Joining the dots

Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta Orient Blackswan ₹895  

Higher education in India holds the key to inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend India is arguably bestowed with. The much contested space in the emerging Indian landscape has been witness to conflicts and debates in the wake of reform measures mooted and being implemented by the government. Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education, edited by noted political scientists Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, is a collection of articles written by scholars from India and abroad which deals with a range of issues and challenges Indian higher education is confronted with.

Kapur and Mehta begin with their hypothesis that Indian higher education is faced with a ‘trilemma’—scale or size, costs and quality. They argue that only two of the three can be pursued with the remaining third being determined in the process rather than being a policy variable. For example, if the size of higher education sector is expanded by the government, cost escalation cannot be reined in unless we compromise with quality. If we want to ensure quality and are willing to step up budget allocation, the size has to stay put. They argue that India has embarked on ‘massification’ without commensurate rise in the budgetary allocation at the expense of quality with a substantial part of the costs being borne by students. Other than the imperative of conceptualising excellence in education in the context of India, the ‘trilemma’ seems to undermine the role of governance reform in improving quality.

A daunting task

Achieving excellence in education is always a daunting task in the absence of technology, and this is where salience of governance reform lies, given the limited supply of human and financial resources. In India, poor governance and rampant malpractices mark the functioning of a majority of government-funded higher education institutions, and it is sheer commercialisation which has dented the quality of education being delivered by a majority of privately-funded institutions peddling professional degrees.

Though the article on governance by Pankaj Chandra covers a good number of pertinent and crucial issues, a critical assessment of the implementation of the UGC Regulations 2016 particularly the implications of faculty assessment system based on the academic performance indicator (API) does not find any mention in view of the emerging concern and discontentment in academia and policy circles and its impact on quality. Sachi Hatakenaka’s insight on multi-disciplinary research provides a comprehensive view from an international perspective but it doesn’t quite address the challenges faced in the Indian context. Apoorvanand Jha goes back to the past to provide a historical perspective, shedding light on the gradual decline of government-funded institutions. In the article on vocational education, it would have been interesting to know whether the skill India initiative will yield dividends given the changing nature of technology and the aspirations of the people.

Changing nature

Based on an analysis of Supreme Court cases on education-related issues over six decades, Kapur and Khosla argue that there has been a change in the nature of disputes, reflecting the changing nature of education over time and how litigation entailed negotiation with the dilemmas and the conflicts arising out of increased participation of private providers and their reconcilement with profiteering as education remains outside the purview of business.

The article on financing looks at the increasing importance of education loans in the Indian context and the need to promote it further. In a country with so much disparity, and an aversion to debt, if education loans are not thought through, it can distort choices among students in terms of streams and the institutions to pick. The advocacy for rating of private institutions to negotiate with the intrinsic problem of information asymmetry will actually lead to further differentiation negating thereby the objective of expansion of higher education, the author argues.

On education and employment, Jeemol Unni and Sudipa Sarkar present a rigorous and rich empirical study to focus on the issue of labour market mismatch which prevents education in contributing towards inclusive growth and social mobility. The increased employment of graduates, as the paper shows, could also be attributable to the increased supply of graduates at competitive pay packages other than the growth of the knowledge economy. There are instances of closure of engineering colleges, and engineers being deployed with tasks unrelated to their expertise. A range of issues like a critical assessment of the quality assurance mechanism like NAAC, the growing role of global and national-level university ranking, public-private partnerships (PPP) and the implications of rapid privatisation of Indian higher education deserve attention in view of India’s role in the global knowledge economy. The book helped me navigate the labyrinth of Indian higher education, but in the end, I failed to wriggle out of it. The challenge is to unravel and understand the role higher education has to play in our economy, society and polity in the wake of the gradual decrease of ‘publicness’ of higher education and promotion of ‘privateness’ by policymakers.

Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education; Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Orient Blackswan, ₹895

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 8:17:10 AM |

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