From where I sit - Grand plan or mission impossible?

August 5, 2010

From down here in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala in south India, the government's higher education reform proposals look a bit different than in glitzy New Delhi. Kerala, ruled now by mild-mannered Communists who have had power here off and on for the past half century, is less market-oriented and commercialised than up north. The state has universal literacy, a lack of visible poverty, in striking contrast to much of the rest of India, and a higher education access rate of about 18 per cent - double the national average.

I travelled to India to attend a conference devoted to a discussion of the reform policies, which are soon to go before Parliament and have a strong likelihood of being passed. The conference was unsurprisingly critical of most of the measures. The overriding criticisms involved the underlying commitment to align Indian higher education with the global trend towards commercialising higher education and the uncritical linking of India to the global knowledge economy. The spearhead of internationalisation is the plan to open India's higher education system to foreign institutions. The proposals were condemned for their uncritical acceptance of yet-to-be-determined foreign institutions and initiatives, and for their unrealistic expectation that foreign institutions would provide significant access to new ideas for India's admittedly moribund academic system. Some see the proposals as a kind of "new neocolonialism".

There was also wide criticism of "dictation from Delhi" and the "regulation raj" of too much centralisation of a higher education system that has traditionally given a great deal of autonomy to the states - as stipulated in India's Constitution.

A proposal to set up a powerful panel to rule on a range of higher education issues faced criticisms, as did a bill that would set up tribunals to adjudicate problems in the system. The critics pointed to problem after problem in the legislation: unclear wording, incomplete plans for specific agencies, unrealistic expectations for committees, and other lapses.

Additional proposals, not tied to the legislation, also seem rather unrealistic. Kapil Sibal, the minister of human resource development, has by fiat set up at least one central government university in each of India's states. He has proposed expanding the number of Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management and promised a dozen or more "world-class research universities" in a short period of time. The problems involving all of the proposals are manifold - perhaps the most significant issue is personnel, since there are simply not enough high-quality academics to take up jobs in these new institutions. Indeed, the existing IITs face serious staffing problems as many of their academics are reaching retirement age. Further, the amounts of funding being made available for these initiatives is completely inadequate.

Viewed from down south, the flaws in India's grand plans seem rather clear. Perhaps the Delhi power elite believes that change can come on the cheap with half-baked plans. Perhaps they just want to get the country's higher education system out of its lethargy. The current plans, like many of the ill-fated reform proposals of the past, do little to change India's 20,000 undergraduate colleges - currently steeped in bureaucracy and outmoded teaching methods - and little to reform the country's 400-plus universities. Without grappling with the existing universities, reform will be very incomplete. It is all daunting - perhaps a "mission impossible".

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