India must forge its own identity

March 3, 2016

Philip Altbach’s analysis of the Indian higher education scene and the country’s ambitious goals falls short of a critical contextual appreciation of what might really benefit the country’s people (“India’s passage might not be simple, but it can climb to elite tier”, Opinion, 18 February). He is right to refer to the relatively poor organisation of higher education, the lack of funding, low levels of commitment at the state level and a bureaucratic system riddled with corruption, nepotism and ineptitude. He is especially insightful in identifying the need for a healthy balance between a science, technology, engineering and maths focus and the development of social science capabilities.

While the reservation system may have allowed for adverse forms of social engineering through its abuse, the populist rallying cry against it by middle-class protagonists fails to address the critical question of equality of opportunity. In a country of about 1 billion people, with a significant number of young people and only 712 universities, two strategic interventions are fundamental to the country’s higher education capability. The first is the growth of institutions in remote and urban locations with different capability sets, supported by proactive state-level ring-fenced budgeting. The second is the maintenance of a “reservation” system for the disenfranchised with adequate safeguards against its abuse by bureaucrats who are often not part of any social reservation category. Proper evaluation systems should provide for incremental changes where appropriate.

India does not need universities that proclaim their belief in diversity but continually fail to recruit even the meritocrats from disadvantaged communities. Its global excellence should rest on its ability to raise the standards of its universities in defined areas that are appropriate to the many ecosystems of the subcontinent. It needs smart, entrepreneurial institutional management capability.

India does not need to create a Russell Group or an Ivy League upper class in common with their British or US counterparts. The creation of elite business schools, for example, with jet-setting academics from the US or Europe, has not outclassed the home-grown schools of management. There is a much greater need to raise the average standards of its institutions. This does not preclude networked relationships, but even that is called into question by the cheap politics of visa restrictions in both the UK and the US. India can opt to be part of the vaunted rankings system that Altbach pioneers, but it needs to challenge the presuppositions of excellence that are manufactured and sold in very different environments.

India’s passage to elite status is fraught with considerable impediments but its ability to achieve excellence rests on the design, delivery and evaluation of a unique higher education capability. This will not be an easy task, but there is an extraordinary community of perspicacious thinkers, activists, managers and policymakers both at home and in the diaspora. Global status can follow after India has created pathways to excellent education across the country.

Jay Mitra
Professor of business enterprise and innovation, Essex Business School
University of Essex

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