On November 11-12, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) held a prominent conference in Delhi on Strategies for Expansion of Indian Higher Education. Listening to the discussions there (and at a very successful entrepreneurial private university near Delhi) made for a sharp contrast with the discussions I heard when visiting Indian public universities. Each side has its own strong storyline or worldview about higher education and appropriate policy for it. Simplifying on both ends, we can portray one side’s vision as close to Wall Street, the other’s to Occupy Wall Street.
I find little unique about either the two Indian higher education worldviews or the lack of dialogue between them. Instead, I find confirmation of impressions repeatedly reached in Latin America about insular visions. The echoes are strong in Africa, Europe, and much of Asia as well. Perhaps the Chinese lines are not so starkly drawn and the U.S. scene is, as always, distinct—though even in these two giant systems the two views echo.
On the Right side the rightful purpose of higher education is largely to serve and promote the economic system. Above all, students should be prepared for jobs. That is a service to national development. This vision does not reject a public role in higher education or basic research. But the public policy framework is one in which government budgets are necessarily and appropriately limited, unable to sustain huge enrollment growth. That growth is not seen negatively, though in mixed light, and there is not an obvious hostile preoccupation with ample affirmative action policies of set-asides for disadvantaged groups. But the strong view is to encourage private higher education growth, including legalizing for-profit entry, and to minimize regulation. The U.S. system is seen in a favorable light and India should open itself to foreign provision.
On the Left side, which respects the U.S. success but emphasizes an unfavorable view of its inequality and commercialism, the core purpose of higher education is to promote social values and justice, and this involves a very critical view of the Establishment. Public policy should treat higher education as a public good and a State responsibility. Massive expansion is warranted, even aiming toward universal coverage, and why shouldn’t government finance that? Diminished inequality within higher education and in its impact on society overall should be explicit policy and foreign penetration is viewed as potentially injurious to these ends. The strong view is to curb private higher education (though rarely is there active thought to its abolition) in size and scope of action, with heavy regulation to prevent it from undermining the public missions. Rejection of for-profit entry is a no-brainer.
Rarely does either side declare “they say x, but here’s why that’s wrong, here are the opposing facts.” Rarely is the other’s view seriously pondered. Perhaps this is not unusual when fundamental worldviews clash as opposed to when sides agree on goals and ideology, differing more on means to common ends. When it comes to the two Indian worldviews on higher education, the predominant attitude toward the other is dismissive, sometimes but not always deprecating and contemptuous. The Right side sees the other as ideological or irrelevant in its naïve idealism, as not much doing things in and for the real world. The Left side sees the other as part of the capitalist ascension, essentially without values or with regressive values. Meanwhile each side seems comfortable that it has the basic policy answers, that it has solutions to make the higher education system, and with it the nation, much better—if only it weren’t for the other side. Neither much believes that dialogue would produce better policy, though this doesn’t mean that the sides eschew the necessity of practical compromise. Nor does this blog constitute a plea for a grand dialogue in a liberal expectation that it would produce a convergence of ideas.
The reality is mostly that of two monologues. And two monologues don’t make a dialogue.