Introducing India’s Rae Bareli Education Hub

Here is a question for non-Indians who are interested in India’s higher education: Who, what and where is Rae Bareli?

AsianScientist (Oct. 7, 2013) – Here are two questions for non-Indians who are interested in India’s higher education.

First, who/what/where is Rae Bareli?

Second, what does Rae Bareli have to do with higher education?

It is rather unlikely that you will know anything about Rae Bareli even if your interest lies in India’s higher education. However, if you know two bits about Indian politics, you will most surely have heard of it.

Rae Bareli is a district (and town) in the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest regions. In 1967, a young Indira Gandhi, the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become prime minister herself, selected Rae Bareli as her constituency to contest parliamentary elections. Since then, other members of the Nehru/Gandhi family – Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi, his widow Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul Gandhi – have also contested successfully from Rae Bareli and/or neighboring Amethi.

Ms. Gandhi, currently the Congress party chief, is known to call the shots in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. Though disliked for her disposition to perpetuate dynastic rule, she is indispensable to the immediate future of the Congress. Parliamentary elections are due in 2014 and most India observers would agree that without Ms Gandhi, the Congress is likely to be routed in the polls.

Rae Bareli as a higher education hub

While Rae Bareli is not known as a higher education hub today, thanks to Ms. Gandhi, it will soon be home to several new institutions funded by the national government. Quite predictably, many of them are named after members of the Nehru/Gandhi family.

For example, the Indian parliament recently gave its nod to the creation of the Rajiv Gandhi National Aviation University. The country’s first all-women’s university, to be named after Indira Gandhi, is also due to come up in Rae Bareli.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the most prestigious brand name among India’s medical schools which initially had only one campus in New Delhi, is now opening branches in each state. The UP branch will be located in – you are right – where else but Rae Bareli!

Other upcoming and already functioning higher education institutions in or in close proximity to Rae Bareli include the Footwear Design and Development Institute, the National Institute of Fashion Technology Center, the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology and the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research.

One can debate whether Ms. Gandhi or the Congress party has done more good than harm or vice versa over the last ten years that it has been in power. However, there is no doubt that the ruling party’s decision to turn Rae Bareli into a higher education hub does not add up. The choice of locating several new institutions in the district has nothing to do with the merits of Rae Bareli’s location and everything to do with politics. In 2012, the Congress lost all the UP assembly seats here and did not do well in neighboring districts either.

The need to slow down

Since India went into a higher education expansion mode, the national government has been setting up a variety of new institutions across the country. Its stated goal is to combine expansion with improvements in the quality of higher education. And more than once, government officials have expressed the intent of supporting at least a select few institutions in a manner that they break into world rankings. For example, an 18-member expert committee has been recently appointed to examine how Indian universities could improve their world rankings.

But with expansion in higher education also taking place in the private sector, there is a need to contain the urge for further expansion. By spreading its resources thin, the government is diluting its efforts at improving the quality of education.

Setting up new higher education institutions in places like Rae Bareli does help the cause of expansion. However, the government needs to strategize better if it has any real intent of improving the international profile of its institutions.

For one, the government has been setting up too many specialized and narrowly-focused institutions. These could, as with select new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) which have more than doubled in number in less than a decade, begin to count as world-class over a period of time. However, few such institutions will ever break into world rankings. The majority of top 200 institutions, whether it is older universities in the West or newer ones in Asia, are comprehensive institutions.

Instead of creating more specialized institutions, the government should seriously consider the expansion of the already-established and fairly well-run institutions, especially those that are located on say more than 200-300 acres of land. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi has taken the right initiative in this regard. While primarily a graduate school for multiple disciplines, it has put forward a proposal to begin undergraduate programs. The IITs and the IIMs need to do the same. They must add undergraduate and graduate programs in a variety of disciplines rather than remain limited to engineering and management. Turning such institutions into comprehensive institutions could be a game changer in terms of raising the international profile of Indian institutions.

The government has also been building far too many institutions in places which are unlikely to attract the best students or well-qualified faculty. Many specialized as well as comprehensive institutions are coming up in distant locations, in or fairly close to second- or third-tier cities, and in states that are badly governed or are at the bottom of the heap in terms of economic development. These locations lack the infrastructure and the overall cultural milieu and environment necessary to sustain good quality higher educational institutions.

Institutions located in such places are struggling. Even the new IITs are experiencing enormous problems to the extent that there is talk of the dilution of the IIT brand. Unfortunately, building the necessary infrastructure and providing greater connectivity to these institutions in compressed time seems quite impossible in the Indian context. Therefore, the government needs to be wise rather than generous in its decisions to open new institutions.

What about Rae Bareli?

Rae Bareli is not far from Lucknow, one of the larger cities in UP. That does not sound so bad. Unlike all of UP which is plagued by massive power shortages, Rae Bareli reportedly enjoys 24-hour power supply thanks to its connections!

UP, however, is one of India’s worst governed states which ranks at the bottom in human development and there are few signs that it will experience a turnaround anytime in the near future. Rae Bareli is itself among the poorest and least developed districts in UP, and higher education institutions in Rae Bareli are likely to replicate the failures of other educational institutions in the region.

It is time for the government to put a stop to the manner in which it is setting up new institutions. The country is not doing too badly in terms of expansion of higher education but lags behind in quality institutions. Despite significantly higher levels of investment in new and old institutions, no Indian university is making significant gains. Indeed, in the recent QS World University rankings, many IITs slipped further behind in the list of top 500 institutions.

The time has come for the Indian government to take politics out of the higher education sector. Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: BoyGoku/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.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist