Bula Bhadra: Bulldozing Indian Universities in the Name of Reform

Bula Bhadra: Bulldozing Indian Universities in the Name of Reform
Bula Bhadra, University of Calcutta

All is never well in the Universities of India. Since independence (1947) experiments with structure and content of university/higher education system has been interminable. The abysmal disparity in terms of access to higher education and availability of everything else necessary to attain quality higher education is disappointing to say the least. The hangover of the colonial proclivity and its associated predicaments coupled with the culture of control by the state and the political parties in power made the higher education system of India a chronically suffering one.

Most significantly, in India, the growth of first-rate institutions of higher learning has been negligible, except of course some institutes in Science and Technology. As a result, Indian higher education has often been characterized as a sea of mediocrity containing only a few isles of distinction. Aside from concerns of access and quality is also the issue of equity. Socially and economically disadvantaged groups e.g. especially women in the system are under-represented and their educational attainments tend to be below average. The key problems faced by Indian higher education pertain to issues of access, equity, and quality; rural-urban and regional imbalances; and without a shadow of doubt centralization, bureaucratization and politicization of the whole education system.

Although estimates vary, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education can be estimated at somewhere between 7 and 11 percent. According to the National Knowledge Commission it is only seven per cent of the population i.e., between the age group of 18-24 who enter higher education.[1]  Even those who have access are not ensured of quality.  Despite having over 350 universities, not a single Indian university is listed in the top 100 universities of the world.

The enrolment of women in higher education is traditionally measured by the Gender Parity Index (GPI), which is a ratio of female GER to male GER. The GPI in 2005 using Indian Census and UGC (University Grants Commission, the apex body responsible for coordination, determination and maintenance of standards, and release of grants) data is calculated to be 0.75.[2] When compared to a relevant-age population ratio of 0.91 (i.e. female population aged 18-24 as a ratio of male population aged 18-24), it appears that women are significantly under-represented in higher education. It is especially pertinent that the GPI throughout school (grades I to XII) is 0.91.[3] This suggests a tendency for women to drop out of the education system after grade XII, exposing the false promises of so-called “women’s empowerment” in higher education.

Regional inequalities in higher education also deserve mention in order to highlight the uneven nature of growth in this sector over the last few years. Approximately 58 percent of all higher education institutions are located in only six states – Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu[4] – which are also among the ten most populated states of India[5]. This selection of states reflects the considerable growth of institutions in South and West India relative to other regions. In case of gender parity, states and Union Territories like Goa, Chandigarh, Kerala, Delhi, Punjab and Pondicherry are most favorable for women relative to men, whereas Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Rajasthan are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Regional data within India, suggest significant imbalances in the capacity and sophistication of systems for higher education between the South and West on the one hand, and the North, East and Northeast on the other.

The symptoms are so grievous that in order to revamp  the higher education system two sets of recommendations were recently made by the National Knowledge  Commission (NKC) formed in 2005 and the Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education, formed in 2008. In response to these reports, the government drafted a Bill on higher education and put it in the public domain.  The draft National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill, 2010(NCHER)  seeks to establish the National Commission for Higher Education and Research whose members shall be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the selection committee (which includes the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, and the Speaker). The Commission shall take measures to promote the autonomy of higher education and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all.  It may specify norms for granting authorization to a university, develop a national curriculum framework, specify requirements of academic quality for awarding a degree, specify minimum eligibility conditions for appointment of Vice Chancellors, maintain a national registry, and encourage universities to become self regulatory.  Vice Chancellors shall be appointed on the recommendation of collegiums of eminent personalities.  The national registry shall be maintained with the names of persons eligible for appointment as Vice Chancellor or head of institution of national importance.  Any person can appeal a decision of the Commission to the National Educational Tribunal.

Unfortunately, for all Indians, this bill seems to bring another nightmare, if not a catastrophe. The NCHER represents the most extreme proposal to centralize power in higher education that could be imagined. Instead of rationalizing regulation, it creates a structure that makes the UGC Act look positively innocuous. The commission is entrusted with promoting university autonomy but instead of freeing the universities/ higher education from culture of control, it drops the word autonomy on occasion as icing on the cake. It is paradoxical, to say the least, to require a central regulatory agency to promote autonomy. The very section that talks of autonomy gives the commission a blanket mandate to regulate everything from syllabi, course structures, appointments, rules, administrative protocols etc. The Bill does not distinguish between public and private universities and fuses funding and regulatory agencies, which is nothing less than catastrophic.

The idea of co-option permeates the collegium and the national registry and consequently there will be intense political intrigue to secure nominations as a co-opted fellow at different state levels. If this bill goes through, we will get centralization instead of decentralization, control instead of autonomy, homogenization instead of variety, bureaucratization instead of flexibility, institutional rigidity instead of novelty and a winner takes all approach to regulation. And nepotism will undeniably have its heyday. The hegemonic mediocrity, backed by state power, is seeking  to control the universities/higher education in order to carry out their agenda in the most stealthy way – all in the name of reform. We have already experienced this sort of political control in many faculty appointments, especially in the so-called left-liberal states of India, decade after decade. Are we again going to get a travesty wearing the mantle of reform which reward those who can memorize and parrot information but cannot decipher or apply knowledge while suffocating those with analytical and independent minds and those who question the status-quo?

[1] 7 percent from National Knowledge Commission, Compilation of Recommendations on Education (New Delhi, NKC, 2007); 8 percent calculated by author using Census of India 2001, Census Data Online, Population, accessible via www.censusindia.gov.in; Registrar General, Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India, Population Projections for India and the States 1996-2016 (New Delhi, Registrar General, 1996) and UGC, UGC Annual Report 2005-06 (New Delhi, UGC); 10 percent from Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), National Level Educational Statistics at a Glance (2004-05) (New Delhi, MHRD); 11 percent from ICRIER, Higher Education in India.

[2] The MHRD estimate for the same year is 0.71. See MHRD, Selected Educational Statistics 2004-2005, (New Delhi, MHRD, 2007), p.71. 

[3] MHRD, Selected Educational Statistics 2004-2005.

[4] MHRD, Selected Educational Statistics 2004-2005.

[5] Census of India 2001, Census Data Online.

Universities in Crisis, 15/06/10