There is little to disagree with many of the observations made by Ajay Gudavarthy and Nissim Mannathukkaren in their article “Comparing Harvard apples with JNU oranges” (The Hindu, Op-Ed, December 27, 2012) that: world rankings of universities do not give us an accurate picture of higher education in India and elsewhere, an overwhelming majority of top-200 universities are in rich countries and that the solution does not lie in emulating Western models.

They are right in asserting that there are different ways to evaluate higher education institutions. They mention “intangible features” such as access to education and give the example of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as an institution which has served this cause for students from backward regions. Caste-based reservations in our institutions have served a similar purpose. At the same time, they concede that representation has come about at the cost of quality.

However, they evade or downplay several troubling issues and take up somewhat frivolous ones. Let me begin with their complaints about the problems and unfairness of the U.S. higher education system. They lament the commercialisation of education and growing student indebtedness in the U.S. First, it is not our problem. Second, India has done very well in commercialising higher education without emulating the U.S. model. They claim that American students are not trained to become “critical thinkers” but “foot soldiers of the establishment.” Agreed. Now how about asking this: what are we training our students to become?

Issue of context

Their biggest omission is context. They mention “different material realities” and “different starting points” of different countries but do not consider the same for India.

It is certainly true that 21st century India is still a poor country whether we use the “Third World” label or some other. At the same time, India, like China, is not just another poor country. It is certainly not Somalia (not my example) even though in parts of the country, people live in worse than Somalia-like conditions. The country has witnessed high rates of economic growth for over three decades so that it now counts among the largest economies in the world. At least some of that growth has occurred due to the country’s ability to tap into the global knowledge economy. The country and its peoples have also become more connected to the outside world — whether through trade, travel, technology or other means — over the past two-three decades. India has the world’s largest pool of college-age young women and men, and more women are taking to higher education. The country loses immense amounts of foreign exchange as thousands of affluent and meritorious students head abroad each year and far too few of the meritorious ones return.

It makes little sense to discuss higher education in India within the old frameworks of “rich,” “poor” or “Third World” countries. China and India belong to a different category of nations not just because they are growing economies but because they are large and populous. They are rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped, modern and traditional and everything else in between in different ways. They are countries that have arrived as global players or will do so in the coming future. Clearly, they are quite different from other low- and middle-income countries.

Given this context, the higher education sector has immense relevance and issues of quality and comparison of India’s institutions with those in rich countries is more than a matter of “time pass.” Further, substantial improvements in the quality of higher education are necessary for India’s economic growth and further development in ways that are both interdependent and less dependent on rich countries. It is only with a solid base of higher education that India will be able to design and develop more of its own technologies and prioritise invention and innovation to move forward.

Then and now

India’s higher education needs to aim much higher than a typical poor country. If global comparisons are not fair, other measures of quality — independent of government-created evaluation bodies or the print media — need to be devised. If it is not fair to compare India’s universities with those in rich countries, how about comparing them with what they were like two or three decades ago? Have the same universities become better over time?

Other than providing access to higher education, have there been improvements in their quality? If the majority of engineering colleges or management schools are as bad as employers say they are, why not rank them in comparison to our own leading institutions, whether JNU or others?

If one takes their reasoning — that vast disparities in wealth between the West and the rest explains why third-rate institutions are found in poor countries — to its logical conclusion, India must wait to get rich before dreaming to build world-ranked institutions. This reasoning flies against the commonsense view that a larger number of world-class institutions, whether ranked globally or not, can contribute enormously to India’s economic growth and dynamism in the coming decades. Instead, Gudavarthy and Mannathukkaren apply a version of the age-old modernisation theory — which posited a positive link between wealth and democracy — to higher education: that wealth leads to the creation of world-ranked institutions. Wealth has not brought democracy or world-class universities to oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Arguably, precisely because these countries are not democratic, it is unlikely that their universities will ever, with or without the help of NYU or American University, reach the heights of western universities.

(Pushkar has a PhD in political science from McGill University. He previously taught at the University of Goa, Concordia University, McGill University and the University of Ottawa.)

Ajay Gudavarthy and Nissim Mannathukkaren respond

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