Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why India Needs A New Higher Education

India is in the middle of a great transformation, driven by the aspirations of its young people.

This transformation is apparent to any visitor in India, primarily through its business parks and the towering apartment blocks, its new roads and its omnipresent media, the confidence of its leaders and its street vibe. India, the collective claims, is the country of the future.

And, this focus on the future is playing out in its education system. The country has affected an unprecedented expansion of its education system - unprecedented for India, though following the example of and in a smaller scale than China - particularly in Higher and Vocational education. This is the most exciting part of the transformation:  new education in India is built to create a whole new India, a fresh new future.

This educational transformation, however, needs a new imagination. India's future is unlikely to be like India's past, and even recent past, all those Call Centres and IT Hubs, is unlikely to be the template for this future. The world has changed - since 2008, but even more rapidly off late - and being world's back-office is already an outdated aspiration. But, more crucially, India has moved on - its young people are emboldened to dream new dreams and are not content to accept a second rung role in the world! It may be that the earlier generations, the current generations of parents, are still recovering, from the experience of precarious India of the 80s and 90s; they are still hankering after a little security and a promise, now increasingly illusory, of a stable job and career. But this is not the reality, and the future, for the current generation of students.

India's educational transformation, so far, has been doing more of the same old thing. The expansion came in the form of inflating of two bubbles - that of business school and engineering education - at the cost everything else. It did not matter that only a quarter of the students in these supposedly vocationally focused streams got jobs: The rest had to join the Great Indian Enterprise Show like everyone else from all other streams of life! Regardless of all this, the educational conversations in India, wholly and singularly, revolved around the Engineering and Business school entrance examinations, and the stunted experiences that follow.

But the times are changing: Jobs are changing, Indian economy is changing and aspirations are changing. The process jobs, which the Engineering schools prepared for, are disappearing, giving in to the robots and software bots who are nimbler, cheaper and local. Indian economy, at least those of the cities, are hurtling towards the middle income trap, where its cost advantages disappear and skills differentials start hurting. And, the Internet communication, satellite television and foreign travel and non-resident relatives and friends are opening the horizons for Indian students, wanting to do more than just grunt work for the Western companies. Yes, it is that moment when the wonderful Hindi-English expression 'Yeh Dil Mange More' - this heart wants more - sounds perfectly apt.

There are already some efforts - like the Ashoka University's efforts to create a Liberal Arts educated intelligentsia, or Indian business schools opening campuses in Singapore and Dubai to create more innovative programmes potentially incorporating foreign partnerships (ostensibly to avoid India's misguided regulatory controls on foreign education) - but the innovation has not still reached out to everyman. However, I shall claim, that this paradigm - that it is only the very rich who cares about innovation and new types of educational option - is misguided, and informed by the same-old thinking of an hierarchical India of ideas. The demand for new, innovative, world-class education is much more widespread - it is no longer a luxury but an economic necessity - and its supply is likely to create its own demand.

So, time to go beyond the Engineering and Business School bubbles. Indeed, technical education is not going to go away, and India needs more science education, not less. But it needs to be placed in a different context. In fact, this is the key reason why we need a different kind of Higher Education: Because the context has changed.

Most Higher Education in India today are designed around one of three models of thinking.

First, there is an ecosystem of State universities, state-supported or Church-administered private institutions, a legacy of the British India. These institutions are designed to educate civil servants, evolving from but still loosely based around the colonial ideas and models of education: patriarchal, patronising and aimed at professions. This context is passé, but the institutional form proved durable, propped up by the Indian preference of continuity over disruption.

Second, there is an overlapping ecosystem of Central technical institutions, funded by the federal rather than state governments, built around educating technocrats to occupy the 'commanding heights of the economy': A hangover from India's aspirations to build a planned economy. Indeed, this experiment has failed and the system has become a conduit of taxpayer funded brain-drain. But these institutions remain at the core of India's educational imagination - every kid aspire to get in for an easy access to America - though the Indian state has irretrievably changed.

And, finally, this system is supplemented by more recent additions of a large number of private, state-sanctioned, technical institutions, tied closely with the expansion of global service economy in India, since the 1980s. This is a third layer, still influenced by the previous models but without the aspirations of the second wave, still closely tied to Western ideas of development.

This is indeed an approximation, and admittedly, I have excluded notable examples of private charities, research institutions and institutions set up in reaction to the colonial mind control, such as the Benaras Hindu University, Annamalai University, Jadavpur University or Viswabharati University. These are all important institutions, though they are more exceptions than rules, and indeed, the institutions set up in protest of the colonial paradigm were subsumed by the planned economy paradigm that came after independence. Their existence do not invalidate the point I am trying to make: That for the last two centuries, Indian Higher Education has evolved around a futile quest to shape its mind around the West. In fact, those experiments prove my point: That education reformers since the late nineteenth century tried to contextualise Indian education to India, and tried to break the servile relationships of the colonial mind.

However, my case for reforming Indian Higher Education and making a new start is not based on, as is fashionable in some quarters in India now, a quest for a new Gurukul, a fantastical quest for an 'Indian' system. I do not believe that going back to the past is possible, and profitable. I am rather arguing for an education system grounded to the realities of the present and future time, in alignment with India's economic imperatives and social and political priorities, something that would enable a new generation of Indians think differently about their place in the world, rather than bolt the door in the quest of a misplaced security in disengagement.

In this, my suggestion is to use Asia as a context. This is not about Asia that is seen through the Western eyes, an exotic oriental geography, but about using what some Chinese theorists would call 'Asia as a method': A recognition of India's essential Asianness, and exploring and defining what this means for a way of looking at the world. This is about discovering our past affinities and relationships with neighbourly countries and cultures, and re-imagination of coexistence and cooperation as a framework, rather than the competition and survival-of-the-fittest paradigm that we have come to accept. This would be about studying Asia, and India in it, rather than trying to build around India as an unique, and exceptionalist, entity, European-style. And, indeed, to realise India's economic future within Asia! 

I believe such re-framing is needed at a time when Indian Higher Education is expanding in a rapid pace. Currently, it is spreading the ideas of subservience - those who do not speak English are deemed unsmart, those who do not support an English football club or not seen a Hollywood movie (or its rip-offs in Hindi) are outcast - and creating, just as the Colonial education system once did, a social chasm and an economic dependence. Reconstituting a new context - one that is more in alignment with Indian past, its multicultural tradition of intermingling with Arabs and the Mongolians are deliberately played down - would make education more Indian again.






  

 




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