Interference by netas threatens the country’s plans to establish world-class research and academic institutions

The announcement in July that two new universities will be established in the Rae Bareli parliamentary constituency of Sonia Gandhi — one an aviation institution and the other a women’s university — is yet another example of the domination of politics over rationality and educational planning in Indian higher education. India cannot build world-class universities, or for that matter a quality higher education system, if politics underpins academic decision-making.

Ideas

Most recently, the 12th Five-Year Plan presented a range of thoughtful proposals for higher education development, ideas that were widely discussed among the States and in the higher education community. The virtual library of excellent proposals goes back to the Radhakrishnan Commission Report of 1949 — a few of which have been effectively implemented.

Apex bodies such as the Planning Commission and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are, of course, subject to political realities, but they at least have substantial expertise and a sense of national needs and the requirements for academic quality. With few exceptions, this cannot be said for those responsible for higher education decisions at the level of the States, where many key decisions are made. There is little expertise and seldom a sense of the broader needs of colleges and universities. An exception seems to be Gujarat, which has at least thought strategically about the role of higher education in the economic and social development of the State.

Politics pervades almost every level of India’s higher education development. In the past decade or so, India’s plan to increase the number of high-quality, research-oriented universities went astray in part because of the intrusion of politics in the location of some of these new universities. Many were placed in out of the way places in order to cater to the wishes of powerful interests. Building effective research universities away from urban areas and centres of commerce is difficult.

Undergraduate colleges

One of the continuing problems of India’s higher education landscape is the profusion of undergraduate colleges. Indeed, more than half of the world’s higher education institutions are located in India if one counts its 34,000-odd colleges. Experts agree that many of these colleges are too small to be effective, are not adequately funded, and increasingly depend on student tuition for survival; some do not even have internet connectivity. Many of these colleges were established by politicians or business people seeking a base for local power and influence. University and State authorities are influenced to approve the college, even if there is little evidence of either need or quality. Recent efforts by accreditation authorities and the University Grants Commission (UGC) to force many substandard colleges to go out of business or raise their standards have met with political opposition. If there is one hotbed of politics — and location of one of the central challenges for Indian higher education generally — it is substandard, tiny and inadequately financed undergraduate colleges.

What can be done?

The answer is simple but the implementation perhaps impossible: remove direct political influence from key higher education decisions. Are there academic justifications for the new universities in Rae Bareli? Is another women’s university needed? Should a university be focused entirely on aviation? Should Central universities come under the control of ministries, like civil aviation, that are unconnected with education? The answer to all these questions is likely to be “no,” but at the least a rational planning process is needed — prior to the implementation of major projects.

In order to ensure rational planning, several requirements must be met. Of course, the first one is a commitment to end the domination of politics and parochial influence on higher education policies of all kinds — a mammoth task given the half-century of practice that reflects otherwise.

No expertise

The second is perhaps less obvious. India has a notable lack of expertise in higher education. At the Central level, no highly regarded research or policy institutes are focusing on higher education, and very few experts work on the topic. Statistics are spotty and often unreliable. The key public agencies that have responsibility for higher education, such as the UGC or the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, do not have much research capacity. The situation in the States is dire, since no State has the adequate infrastructure to make good decisions about higher education; few collect accurate statistics. In many other countries, including China, there are centres and institutes devoted to higher education, and good statistics are available.

India needs a commitment to rational higher education planning and decision-making, and it requires the “thinking capacity” and data to support rationality. Most importantly, higher education cannot be a political football.

(Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.)

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