Two major reports with overlapping concerns were submitted to the central government during the last decade. They were drafted by committees appointed by two different offices of the same government. One was chaired by Yash Pal, and the other by Sam Pitroda. The titles of the two committees indicated both the contours of their deliberation as well as areas of potential overlap. The first committee, chaired by Yash Pal, was appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2008, and was called the “committee to advise on rejuvenation and renovation of higher education.” The second, chaired by Sam Pitroda, was appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2005 and carried the more compact title, the “National Knowledge Commission (NKC).”
Both reports talk about expanding the provision of higher education without sacrificing quality, and as such, a cursory reading would suggest that there is not much difference between the views articulated by the two groups. In the specific sphere of knowledge, both panels favour imaginative interface between areas and disciplines as a means of promoting creativity. They evince equal amounts of anxiety over the problems of accreditation and licensing faced by institutions that impart professional education. And, on the matter of institutional fragmentation at the apex level, both recommend establishment of an umbrella body capable of subsuming the overlapping functions of existing structures. With so many apparent similarities, it is not surprising that the Yash Pal report and Sam Pitroda’s NKC are routinely invoked in the same breath whenever a new policy or decision comes up for discussion. A careful decoding, however, reveals that the two reports are based on contrasting perspectives on the relationship between knowledge and education, and between these and social needs. From the point of view of the political economy embedded in the two reports, the visions of reform they endorse are incompatible.
Both reports recognise a crisis in higher education, but their diagnosis of the nature of that crisis is quite different. While NKC views the narrow growth of higher education in the context of skills, it is not quite clear how it relates the current parlance of “skill deficit” to higher education. The idea comes across as an obvious issue or as an assumption: “While higher education enrolment has to increase markedly, the skill requirement of the growing economy means that a large proportion of our labour force needs to be provided vocational education and be trained in skills. This skill element has to be integrated with the higher education system to ensure maximum mobility.” Confusing as these words are, they convey the shape of things to come if NKC’s vision becomes reality. The report discusses the paucity of skills in the vast unorganised sector, but shows little interest in the context in which this paucity has grown. After all, the economy must be in a position or evolve towards one which provides employment prospects attractive to skilled personnel.
Knowledge and skills
The fact that Indian manufacturing has provided slow employment growth — called “jobless growth” during the 1990s — or that the IT-enabled sector provides less than 0.5 per cent of total employment, indicates that at least two sectors commonly linked with skills and the so-called knowledge economy, respectively, are not in a position to provide massive additional employment, or at least not immediately. No doubt the economy might evolve, and these or other sectors change in ways that provide additional employment, but the push for vocational skills, whether or not at the cost of higher education, cannot ignore a detailed plan of how industry-training linkages will also be simultaneously developed. This is precisely what NKC ignores, harnessing the rhetoric of knowledge with a variety of suffixes while refraining from relating it to the actual needs of the economy or higher education.
A relevant analysis of this kind, i.e. focusing on working conditions, livelihoods, and economic opportunities, was presented by a commission chaired by the late Dr. Arjun Sengupta, which dealt with the crisis of skill deficit in the larger context of poverty and working conditions. Ignoring Sengupta’s recommendations for comprehensive measures, the NKC opts for merely rebranding vocational education and training “to increase its value and ability to command higher incomes.” This unusual phraseology denotes rather transparently what must happen to the higher education system. NKC is worried about its size and enrolment capacity because it wants to use it for skilling. Vocational education will get rebranded by the transformation of the bulk of higher education into a skill-imparting apparatus, all unfortunately in the name of the knowledge economy.
In fact, the dichotomisation of knowledge and skills is perhaps one of the most problematic aspects in the current parlance of education. The focus on skill development has emerged concomitantly with the discourse of a “knowledge society” and “knowledge economy.” The relationship between the two is not difficult to draw. Both are responding to the large-scale deskilling that has taken place in the wake of technological changes geared towards automation and efficiency. A new class of corporate interests has emerged with the advent of new information technology and footloose financial capital. New kinds of alliances have emerged between the state and industry, even as education itself has emerged as a key market. These alliances enable the state to freeze or greatly reduce the employment it provides while allowing the so-called knowledge industries to transform the nature and quality of employment in the wider economy. Many different kinds of work have vanished from the market, while others have got downgraded, reducing employment and perpetuating deskilling, a scenario where educational planning is doubtless deeply implicated. Governing the youth and managing their prospects has always been important for the state, and now the latter consists of transient opportunities for work, interspersed by modular opportunities to learn new skills. This is where education is positioned in the knowledge economy: it is supposed to control the social damage caused by underemployment, casual work, deskilling and the associated loss of self-identity.
The Yash Pal committee had a difficult task of suggesting ways to rejuvenate an old, jaded higher education system in the middle of a crisis of academic governance. The committee faced the challenge by reiterating why the classical idea of a university is important — a place where people think freely, and create new knowledge by engaging with their milieu, thereby inducting the young into a culture of thinking.
The largest such space available in the Indian system are the undergraduate colleges affiliated to universities. Given India’s demographic geography, these institutions served historically to harness talent in dispersed locations under conditions of colonial underdevelopment of the school system. The Yash Pal committee took a bold stance in appreciating this role, examining the factors that have undermined undergraduate education — including the gross inequality between Central and State universities — and reaffirming its faith in their academic potential while suggesting how to improve them. Instead, NKC follows the popular trend of bemoaning these colleges for their ills that actually stem from long-term, systemic neglect. Perceiving them as a burden, NKC recommends the creation of an affiliating board and converting undergraduate colleges into “community” colleges. The meaning of this term derives from its history in the American system. Without bothering to examine this history, NKC simply hijacks the word “community” as part of the effort to rebrand vocational education, as it then infiltrates undergraduate colleges. If this move becomes widely implemented — a process that has indeed already begun — the sons and daughters of India’s masses may anticipate a wilful snatching away of their hard-won opportunity to access actual higher education.
In marked contrast, the Yash Pal committee differentiates between, and explains how institutions providing vocational education can be linked with universities. Similarly, for the training of school teachers at all levels, the Yash Pal report suggests deeper academic engagement, not the magical touch of information technology. In other areas of professional training too, the Yash Pal perspective was to loosen the grip of regulatory institutions whose monopolistic functioning is widely acknowledged to have resulted in corruption.
The silent polemic underlying the two reports is thus sharp and suggestive. If NKC guides the future course of higher education, its crisis will deepen and what good is left in it will rapidly erode, with painful consequences. That process has, in fact, begun. In the meanwhile, Yash Pal has been chosen for the award of Padma Vibhushan, apparently for his services to science and the cause of humanist learning at school.
(Krishna Kumar is a former director of NCERT. He has been awarded an honorary DLitt by the Institute of Education, University of London.)