India: Modi appoints ex-TV star to higher education brief

Former Indian TV star Smriti Irani will be the minister responsible for the nation’s universities and colleges in Narendra Modi’s new government

May 27, 2014

Source: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock.com

Ms Irani, who before beginning her political career won a record five consecutive Indian Television Academy Awards for Best Actress, was sworn in as minister for Human Resources Development on 26 May along with 22 other cabinet ministers and 21 ministers of state.

At 38, she will be the youngest minister in the cabinet.

According to Indian media reports, she once unsuccessfully tried to enter the Miss India beauty pageant and had a spell cleaning floors at McDonald’s before starting her acting career. Most media coverage focuses on her “phenomenal rise”. She is also said to be a member of Mr Modi’s inner circle.

Ajay Maken, leader of the opposition Congress, invited controversy by questioning her credentials for the job.

“What a Cabinet of Modi? HRD Minister (Looking after Education) Smriti Irani is not even a graduate!” he said on Twitter.

That brought accusations of elitism against Mr Maken and the BJP condemned his comments.

Ms Irani has previously served as national secretary of the BJP, which won a landslide victory in elections earlier this month, and member of the Indian parliament’s upper house. 

The junior ministers who will be working under Ms Irani have not yet been announced.

In her new role, Ms Irani will preside over the co-ordination of India’s complex higher education system as well as over school education. India has over 46,000 higher education institutions, according to government figures from 2013, made up of central government, state government and private institutions.

A report published in February by the British Council encouraged UK universities to form partnerships with universities in India, predicting that the Indian and Chinese systems will be creating 40 per cent of the world’s graduates by 2020.

A bill that would have created a legal framework for foreign universities to establish campuses and award degrees in India was proposed by the previous Congress-led administration, but stalled in the country’s Parliament.

It remains to be seen what policy priorities will be outlined by Ms Irani. The BJP’s election manifesto says it will “raise the standard of education and research, so that Indian universities become at par with the top global universities and find their place in the global league”. It adds that the University Grants Committee “will be restructured and it will be transformed into a Higher Education Commission rather than just being a grant distribution agency”.

In its Delhi manifesto, the BJP also says it will scrap the University of Delhi’s controversial move to four-year degrees, which critics said represented the Americanisation of courses.

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