In our collective experience of past two decades or so as teachers, we observe that the great Indian undergraduate education system, on the average, serves to eﬀectively curb independent thinking, self-study skills, resourcefulness, intellectual maturity, academic conﬁdence, and the very motivation to learn with excellence. Academic excellence is often identiﬁed, wrongly, with performance in examinations that tend to assess mostly memorization skills of a student, and the true measures of academic excellence such as depth of understanding, originality, authenticity, creativity, and perseverance are systematically discouraged.
– Mihir Arjunwadkar, Abhay Parvate, and Dilip G. Kanhere, University of Pune, Report to the UGC
Philip Altbach, professor at the Center for International Higher Education in Boston College recently published his assessment of the future of higher education in India: “One-third of the globe: The future of higher education in China and India“. My thoughts on this important question are derived primarily from my original posts, the subsequent comments and the article by Dr. Altbach. As a producer of knowledge, India’s higher education system is in a state of extensive decay. And this decay is likely to be perpetuated further in the future, in no small part due to the preference for small, highly specialized institutes, over centralization and the disproportionate importance of examinations.
The culture of the ‘Institute of Technology’
The Indian higher education enterprise has a public and private sector component, with the majority of students being enrolled in private sector institutions. Most of the private institutions are focused on engineering and technology, particularly electrical and computer engineering. In fact, virtually all the top ranked educational institutions for engineering in India are stand alone institutions. Almost every young student studies in a narrow, specialized institution.
This contrasts greatly with the situation in the US. Most of the top engineering colleges are part of universities that have similarly excellent colleges in other fields, particularly colleges of science. It is not uncommon at my university to see Electrical Engineering PhD students take very advanced mathematics courses, and Chemical Engineering PhD students taking advanced Chemistry and Physics courses. Increasingly, American universities are seeing the development of interdisciplinary PhD programs, where students and faculty are immersed in an environment that encourages contributions at the intersection of the various engineering and science disciplines.
It is difficult for me to see how the small, focused technical institutions proliferating in India would be able to generate this kind of atmosphere. And it seems that the Indian government is further exacerbating the situation by creating more small and specialized institutes and not improving the existing universities. It is not my claim that the evolving Indian system is without any benefit, it certainly seems to allow for the quick production of a large technical workforce at a cheap cost. But it certainly inhibits the creation of comprehensive research universities. The small, specialized nature of most higher education establishments inhibits their capacity to create knowledge and produce a well rounded student body. I will quote Philip Altbach,
Its [India’s] current top institutions, the Indian Institutes of Technology and a few others, are too small and specialized to become world class research universities, and current plans do not show that India is developing a realistic strategy.
Over centralization and unfair funding policies
Although many Indian universities have considerable autonomy in matters of curriculum and administration, the central government (directly or indirectly) controls virtually all the supply of money. Severe restrictions are placed on the ability of universities to rationalize fee structures and reward superior performance by faculty. Altbach notes,
building competitive research universities requires a reasonably well paid professoriate with working conditions at least somewhat comparable to global standards, since top academics are part of a global labour market. … India has no such policies and as a result, is unable in most cases to attract its best scholars to return home
Further, the Indian government follows vastly discriminatory approaches in financial support for universities. For example, the Indian Institutes of Technology receive about 7-8 times more funds than non-IIT colleges. This is despite the relatively small student body at the IITs, and contrasts greatly with the situation in the US. For example the University of California system spends $ 90, $ 77, $ 80 and $ 48 per student on its Los Angeles, Davis, San Diego and Berkeley campuses. Every state in the US has the autonomy to set up and fund its own universities and develop its own institutions uniquely and in consonance with local conditions and goals. The involvement of the central US government is mainly through insitutions like the NSF and NIH which fund research based on the merits of individual proposals. This is to be contrasted with the Indian model of funding institutes like the IITs disproportionately a-priori, without assessment.
Narrow, exam centric modes of entry and assessment
With the IITs becoming the institutions of choice for all aspiring engineers, thousands of students flock to preparatory coaching classes for a year or two before venturing to appear for the JEE. This method of selection ensures a certain academic homogeneity of IIT entrants, which may not be an entirely desirable attribute in an institution of higher learning.
The high stakes, high stress environment created in the years before entry into higher educational institutions turns many young Indians into lifelong competitors. Competitive exams, with their ruthless ranks instill a lifelong sense of victor and vanquished in many of those that are successful. A hierarchy is created in virtually every arena. Everything from the choice of one’s major to one’s college becomes a statement of what one’s status is, rather than who one aspires to be. And the narrow and one for all nature of these tests have lead to a severe decline in the vitality of India’s high schools and their capacity to teach. Such is the importance of entrance exams, that many students even stop attending high school in the year of the these tests !
In the current scenario, I have little to disagree with Philip Altbach, when he says,
Despite the use of English as the main academic language and the existence in India of many extraordinarily well trained and bright scholars and scientists, it seems unlikely that India will have internationally competitive research universities in the coming several decades.
As creators of knowledge, the future of Indian universities seems rather bleak. No surprise then that not a single Indian university features in the Top 200 ranked by the Times Higher Education supplement.