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Prior to the recent elections that swept the Congress government out of power and instilled Narendra Modi, a proposal was made to establish two universities in the Rae Bareily parliamentary constituency of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi—one an aviation institution and the other a women’s university. This is yet another example of the domination of politics over sound educational planning in Indian higher education. India will not build world-class universities or for that matter, a quality higher system, if politics continue to interfere with rational decision making.

Plenty of Rational Ideas

Bodies such as the Planning Commission and the University Grants Commission (UGC), both key central government policy agencies are, of course, subject to political realities, but they at least possess expertise and a sense of national needs and requirements for academic quality. With few exceptions, this cannot be said for those responsible for higher education decisions at the level of the states, where many key decisions are made. There is little expertise or understanding of the broader needs of the colleges and universities. Gujarat, Modi’s home state, seems to be the exception as there, has at least been some strategic thinking about the role of higher education in the economic and social development of the state.

The Infusion of Politics

Politics exacerbate India’s higher education dilemmas at almost every level of development. In the past decade or so, India’s plan to increase the number of high-quality, research-oriented universities failed in part because of the intrusion of politics impeding any decision about the location of some of these new universities. Many were placed in out of the way places, designated by powerful interests. Building effective research universities away from urban areas and centers of commerce is only adds to the challenge of developing decent quality infrastructure and contracting qualified faculty and staff.

 One of the continuing problems of India’s higher education landscape is the profusion of undergraduate colleges. Indeed, India’s 34,000 colleges represent more than half of the world’s higher education institutions. Experts agree that many of these colleges are too small to be effective, are not adequately funded, and increasingly depend on student tuition for survival—some do not even have Internet connectivity. Many of these colleges were established by politicians or business people, seeking a base for local power and influence. University and state authorities are pressed to approve these colleges, even when there is little evidence of need or quality. Recent efforts by accreditation authorities and the UGC to force many substandard colleges to close or raise their standards have met with political opposition. If there is one particularly volatile issue that consumes Indian higher education, it is debate over substandard, tiny, and inadequately financed undergraduate colleges.

What Can Be Done?

The answer is simple but the implementation perhaps impossible—remove direct political influence over critical higher education decisions. Is another women’s university truly needed? Should a new university be focused entirely on aviation? Should central universities be under the control of ministries other than the Ministry of Education, Civil Aviation for instance? The answer to all of these questions is of course, “no,” but at the least a rational planning process could be established that would review major project proposals prior to their implementation.

In order to ensure rational planning, several changes are needed. Of course, the first one is a commitment to end the interference of politics and parochial priorities on higher education policies of all kinds—a mammoth task given the half-century in which political influence has been unrestrained.

The second is perhaps less obvious. India has a notable lack of expertise in regard to higher education. At the central level, no highly regarded research or policy institutes focus on higher education, and very few experts work on the topic. Statistics are spotty and often unreliable. The key public agencies that have responsibility for higher education, such as the UGC or the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, do not have much research capacity. The situation in the states is even more dire, since no state has an adequate infrastructure to support good decisions about higher education and few collect accurate data.

India needs a commitment to rational higher education planning and decision making, and this will require “thinking capacity” and data. Most important, higher education cannot continue to be a political football.

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