block towards any meaningful change. Constructed as an arm of a paternalist State, it was designed to maintain continuity and discourage experimentation. Based on bureaucratic rather than any academic culture, fragmented and overlapping, its penal culture and static outlook have rendered it obsolete in the face of rapid changes within the Indian economy and society and outside. No observer of Indian Higher Education fails to notice that the more extensive regulatory guidelines tend to become, the more ineffective they tend to appear. Some of the Indian regulators publish lists of not just the institutions they accredit, but those which they don’t: This un-accredited list contains some of the more successful and respected institutions in the country, calling in question the validity of the regulatory system very publicly.
However, the overarching focus on human capital, the urgency of realizing the demographic dividend, and the emergence of modern consumer culture in the wider society, make the direction of policy more significant than the regulatory structure as it exists. The stated policy intentions of creating a single coordinating body of all forms of Higher Education, overseeing all state and professional agencies, may be limited in ambition but based on an welcome recognition of the limitations of the current system. The increasing openness to private investment, the discussions about foreign institutions (the two are somewhat connected – as all foreign institutions will be ‘private’ once they enter India) signal a change of heart, haltingly may be, but irreversibly.
However, the biggest change in Indian Higher Education may be happening outside the ‘sector’. A number of innovative models are emerging, mainly through public-private coalition: These entrepreneurial models (see Appendix 3) are bringing deep changes while being outside the regulatory structure. Besides, the students themselves are disrupting the structure. One of the most enduring myths of Indian Higher Education is that the students don’t want to study themselves are being spectacularly broken by the students in distance education (a quarter of the total), the large numbers self-studying towards IT certifications and the thousands flocking to MOOCs (13% of 1.2 million EdX students are from India, second only to 30% from the US*). Use of Education Technology is reaching a fever-pitch, with Engineering Colleges setting up virtual classrooms to offset the limitations imposed by local availability of teaching staff. From this vantage point, Indian Higher Education seems very much to be a case of the ‘System’ catching up with ‘Education’ that is already happening on the ground.
Therefore, it would be fitting to conclude this report with an optimistic note. India needs to re-imagine its Higher Education system to suit the requirements of a modern economy, a system that would be intellectually open and locally grounded. The policy intentions are already there, the recent pronouncements in RUSA being a clear example (see Appendix 4). The change at the top may appear lethargic, given the immediacy of the requirement; but, at the same time, the innovative energy on the ground, within new start-ups, innovative educators and aspiring students, is abundantly in evidence. However, in India, top-down change may always come as a catch-up:  The starting point of thinking about Indian Higher Education may therefore be the thousands of Indian students studying abroad, the businesses that compete and invest globally, and the worldwide academic community of Indians. These communities, its dynamic of aspiration, and that of millions of Indian students trying to achieve a life better than their parents, may define how Indian Higher Education is shaped in the coming years. 

* Financial Express, September 23, 2013.

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