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A priceless chart for deep waters

A Half-century of Indian Higher Education - Essays by Philip G. Altbach:Edited by Pawan Agarwal; SagePublications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1 MohanCooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road,New Delhi-110044. Rs. 995.

A Half-century of Indian Higher Education - Essays by Philip G. Altbach:Edited by Pawan Agarwal; SagePublications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1 MohanCooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road,New Delhi-110044. Rs. 995.

Professor Philip Altbach is one of the world’s greatest authorities on Indian higher education. Inspired by Edward Shils at the University of Chicago and by his own experience of student politics there in the early 1960s, Altbach went to Bombay and wrote his doctorate on the history of Indian student politics; Indian higher education has been his main concern since. Pawan Agarwal has divided this collection of 34 of Altbach’s papers, reproduced from Indian and international journals, into seven sections, ranging from higher education and modernisation through the academic profession, regional issues and globalisation, publishing, and campus politics to a comparison between India and China. Each section starts with a paper by a distinguished academic, and the entire volume is highly accessible, being illuminated throughout by a clear perspective and a compassionate sense of what life is like for Indian academics and students.

Altbach gives credit where credit is due. India has significant advantages in what he calls the 21st century knowledge race; its higher education sector is the third largest in the world (now the second), English is the primary language of higher education and research, and academic freedom is generally respected. The country also has a small number of high-quality institutions, and there is space for a variety of policies and approaches, despite the fact that the States’ powers and responsibilities in higher education make the system cumbersome.

The weaknesses, however, are severe. Only 10 per cent of the relevant age-group is in higher education; the figure is 50 per cent in the Global North, and in China it is 15 per cent. It hardly needs saying that women are underrepresented at every level of the Indian tertiary system. China, as Rafiq Dossani says when introducing the comparative papers, has improved its tertiary sector far more thoroughly and systematically than India has done. India’s spending on higher education was a flat 0.37 per cent of GDP for decades, and as recently as 2008, India lagged behind much of Latin America in percentage enrolment; although pay at the better Indian institutions has risen, it is far below pay in the so-called advanced economies.

Pyramidal higher education systems exist all round the world (the University of California at Berkeley is substantially better funded than other Californian universities), but the Indian pyramid is particularly steep. In addition, much of the ethos is corrosive. Student groups — which are often just appendages of political parties and no more than vehicles for budding politicians — intimidate, often violently, academic bodies over appointments and promotions, and many institutions are poisoned by caste-hatreds among students and staff. K.N. Panikkar, opening the section on campus politics, notes an “undercurrent of resentment, anger, and dissatisfaction”, particularly about the “appalling” conditions in institutions which impart general education.

Furthermore, financial freezes — possibly driven by market fundamentalism or deficit fundamentalism, or both — mean that part-timers are increasingly replacing full-time lecturers; some states have abolished pensions for newly-appointed public-sector academic staff, and outside the best institutions the system is riddled with poor accountability and low pay. As Altbach says, the contemporary Indian academy undermines much of the traditional status of the guru in Indian society. Moreover, the expanding private tertiary sector, which is bitterly hostile to any widening of access, puts next to nothing into research, and some private colleges are run on such viciously authoritarian lines that they can only be intellectually moribund, with a servile (and probably terrified) staff; Altbach names one such place.

Unsurprisingly, many of the better graduates vote with their feet. In 2005, even as aggregate figures showed the Indian economy expanding rapidly, 86 per cent of Indians who studied sciences or technology in the United States did not return immediately, and 30 per cent of them went not into their specialist fields but into management. A handful do stay in India, in high-quality institutions like IITs and IIMs, and their reasons could be of considerable interest; those who work under what a British teacher has called the punitive managerialism of today’s education systems in the Anglophone First World would envy the standing and the freedoms rightly held by their colleagues in the best Indian institutions.

There is, however, as Altbach points out, almost no research on Indian higher education. Secondly, elite institutions cannot, and must not be expected to, redeem the entire system. Moreover, the colonials based Indian higher education on the University of London rather than the elite Oxbridge model. Altbach is almost caustic here; the version of the London system imposed on India — with rigid organisational and curricular controls added — was not intended to “train an Indian intellectual class which would eventually drive the British from the subcontinent, but to provide the middle level manpower necessary for the clerical work of the Raj.”

Nevertheless, none of the many post-Independence official reports on higher education has been implemented with any real will towards comprehensive improvement. Therefore, although close links obtain — with direct interference by politicians — between universities and government, the enormous demand-driven expansion of higher education has been virtually directionless, and the system of colleges affiliated to universities is “ungovernable”. Intrainstitutional hierarchies are paralleled by interinstitutional ones, there are huge variations between colleges, and colleges have almost no contact with their respective universities; the fact that the better academies are mainly postgraduate institutions only marginalises college lecturers, who form the overwhelming bulk of tertiary staff and teach by far the majority of students, even further.

There is no point in hand-wringing about these consequences of the massification of Indian tertiary education or about policy failures. Foreign participation, however, is not a solution; China and Israel, for example, have had mixed experiences of that. Foreign institutions tend to confine overseas activities to a limited number of lucrative courses, and to establish full facilities only when the host country bears all the costs, as Qatar did for Cornell University’s medical school there. The countries which seem to have benefited most from such arrangements, such as Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, have tough regulations for foreign universities and have closed down unsatisfactory providers.

While questions of the politicality of knowledge, that is, of who gains access to knowledge and how knowledge is validated, underlie the entire collection, the section on publication addresses those most directly. Altbach is cautious about the Citation Index, which reduces academic success to a single number and is dominated by journals published in English; in effect, the Index consigns publications in other languages, and particularly those in the developing world, to a subordinate position, even if Indian publishers, partly encouraged by the creation of the National Book Trust, are expanding the range and quality of their work greatly.

Altbach is clear that Improvement will have to come from within India, and there is anecdotal evidence of movement. Those involved face formidable challenges constituted not only by established interests but by the documented need for far better academic staff and by what will at least initially be resistance from students. An eminent professor of English who tried, a decade ago, to replace 19th century English novels with Indian works translated into English was shocked when his students accused him of pulling the ladder of status and privilege up behind him. Yet, as Altbach notes, the imperative of participation in the global creation and dissemination of knowledge is simply too great for India to ignore. This collection is a priceless chart for deep and deeply troubled waters.


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