From where I sit - Reform slowed to a snail's pace

July 23, 2009

There is a joke about India's new Education Minister, Kapil Sibal, doing the rounds. It says that his love of "instant" cricket is influencing the pace of his political work. Like a batsman in a Twenty20 match who must open his account with a flurry of boundaries, Sibal is rushing to reform education.

As Times Higher Education reported in a cover story earlier this month, Mr Sibal unveiled an impressive agenda for his first 100 days in office. It included: making school-board examinations optional, with only one final school-leaving exam being mandatory; creating a unified and credible regulatory body for higher education; and allowing foreign universities into India.

In a country accustomed to viewing educational reform as the personification of the common snail in its effort at forward movement, there is scepticism over how swiftly the hurdles to such sweeping reforms can be overcome.

Given the country's cultural diversity, the Indian Constitution stipulates that education is a "state subject", so the existing examination system cannot be scrapped without the consent of state governments.

Rumblings about Sibal's centralist ideas began almost immediately after he announced them, with reservations expressed even by some chief ministers of state who belong to the ruling Congress Party.

But ruffled party feathers in the regions are only part of the problem. How to tackle dissent from institutions that are part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development is an equally serious concern.

One example is the issue of faculty. Although there is unanimity that a massive expansion in higher education must be prioritised, how will the sector cope with such an expansion when staff shortages are already an issue?

One solution is provided by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the political analyst, who has said that because the US academic job market is stagnating, this is the time for India to reverse the "brain drain" and reclaim its departed talent. This can be done with the right recruiting strategy, he said.

But, unnoticed by most, the recruiting strategy has just recently taken a wrong turn. Even as Mr Sibal was imparting the finishing touches to his agenda for opening up the sector, his own University Grants Commission (UGC) was making it more difficult to hire talented scholars.

Presumably unbeknown to Mr Sibal, the UGC wrote to all centrally funded universities stating that the minimum qualifications required for the appointment of assistant professors must in future include passing a largely inane "national eligibility test".

This would mean that an Indian applying from, say, the University of Cambridge would have to pass a ridiculously bureaucratic exam in order to teach at an Indian institution. The likelihood is that such applicants would be put off.

At the University of Delhi, many excellent applicants from abroad responded to calls for faculty positions in the sciences and applied sciences that were advertised in journals such as Nature and Science. But the UGC's letter has in effect told us that we might as well forget about such recruitment.

Sibal's road map for meaningful reform will work only if these bureaucratic speed bumps are identified and removed.

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