Posted by: Vikram | October 8, 2011

The inspiration of the inquisitive by the ingenious: A better future for the Indian University

The inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent. – John Maynard Keynes

India is starting to see the rumblings of discontent on various fronts. Corruption, farmer’s issues, tribal rights and increasingly, higher education. Reading the newspapers, one would think that the entire nation is singularly concerned about the fate of the IITs and whether Narayan Murthy finds their graduates of adequate ‘quality’. However, the vast majority of India’s graduates get their incomprehensible education from our state universities.

And it is the state of these state universities that forms the subject of the paper: “Rise and Decline of India’s State University System: Neglect, Design, or Neglect by Design ?” by Dilip Kanhare and Mihir Arjunwadkar at the University of Pune, and Abhijit Vichare from Tata’s Computational Research Labs. The authors had written the paper in the hope that it would lead to some introspection and debate regarding the fate of India’s university system. Indeed, their paper does merit a lot of discussion, simply because of the importance of the issues they raise.

First, the author’s rightly recognize the importance of higher education for an individual. University education can be summarized as ‘learning to learn’. In addition to the acquisition of skills for finding employment, university education lays a foundation for life long personal, character and societal growth. The role of higher education is summarized by the authors as follows,

education should be seen as a long-term investment by a society in its own human resources for the purpose of ensuring its own survival, stability, and well-being. In the Indian context, education can also serve as an effective instrument for channeling social reforms and for strengthening our already weakened social fabric.

Unfortunately, India’s state universities remain neglected and are unable to nurture the human resources of the nation. And far from strengthening social reforms, our unequal education system is further dividing our society.

What has lead to this state of affairs ? The author’s highlight a litany of flaws and inadequacies in the very structure of the higher education system. According to them,

most alarming … is the declining quality of manpower (academic or otherwise) and even worse, the system’s inability to attract and retain quality manpower.

After all, great systems and great institutions are built by great people. A generation or so ago, the state universities of India had a decent position in public life. Employment as faculty at a state university carried a degree of social prestige. Today, how many young Indians would even want to attend a state university, let alone seek employment at one ? A cursory glance at the website of the most prestigious state engineering college in Mumbai (VJTI) reveals that most of its faculty do not have a PhD. Certainly, such faculty do not constitute capable manpower for an educational institution.

Sadly, the leadership at these universities seem to be uninterested in changing the current scenario. If only for pointing out that much better can be done, I would like to mention the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, a state university of Delhi, that under the capable leadership of Dr. Pankaj Jalote has recruited an impressive set of faculty, each member having a PhD and a diverse research program. However, in most state universities, academia itself is uninterested in change. The authors mention that,

Even a mechanism of mature debate amongst our academicians, and a process of consensus that would lead to policy frameworks to guide the evolution of our education system have not evolved in this country.

Further, the state government practices an extreme amount of control on the workings of a state university. The university bureaucracy dictates the faculty rather than them working in service of the faculty and students. As a comparison, the author’s note that the,

IITs are organizations with excellent support structures that do not dare to demean academics. They do an excellent job on the core value of (undergraduate) teaching.

What will be the consequences of the current trends ? The author’s say,

It is evident that India’s State Universities are rapidly degenerating into what can be described as municipality schools of higher education. The Centre establishes a few high-profile institutes of excellence to take care of the needs of the state of the art frontier research/education, and private schools satisfy the needs of the industry and the rich middle class. What is left for the masses is a neglected third-rate State education system.

It is evident that such a structure will reproduce the inequalities and hierarchies that have held back Indian society from reaching its full potential. In addition, the poor general quality of labor will prove damaging to India’s economic prospects. Finally, in such a setup higher education institutions and their faculty will carry little credibility in the public sphere. In this way, an important intellectual resource will be isolated from society, and informed opinions on social/economic/technological problems will continue to elude society.

Is there a way out ? The author’s say that “Fundamental Problems Need Fundamental Resolutions”. They propose the following concrete measures:

  1. Complete autonomy for University campus without loss of financial support from the Government, and no control and interference from the state politicians and bureaucrats.
  2. A conscious effort to bring in – at all niches in the organization – young, fresh, capable, wise, creative and dedicated minds that are capable of thinking differently.
  3. Ending the isolation of education from society and people’s lives. The impetus for radically different modes of disseminating education can come only from NGOs and mass movements.

I think the Indian higher education system has tremendous potential for becoming a complete world-class system. I look forward to the day when our state universities are thriving centres of learning where great intellectuals push the frontiers of human knowledge, and where young minds, free to explore every subject from history to medicine to engineering are inspired to be part of a better, more learned society, not just a wealthier one. Our motto can then be,

The inspiration of the inquisitive by the ingenious.


  1. come on vikram, not another iit/VJTI post ! 🙂

    • Haha, but its more than just IIT/VJTI 🙂

  2. Vikram, any views on primary education of India. Its rotten as well and in certain ways reflects in the higher education. The sole motto of education here is , in general mindset, to get a job. No wonder we are leading in Services sector.

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