OPINION: India’s Underperforming Higher Education Sector

With the exception of a handful of universities, institutes, and research centers, India’s higher education institutions are of poor quality, writes Dr. Pushkar.

AsianScientist (Jan. 14, 2013) – With the exception of a handful of universities, institutes, and research centers, India’s higher education institutions are of poor quality.

Each year, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, Times Higher Education rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Jiao Tong University remind Indians that their universities do not belong at the top. For a country that aspires to be great power, the near-absence of its institutions in world rankings is a clear indication that it has a lot of catching up to do if it is to further enhance both its ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.

The ‘great Indian absence’ on the world stage of higher education has elicited three broad set of responses from India’s policy-makers, higher education experts and the media – dismay, denial and diversion, and resignation. Most responses are, of course, some mix of two or more of the three but nevertheless, these are the most identifiable ways in which India and Indians have reacted to the poor quality of their universities.

The first and perhaps the most predictable response is that of expressing dismay. Each year, newspapers report on world rankings and this is followed by op-eds and editorials lamenting the Indian absence in world rankings and bemoaning the poor quality of higher education. Political leaders – including the Prime Minister and the President – join others in expressing their disappointment. For example, when hearing of the results of the 2012 QS World University Rankings, President Pranab Mukherjee raised the obvious question: “Why are we, a ‘rising economic superpower,’ not able to promote our standards to be rated, indisputably, among the top 10 or even top 50 or 100?”

The second response is one of denial and diversion. Of course, no one really denies the facts – that not one Indian university ranks in the world’s top 200 institutions. However, when the media exaggerates the achievements of the all-too-few world-class Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), and a few other institutions, it serves to divert attention from the fact that for a country of a billion plus, where millions enter college-going age each year and where thousands head West (and increasingly East as well) for higher education, there are all-too-few good quality higher education institutions.

Curiously, the achievements of individuals graduating from these institutions – whether in terms of starting salaries or their current station in business, academia, or other areas, whether in India or elsewhere – seem to be celebrated even more, almost as a compensation for the nation’s failure in producing world-ranked institutions.

Denial and diversion take other forms as well. Some question the methodology used to rank universities. This would be a worthwhile exercise if one was to debate why South Korea’s X University is ranked 101st and India’s Y University ranked 118th but not when talking about universities that are off the charts.

Seen on the wall of the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Delhi (Photo: Dawn D/Flickr/CC).

Others argue that the world rankings are not fair because the criteria used favors comprehensive higher education institutions and not specialized institutions such as the IITs (which are primarily for study and research in engineering) or the IIMs (dedicated to business and management studies). However, there is nothing to stop the IITs or IIMs – which are located on hundreds of acres of land and are relatively well-funded and reasonably well-administered – from expanding to become comprehensive institutions with schools of arts, humanities, sciences, and medicine. Such reasoning also sidelines the fact that India does have hundreds of comprehensive institutions – including central universities that are directly funded by the federal government – that do not make the cut.

Finally, some argue that what matters is whether India’s universities serve other goals – that of providing access to higher education, especially for the lower castes who constitute a majority of the population. Affirmative action or reservations for lower castes at India’s universities has provided them greater access to higher education but this has come about at the expense of compromising the quality of education for all. According to André Béteille, one of India’s most eminent sociologists, the stated concern for social justice for lower castes – which is driven overwhelmingly by political considerations – has undermined the central goal of universities, the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. Similarly, reservations in faculty appointments – once again, to ostensibly further social inclusion and representation – have deepened the already-severe shortage of qualified faculty.

As Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi argue in their book The Road to Academic Excellence, the quality of faculty is crucial in the making of a successful university. Not only are India’s universities unable to attract sufficient numbers of world-class faculty, the academic culture, poor salaries and working conditions, and excessive politicization have convinced Indian parents – who play a key role in deciding what their children do in life – that their children should not opt for a career in teaching and research. This has effectively led to the ‘exit’ of the most meritorious students from a career in teaching and research.

I recently noticed a third kind of response – that of resignation. The reasoning goes something like this – rich countries have world-class universities and poor countries have low quality institutions. Poor countries are condemned to low quality education until they become rich. This response, like that of denial, saves everyone from blame and/or taking the trouble to ‘fix’ India’s higher education.

While expressions of dismay are mostly harmless, denial in its various forms is not helpful in the least. How can India expect to improve its quality of higher education by diverting attention from the fact that there is a serious problem? Finally, expressions of resignation are rooted in old ideas about progress and development and are therefore misleading.

It is certainly true that 21st century India is still a low-income country. At the same time, India is not just another poor country. It is true that in many parts of the country, literacy, infant mortality, and malnutrition rates are worse than that in poor South Asian and African countries. However, at the same time, India has witnessed high rates of economic growth for over three decades so that it now counts among the largest economies in the world. At least some of that growth has occurred due to the country’s ability to tap into the global knowledge economy. Improving the quality of education at all levels – including higher education – is essential in this regard.

Countries like China and India belong to a different category of nations not just because they are growing economies but because they are large and populous. They are rich and poor, developed and under-developed, modern and traditional, and everything else in between in different ways. They are countries that have arrived as global players or will do so in the coming future. Clearly, they are quite different from other low- and middle-income countries. It makes little sense to discuss higher education in India within the framework of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries.

Given this context, the higher education sector has immense relevance for India’s ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. International relations theorists define hard power in terms of a country’s wealth, military strength, or other tangible attributes that can be measured with a degree of accuracy. There are limits to the uses and effectiveness of hard power in an increasingly inter-dependent world though it is still extremely relevant for countries like India which has border disputes with Pakistan and China.

Of equal importance, however, is a nation’s soft power, famously described by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” The sources of soft power lie in intangibles such as culture, values, education, and diplomacy so that, as Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, put it, “Other nations admire and want to emulate aspects of that nation’s civilization.” While a nation’s hard power helps to enhance its soft power, as Nye argues, soft power too affects hard power.

India’s government officials take great pride in those elements of soft power that they have – such as Bollywood movies, the growing popularity of Indian cuisine, and the achievements of individuals of Indian origin in different parts of the world, especially in the West, and they ignore or downplay others that they don’t – honesty in public life, caste- and gender-based discrimination, lack of high-quality educational institutions, poor performance in sports on the world stage – to their disadvantage.

India’s underperforming higher education sector has adverse effects on both its hard and soft power. Substantial upgrading of the higher education sector – especially the production of new knowledge in which the country performs poorly as evident in terms of the number of patents filed and overall research output – is a sine qua non for India’s continued economic growth and further development. It is only with a solid higher education base that India will be able to design and develop more of its own technologies and prioritize invention and innovation to move forward. At the same time, production of new knowledge, not as much by Indians as by India’s educational institutions, will not only enhance the country’s soft power appreciably but also help to demolish unflattering older images of itself.

Dr. Pushkar has a Ph.D. in political science from McGill University, Canada. He previously taught at the University of Goa, Concordia University, McGill University, and the University of Ottawa.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Khalil Sawant/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Pushkar is a faculty member at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani-Goa.

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