Elusive top

We have one of the largest higher education systems, yet manage only mediocre results. What's wrong?

October 15, 2011 04:45 pm | Updated 04:45 pm IST

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Consider these facts. According to the World Bank, India has the third largest system of higher education in the world after China and the United States. Yet, we educate half as many young people from the university age group as China and rank well behind most Latin American and middle-income countries. When it comes to global rankings of institutions of higher learning, only the IITs, IIMs and Jawaharlal Nehru University have ever been ranked in the world's top 200 universities by the Times Higher Education. That was in 2005 and 2006. The Indian School of Business in Hyderabad was ranked 12th in global MBA rankings by the Financial Times of London in 2010. The number of Nobel Prizes won by academics based in India equals zero and according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies, more than 85 per cent of graduates of general education and 75 per cent of Technical Education are unfit for employment.

Looking at these figures, one wonders why there hasn't been an Anna for higher education. Certainly, resources have been put aside for the purpose. Third world nation or not, we have managed to create one of the largest higher education systems in the world. Yet that system has under-performed to a level that makes the Indian cricket team that toured England this summer look like a bunch of over-achievers.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what ails Indian higher education. Like the rest of the Indian system, it is enmeshed in a quicksand of bureaucracy where few independent decisions can be made. Hence, academic leaders have little incentive to innovate. Rather, they are far better served if they steer clear of innovation entirely and work to maintain the status quo. Furthermore, the entire system is politicised from top to bottom. World-class universities worship at the temple of meritocracy, hiring the best professors, admitting the best students and rewarding the most brilliant academics. That is hard to do in a system where admission and employment are driven by the need to meet caste and other quotas, as well as oblige political bosses. Seats in prestigious institutions have also been known to be sold for suitcases full of money. The fact that Indian academics are poorly paid by world standards is well-documented. However, will merely raising their salaries improve their performance? I think not. Not if the lack of accountability that currently afflicts the system is allowed to persist. Chances are that most of them will draw their higher salaries while continuing to absent themselves with the same abandon.

Disappointing results

When it comes to higher education, India is famous for splurging resources without addressing the system that has thrown higher education down the toilet. Our political leaders are quick to announce their intention to create new universities that will be world-class in every respect. How that is possible with the current dysfunctional system is hard to fathom.

But then, again, we can allow the present situation to drag on at our own peril. If we are ever to become a bona fide first-world nation, then we need a world-class system of higher education in place. Otherwise we will continue to languish in the third world no matter what our GDP. You cannot overhaul a deeply entrenched system overnight. But you have to start somewhere. In an authoritarian, top-heavy society like India, change has to begin from the top. In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh bemoaned the extent to which the position of vice chancellor had been politicised in India. Four years later, we are still waiting for that lament to transform itself into some sort of intent. If the position of vice chancellor were de-politicised, with merit rather than patronage being its defining criterion then it would deliver the much-needed shock to the system. Institutions take after the personalities of their leaders. Leaders with vision and accomplishment, who are not scared to innovate, prevent experienced academics from degenerating into deadwood and give young lecturers worthy examples to emulate. They may not fix everything but they will make a difference.

Are you listening, Mr. Prime Minister?

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