India’s ranking decline is a timely wake-up call

Colonial hangovers and political interference are holding back India’s large public universities, says Saikat Majumdar

September 14, 2019
Study in India

Times Higher Education’s latest World University Rankings couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Indian government.

They have been released just as the government is in the process of conferring the title of “Institute of Eminence” on an expanded list of select public and private universities. There’s even a category for institutes yet unborn, in the evocatively titled bracket of “greenfield”.  

The public universities designated institutes of eminence are to receive very substantial financial support. Private universities won’t be eligible but will get the other benefit, no less crucial: freedom from the strictures imposed by the apex body of higher education in India, the University Grants Commission.

The IoE programme, already much debated in India, is a clear expression of national ambition to enhance prominence at a time that is at once transitional, exciting and dangerous for higher education in India. A rising youth population combined with an erratically expanding economy has made India a fertile market for new higher education ventures, in a way that is impossible now in post-industrial nations in the West. From professional and technical fields to the liberal and fundamental arts and sciences, canny investors have been quick to capitalise.

The reality check provided by the THE rankings comes as a rude jolt – but one that is very well-deserved.

There are six Indian institutions in the top-500 bracket, but they are all specialised: five of them are Indian Institutes of Technology and one is an advanced institute of science. But, for the first time since 2012, none are in the top 300.

Notwithstanding this fall, the presence of these six institutes reinforces India’s image as a nation that prioritises technology education over anything else. In many ways, the IITs enjoy special status in the eyes of the government and the Indian people. But no one knows for how long: the country is experiencing a surge of interest in a wide range of disciplines, fields and career tracks. In that regard, the striking absence of the nation’s large public universities from the top 500 is the real cause for alarm.

What has happened to the public universities of the fundamental arts and sciences in the last decade or so is the dark and untold story of Indian higher education. In the midst of celebrations of the continued excellence of the IITs, the arrival of rich private players and the presence of foreign universities, the great backbone of Indian higher education has been slowly crumbling, hidden under a great chaos of distraction.

The history of this backbone, as we know, has been a troubled one. The great public universities set up in 1857 by the British in the three presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were established as factories to make and brand clerks for the Empire – and they have not recovered from this colonial mission even decades after independence. A large crop of public universities in India have come to follow this mould, with results that are, at best, unevenly uninspiring.

A 21st century shadow has also been cast on three outlier institutions that originated outside this colonial mode. Jadavpur University in Kolkata was set up in the early twentieth century as part of an anticolonial movement. Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University were both set up in independent India as part of a Nehruvian vision of social science research and advanced study.

All three are “unitary” universities: monolithic institutions that do not organise an army of colleges under them, as other public Indian universities are obliged to do. They offer multi-dimensional courses within interdisciplinary schools and it is scarcely a coincidence that the work coming out of them is on a different plane altogether from that of the country’s countless scattered colleges – some of them also set up in the old British presidencies for the purposes of regulating examinations across vast stretches of the country.

But the last several years have seen these three institutions, more than almost any others in the country, constantly embroiled in bitter controversies that, in every instance, have boiled down to a battle between liberal, progressive thought and the populist authoritarianism that has come to define not only the national government but also vast sections of the nation’s population.

With HCU, it revolved around the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a student from an “untouchable” caste. With Jadavpur, it exploded with the “hokkolorob” (“let there be chaotic noise”) protests, a hashtag originating with the violent suppression of protests against the sexual molestation of female students in 2014. And JNU, the national capital of political controversy, was plunged into chaos with the suppression and imprisonment of leftist student leaders, notably Kanhaiya Kumar in 2016: events that have continued to haunt the university as an authoritarian administration seeks to stamp out the last vestiges of protest and freedom from every inch of its campus.

It is not coincidental that these three outlier universities of excellence have been embroiled in raging controversy. It is no longer just a matter of enmity with an authoritarian government. It is now an issue of falling into disfavour with vast sections of the population on the whole – to the point where the “JNU-type” has come to imply for many some kind of radical-left suicide bomber.   

The story of the political and populist marginalisation of these three universities epitomises the rapid destruction of the best of the nation’s public university system. It is a story well-known in India but perhaps too easily put to the back of the mind.

The decline in research output cited by THE as the reason for India’s failures is only the tip of the iceberg. If state and popular support does not return for India’s public university system, notwithstanding the national search for eminence, global recognition of India’s higher education quality will slip farther and farther below the nation’s horizon.

Saikat Majumdar is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University.

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