Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does India Need More Universities?

Indian policy-makers always come up with this comparison: United States has more than 4500 degree granting institutions, but with four times the population and a middle class of the size of US population, India has only about 700. So, India needs more, is the implicit conclusion. There is no clear consensus on how many more universities India needs, but one tends to hear a number between 1200 and 1500. However, in the rather hasty rush to create universities, as expected, India is creating more problems for itself.

Surely, university creation is mostly state business than a Federal matter in India. But states have caught on to the Central rhetoric. Some states in India allowed private universities, some allowed a free-for-all business, but some, like West Bengal, MP and Maharashtra, always maintained a conservative line. Those last bastions seem to be falling now.

Consider West Bengal: It is no surprise that the Communist Government that ruled the state for more than 30 years couldn't ideologically adjust to the Private University business, not even for their cronies. Not that they created a successful public university system: They rather destroyed the academic culture of the state, once well regarded in India, by meddling into institutional autonomy and strictly political appointments. Higher Education was not one of their priorities. A few years into their tenure, many of the states brighter students were leaving the state for college elsewhere. By the time they departed, they left the state's higher education system in a mess, riddled with an underfunded public system mostly run by political appointees.

The new government, which won the election with the slogan of change, needed to address this urgently. So, they did two things: First, they evicted the political appointees of the past government with their own political appointees. And, next, they started allowing private universities to be created. 

The logic behind allowing private universities in West Bengal is somewhat questionable. The West Bengal government believes, and said as much, that these private universities will create jobs. If this sounds like common sense, one should follow closely what the government is saying. They are not saying that the private universities will create skilled people and therefore investment will come to West Bengal. They are saying that since the Heavy Industry investment will not come to West Bengal, allowing a few private universities will hopefully keep busy the state's middle classes. Private universities, in this construct, is the employer, not employment generator!

I was close enough to the business to hear this bizarre rationale in West Bengal, but a similar sort of thing may be playing out in other states too. Why else there is so little discussion about the quality of education in Indian politics and media - contrast that with the vast amount of literature (and political debate) in almost every major country about the purpose and efficacy of college - and so much talk about the number of universities, colleges and students one ought to have?

One straightforward explanation may be that India is coming from behind and it needs to create a lot of capacity, fast, to accommodate its students. Therefore, the discussions about capacity precedes and overwhelms any discussion about efficacy, be it in Higher Education or in Vocational Education. But then, India's Engineering colleges and Business Schools are failing, because the students are not interested in the poor education they offer, and the pressures on India's traditional, and underfunded, colleges are as great as it ever was. It is not unusual to see Indian institutions to operate with only a handful of students, and many private universities only have a few hundred students as compared to the thousands of students in public colleges.

This is problematic because institutional size matters. Despite a similar rush to create Higher Ed capacity, an average institutional size in China is over 6000 students but in India, it will be less than 500. This significantly constrains what the institution can do - a small size immediately rules out any research capacity - and also relegate those institutions into permanent dwarfs.

Indian institutions are also highly concentrated in certain areas, forming academic corridors based on real estate prices and policy friendliness, leaving other areas underserved. This is indeed typical for development through private capacity: Divorced from any social objective, these institutions tend to focus on certain profitable, usually well served areas. In West Bengal, one can guess, all the new capacity will be created within a 100 mile radius of Kolkata, its capital, leaving its North and West, relatively poor parts, untouched. This also means that the new Higher Ed capacity is usually concentrated on a few disciplines, mostly business etc., which are more profitable. The enthusiasm for Engineering or medicine, the areas of highest demand, among private operators have somewhat cooled after the regulators woke up to the poor infrastructure provision in many of these institutions, and has been replaced by a new-found love for Liberal Arts.

In theory, the market-driven development of India's Higher Education sector should create more diversity, more opportunity and more innovation. However, that's not what happens in practice. The word 'market' is usually just a label to hang on the door to conceal the usual crony capitalism, auctioning of university licenses for political funding. Add to that the political grandstanding about hundreds of universities, without any regard to the students' lot or any coherent policy thinking, and one gets to the point of chaos, where market does the opposite: Concentrate the power in the hands of few, stifle innovation, restrict opportunity and undermine diversity. This may be the broader narrative of Indian capitalism, but this is being played out in Indian Higher Education within a short span of time, in sharp relief, and causing long term damage to the country's capacity to educate its people.

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