India is right to reset its goals for universities

September 7, 2017

The news about India’s shelving its foreign universities “pipe dream” in favour of the creation of new domestic “institutions of eminence” (“India shelves its foreign universities ‘pipe dream’”, News, 24 August) is one of the best gifts the nation could give itself on the 70th anniversary of its independence from British rule. As long as this putative project is not mired in rhetoric, institutional bureaucracy and a scrambling for ideological hegemony, a radical reorganisation of its higher education base, nurtured and implemented locally, should offer new directions of travel for the country. The yoke of colonialism has found no other better resting place than in the systems, practices, pedagogies and management of the country’s higher education sector. The new tryst with a sustainable destiny need not be realised in open markets for foreign providers or in the pursuit of “animal spirits” to secure world-class rankings.

“World class” is affordable only if “Indian class” is good enough to set standards for research that is not sacrificed at the altar of publishing but rather is aimed at satisfying the extended needs of the Indian mind to find full expression of its capabilities. World class will be affordable if it develops pedagogies, assessments and learning environments for entrepreneurial teaching based on non-reductionist, creative thinking and multi- and interdisciplinary modes of study to reflect cross-sectoral development needs. India’s unique trinity of assets (land, human and social capital), diversity (of people, cultures and technological acumen) and freedom (democracy, and of the institutional kind that is not compromised by the transience of pseudo-ideology) should offer the necessary confidence for its institutions to work collaboratively with global counterparts, and particularly with partners in the South.

The reach of and depth in Indian higher education should be key development objectives. The Indian academic diaspora could act as the essential agents of leverage with the global knowledge creation and dissemination process. They can do so not by being ambassadors of any “superior excellence” together with their colleagues from their adopted countries (see Singapore’s problems), but by being collaborators in a project where the objectives are set in India.

Philip Altbach points to understandable concerns about inadequate funding, bureaucratic problems and assumed politicisation as possible barriers for the “eminence” project. But these factors, together with a reductionist approach to excellence, have dominated the higher education headlines in the UK and elsewhere in more ways than one. The Indian goal cannot be the setting of second-hand world-class standards but rather the working-out of priorities under those constraints. In this, the UK and other better endowed nations can offer direct, collaborative support for productive change, and not just the export of its soft power or its own standard of excellence. The attempt to create a new basis for achieving one’s own excellence and for setting global standards by countries in the South should not be seen as a possible threat to market expansion of UK and other universities. We need a new vision for collaboration and diversity in achievements.

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

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