Young India has a comparative advantage in an ageing world but India can profit from it only through education. Thus, education and of late higher education has received a lot of attention. Increased government funding supplemented by buoyancy in household spending is a testimony of this. But increased resources are not enough, thus several measures to overhaul higher education governance have been initiated.
Progress on system overhaul has however been slow. Evolving consensus on various laws that are in the offing has been difficult. Recent standoff in the Parliament has further delayed any forward movement on the reform agenda. Confusion prevails amidst feverish pitch of higher education debate and high expectations.
Problems with higher education in India are not with ideology or vested interests alone; issues in higher education are complex and public debate on them is often full of rhetoric. A well-informed discourse requires an understanding of how a mass higher education system organizes itself and evolves with passage of time. This understanding is crucial for design of an effective state apparatus for higher education.
Mass higher education – different from an elite one, has four defining features. First, the system as whole should be able to adapt to its changing circumstances. Role of higher education in India has evolved with time. In colonial era, it served the interest of the British; in early years of independence, higher education was in support of nation building; and now higher education provides the country, a competitive edge in the global knowledge economy through skills and innovation.
Unfortunately, Indian higher education has not responded to these changes and the main reason for this appears to be rigid institutional setting and curriculum structure, much of which is inherited from the British. In a world permeated by science, future shape of things is unpredictable that calls for built-in flexibility in higher education provision. Way back in 1966, Professor D.S. Kothari, while submitting the report of the Education Commission that he chaired, pointed out that the ‘single most important thing needed now is to get out of the rigidity of the present system’. He added that ‘in a rapidly changing world, one thing is certain: yesterday’s educational system will not meet today’s, and even less so, the need of tomorrow’. Thus, adaptability is one of the basic features of higher education.
Second, in most higher education systems, there is an open tension between the state officials and the academic community and the influence of the professoriate is often strong and pervasive. The role of the market in coordination is either ignored or is seen as undependable giving rise to undesired results. Used in a broad sense, market as the process of unregulated exchanges is as commonplace in higher education as anywhere else, even if it operates differently here. In higher education, it operates in three major ways: the consumer (or student) market, the labour market, and the institutional market. Understanding the implications of these markets becomes important to ensure order and continuity in large systems. Ideally the state authority through its various instruments and without being intrusive should counterbalance the undesired influences of both the academia and the markets. Therefore, balancing of different influences becomes higher education’s second defining feature.
Third, mass higher education uses competition as a prime mover to improve standards. While, government regulation or accreditation – public or private, ensures adherence to minimum standards – which are often difficult to define in academic settings, but institutions themselves strive to improve their standards by competing with each-other for students, faculty, and grants. Effectiveness of such competition raises demand for credible information on higher education, which both the governmental and non-governmental actors need to provide. Hence, competition supported by good information is the third defining feature of higher education.
And finally, mass higher education is increasingly complex, highly differentiated with a diversity of providers. Instead of being based on egalitarian ethos, such a system has a hierarchy of institutions with various providers serving different clientele. Today’s economies with complex division of labour require workforce with different types of skills and competences. Further the institutions have to serve various types of learners seeking to hone their multiple intelligences.
Most admired institutional setting for a higher education is where cutting edge research takes place with postgraduate and some undergraduate teaching. These are mostly comprehensive universities endowed with ample resources and a lot of autonomy. Governments and even markets, with the advent of rankings that value academic research to the detriment of teaching, favour this model. Institutions themselves try to imitate this model resulting in all them trying to look the same, which does not conceptually fit the mass higher education landscape. Therefore, diversity of provision is an important and the fourth basic feature of mass higher education.
In sum, adaptability, balance, competition and diversity (ABCD) are the basic defining features of mass higher education. Inner logic for organising any mass higher education is a decentralized but coherent approach that balances the influence of the state, market and academia, enables growth of diversity of providers that adapt to their changing circumstances and compete to improve standards.
The new state apparatus has to ensure heterogenous provision that encourages diverse providers with quality comparisons between them and unless, India is mindful of the realities of mass higher education, it might end up replacing the current dysfunctional and obsolete state apparatus by yet another cumbersome new one that is full of contradictions.
While, designing an effective state apparatus for Indian higher education, there is a need for a step-by-step process – first build consensus on the basic features that define the macro-policy environment, then move on to the system design, and finally to the design of practical work processes. Regrettably, even though, many of the basic elements can be seen in the reform initiatives, the problem is mainly with sequencing. As a result, many people find current reform initiatives ad hoc and disjointed. The country needs a coherent policy framework that clearly articulates the reform agenda and build consensus on macro-policy environment, before it proceeds further.
In absence of public confidence in the higher education reforms, India runs the risk of the entire process being derailed in course of implementation and country’s new state apparatus for higher education may be as dysfunctional as the earlier one.
Pawan Agarwal (email@example.com) is a civil servant and author of Indian higher education: Envisioning the future (2009). Views here are personal.