Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reforming The Indian Higher Education: Rethinking Liberal Arts and Sciences

For those who accept that the structure of the world economy is undergoing a change - automation and political imperatives in developed countries putting a stop to expansion and even reversing the earlier model of offshoring production and back-offices - Indian Higher Education needs reform. The current system, which has grown out of the large, publicly owned metropolitan universities and technical institutions, has been primarily driven by the growth of private, not-for-profit institutions focusing on Engineering and Business Education. This growth meant that India produces an estimated 1.5 million engineers every year, the largest number in the world, but these engineers are crucially dependent on the Offshoring sector, which has driven the job growth in India for the last two decades. With the expansion of the sector slowing, there is a jobs crisis already: Various reports put the rates of campus hiring anywhere between 15% to 20% of the graduate engineers. 

However, this is a classic 'jammed escalator' problem: Only a fifth of the engineers can find jobs, but that does not deter an additional 1.5 to 2 million people joining the quest every year. If these figures are bad enough, this does not, yet, reflect the structural changes in the world economy mentioned above: Its full impact is yet to come and by at least one estimate, almost 70% of the jobs risk being eliminated. Sure, the conversation is that new industries will emerge and a new wave of globalisation will start, but that will need a structural change in the Indian economy and to enable that, a full scale reform of Indian Higher Education.

Which is hard, particularly as it is a system without any dearth of demand. Indeed, the job crisis has started to bite and the demand has started to slow, but any college meeting the basic expectations can still expect to fill their seats without a problem. In this scenario, till the sky falls, there is very little incentive to change.

Besides this, there are other major obstacles too. All Higher Education institutions are Not For Profit, which keeps risk capital, that typically drive innovation, impossible to obtain. Instead, the sector runs on black money, mostly ill-gotten money and land of the politicians, which creates powerful vested interests which keeps all competition out. Indian Higher Education is one of the most tightly regulated, with different overlapping regulators defining even the most trivial of the parameters, and this regulatory system is both punitive in nature (as opposed to 'development oriented') and extremely corrupt. Successive Indian governments have failed to create a meaningful framework for foreign universities to operate in India because of the stubborn opposition of the Indian Engineering colleges (and their sponsoring politicians) and they have also balked at allowing For-Profit competition. In fact, one thing that the government has done in reforming Higher Ed is to clamp down on Distance Learning - despite its apparent appeal for a country like India - because this was a way of For Profit entities to create surrogate Higher Ed institutions working under the sponsorship of public universities (the arrangements were often corrupt, with payments being made to Vice Chancellors of Public Universities directly, but the government effectively shut down the sector by introducing territorial rules, taking the distance out of distance learning). 

Overall, Indian Higher Education has been a scramble for money, and little thought has gone into academic developments or changes in work. However, as it happens in cases like this, the perfect storm of disappearing jobs and disaffected students seem nearer than ever, and some conversations have started about at least a partial reform of the sector. 

The most promising of these is the idea of an accommodation between the Education barons and the Government about allowing Foreign Universities to offer courses in Liberal Arts and Sciences. Indeed, most private universities do not offer Liberal Arts and Science courses and even when they do it, they do it in a superficial manner with very little commitment (there are some notable exceptions, but they are few and far between). The prevailing view is that the Indian students, and particularly their parents, are not interested in Liberal Arts and those courses make no money. 

Indeed, these views are completely mistaken. There are some great public sector colleges offering Liberal Arts and Sciences, and they continue to send a regular stream of high calibre Indian students to universities all over the world. The fact that Indian students often pay a premium to study Liberal Arts abroad should be a signal to the 'Education Industry'. There is also a great shift of emphasis among the employers - the recruitment policies for better jobs are no longer 'engineering only' - and among parents, particularly those with professional background and education. There is also a great shift in women's education, and the usual higher aspirations that come with being a richer economy, all of which point to a growth in demand for Liberal Arts education. And, if this is a speculation, one should also look at China (and Japan before that) where the economic prosperity and changing social attitudes created preference for a different kind of education.

My speculation, therefore, is that Liberal Arts and Sciences will be the growth sector in Indian Higher Education. This is also aligned with the changing work priorities, and opportunely unencumbered with vested interests, at least for the moment. This is also outside the Engineering and Business School bubble that has crowded out all innovation in Indian Higher Education, and hopefully be better placed for curriculum and pedagogic innovation, including introducing a research focus and greater engagement with work and community.

Opening of the Liberal Arts sector to Foreign Universities is still months, if not years, away, but there is an opportunity for specialist Liberal Arts and Science colleges being set up in India right now. Indeed, land is a stumbling block in Indian Higher Education - most good land is highly priced and held by politicians and other barons - and the land requirement for setting up universities is one of ways of keeping the sector under control of such interests. Yet, this whole new conversation about Liberal Arts may allow newer conversations to start, even if this accommodates some landowner in a new business arrangement. 


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