Following their earlier book, Mortgaging the Future? Indian Higher Education, a decade ago, political scientists Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta have just co-edited an important volume that follows up the issues raised earlier, Navigating the Labyrinth: Perspectives on India’s Higher Education. Kapur and Mehta’s basic thesis (perhaps oversimplifying) is that India’s higher education system suffers from over-regulation and deficient governance. Why this is so is a complicated story: to some extent, the problems of India’s higher education are similar to those of many other areas of Indian governance, reflecting inertia, paternalism, and the country’s social hierarchies, along with idealism gone awry. While reform has made inroads in this sector, along with others, the particular challenges of higher education are extremely daunting and most urgent. The reasons for this are two-fold.
First, rapid material progress will depend on addressing the system’s current shortcomings. Second, the kind of society within which this material progress will occur will be shaped by India’s education system (including, but not limited to it tertiary component). Since the new book is a collection, it features diverse perspectives, including the possible role of vocational education (a perennial weakness in the Indian system), along with regional case studies, the role of the judiciary, possibilities for and challenges of financing, and trends in educational needs of different professions.
I will not try to review the book here, but offer some of my own perspectives, some of which have been articulated in several of my earlier columns in this newspaper. The starting point for considering the problems of higher education in India, for me, has to be the supply shortage. Quality education in India at all levels is not available at the levels that will allow for sustained rapid economic growth along with equitable access to the fruits of that growth. Some of the shortage has to do with poorly designed and overbearing regulation. But the poverty of the country is itself an issue.
A complementary problem is the changing nature of demand—in many cases, even vocational education is becoming a very different concept from the past. For example, having the expertise to service a modern automobile is very different from what it was a few decades ago, simply because of the greater complexity of the engine, particularly with the inclusion of electronics. Another example could be nursing, where the increased use of technology for monitoring and treating patients requires more sophisticated knowledge of those who work with doctors. Combined, the supply and demand factors mean that India has an enormous problem, one that will be insurmountable with making Indian higher education more like a current well-functioning industrial country system.
What India needs is a massive effort to use digital technology to increase the quality of higher education and access. There are already a plethora of resources available online, for all kinds of advanced, college-level courses. Admittedly, these resources cannot provide hands-on experiences for students who need practical training, but recall that even airline pilots are trained first on simulators before being allowed to fly real planes. For many subjects, however, ranging from mathematics to economics to literature, there are online lectures and courses available both from private or for-profit companies (often for free, if no certification from the company is required) and from premier research universities. These courses may be taught by world-famous academics, even Nobel Prize winners, though a casual search suggests that there are outstanding teachers at many institutions throughout the United States.
Many of these courses are in English, widely used in Indian higher education. A complement to repairing the dysfunctions of the existing higher education system can be its reinvention. This means modularisation of education, creating acceptable bundles of these modules that will constitute near equivalents of the traditional degree, and figuring out what would need to be provided to make the system work (in-person final exams, or dubbing of existing courses in local languages, for example). Of course, India is already using distance learning but it is still viewed as an inferior alternative, and does not attract the intellectual resources needed to make it a true substitute.
The path I am outlining will require heavy investments in infrastructure and content, but much less than would be required to build all the buildings and train all the faculty (and administrators) needed for implementing an expansion of high-quality higher education using traditional methods. But these resources would be a fraction of those spent on creating the Aadhaar system (to use another digital innovation as a comparison). Certainly, the University Grants Commission and the ministry of human resource development need to be overhauled. And there is not a case for direct government provision of the new tools—indeed, subsidisation of
And there is not a case for direct government provision of the new tools—indeed, subsidisation of competitive provision of educational content by global providers will be quicker and lead to higher quality than anything the government can do by itself. In that sense, the model would be different from the Aadhaar example. My main point is that an 800 year old model of higher education is reaching its limits—it cannot even serve advanced economies well, and India needs to leapfrog to a new mode of delivery of education, not just reform what it has.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz.