The three A’s of higher education


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IF Indian higher education is to fulfil its mission, it must be accessible, affordable, and ‘A’ class. These are the three crucial problems that the government, educationists and the public must grapple with. It is important to emphasize the role of all three. The deficiencies of higher education are not simply the fault of governments (though it must be admitted, they have a lot to answer for); the responsibility equally resides with educationists and the public.

Indian higher education has to be attentive to the growing social demand for access. The growth in demand is a function of two forces, one demographic and the other sociological. As India’s population grows and the number of young people swells, the gap between the number of college and university seats that are required and what the system provides is increasing. This demographic surge is driving up Board examination grades to the point that in the not-too-distant future students will graduate from high school with an average of 100% (or even more). Demography is also sending college admission cutoffs into the stratosphere.

Sociologically, the demand for higher education has spread further. Social strata that traditionally did not countenance sending their young people to colleges and universities are today far more conscious of the need for higher education. Some portion of these sections now also has the money to pay for higher education.

There is little or nothing that can be done about the demographic push for higher education. The rate of population growth is slowing but will not stop until mid-century. The structure of India’s population is young: compared to Japan, China, and the West, for instance, we will have a huge bulge of young people for another 30-40 years. An increasing proportion of these young people will want access to higher education to better their life chances.


Politically too, there are not too many degrees of freedom available to us. In an open, pluralistic, and democratic society, we cannot contemplate denying young people access to higher education except on academic grounds. To do so would be unfair and dangerous. In any case, the demand for higher education is a positive value. If we want to keep our democracy alive and deepen the attachment of the public to democratic institutions and practices, we must invest in higher education. A better-educated citizenry can only strengthen democracy. Furthermore, in a globalized and highly competitive world, human capital is a vital resource. If young people in India are to live satisfying and productive lives, they must have the intellectual skills to compete with counterparts all over the world.

What can we do about the issue of accessibility? The answer is clear enough: we need more seats in colleges and universities. That means two things in turn: existing institutions must be encouraged to expand, and public and private resources must be funneled towards creating new institutions. In the short term, existing institutions can increase capacity only marginally. The constraints here are the usual triumvirate of land, labour and capital: the availability of land (especially contiguous to the original institution), qualified faculty (who cannot simply be conjured up), and funds.

None of these factors can be augmented quickly, especially not faculty. In the longer term though, existing institutions can expand. In order to gird up for expansion, they need a clear indication that the central government and state governments will help them as much as possible. Governments have learned to be friendlier to industry; they must now learn to be friendlier to education.

The key word in respect of the government’s role is ‘help’: leave the institutions to plan their expansion (stop issuing peremptory fiats and proclamations) and clear the way, legally and financially for increasing capacity. Of course, in public institutions that get their funds from our taxes, the government has to play a more direct but not necessarily a bossy role. It is unfortunately a given that the more bossy – i.e. intrusive and interventionary – a government is, the worse for higher education since officials and politicians rarely know much about academic life.


If Indian higher education is to fulfil its mission, it must not only be made more accessible, it must also be more affordable. For it to be available to larger numbers and a wider public, families must be able to pay for colleges and universities. The problem here is not usually the tuition fees, except in the fields of engineering, medicine and business management. Tuition fees, generally, are ridiculously low and are by no means economically rational in their pricing. (Indeed, for higher education to expand, colleges and universities will have to be permitted to charge more rational fees.)

That said, paying for a college education is a burden for many families because, in addition to tuition fees, there are the costs of books and materials, hostel fees, rentals (if you don’t get hostel accommodation), transportation, and so on. Here again, private and public involvement is vital. As in other parts of the world, a much more extensive system of scholarships and loans will be necessary, particularly if more rational fees are charged. Corporations, banks, and governments will have to combine to endow scholarships and to make low-interest educational loans widely available. If the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh can get rural housewives to repay loans, surely business and governments should be able to make students and their families give back what they have received with interest.


In addition to the accessibility and affordability of higher education, we must pay attention to the claims of excellence. A college or university education in India should be ‘A’ class. It is palpably nothing of the sort today. We may think that our IITs, IIMs, and business schools are luminous places. The truth is that with some exceptions they are not (for example, not a single IIT features in the list of the best research institutes in the world). As for the rest, our colleges and universities are in a shambles (again with a few exceptions). The teaching is some-where between mediocre and scandalously bad, the research output worse.

What is wrong? The list of problems is long and makes for sad reading, but we can boil the ills down to the following: improper faculty recruitment; apathetic or misguided leadership and horrendous administration; a rigid and outdated curriculum; atrocious teaching; lack of appropriate books and reading materials; horrible facilities; and an academic culture that is not conducive to learning. It’s a wonder that anything at all is achieved in India’s colleges and universities!


Faculty recruitment is the lifeblood of a college or university. Any institution that makes a mess of this cannot do much good. If the faculty is incompetent, the students will be incompetent. Every college and university has its norms, basically constructed around the recommendations of the University Grants Commission (UGC). These recommendations, rather rigid and mechanically rendered, are most often rigidly and mechanically applied by our institutions of higher learning out of fear of the UGC and legal challenges.

In addition, the usual academic politics (favouritism and ideology), unimaginative leadership (often exercised, in the hiring process, by the registrars and deputy registrars who know absolutely nothing about academic life), and political interference combine to wreck the recruitment process. The latter is worth underlining. While the prestigious colleges and central universities may enjoy a fair degree of protection, the rest do not. Provincial colleges in particular are shocking in this regard. Chief ministers, chief secretaries, MLAs, and bureaucrats bully and bend these colleges into hiring favourites or candidates from politically-preferred sectors (from specific castes, language groups, and ideologies). No wonder that provincial colleges and universities are an academic disgrace.

College and university leadership is, on the whole, appalling. The principals of colleges and vice chancellors of universities are usually so unedifying that it is hardly surprising that their institutions are such depressing places. Many heads are not academics themselves and have no credibility in the eyes of the faculty. They may be well meaning but have little or no understanding of academic life. A fair number are political appointees or personal favourites of the management of the institution and have no sense of autonomy or of academic excellence. They are decidedly not the men and women of substance that one would expect, and the consequence is that they preside over administrations that are too rigid/too lax, unfriendly, corrupt and inefficient. Nothing is more demoralizing to students and faculty than to be regulated by a leader and administration that is unimaginative, unsympathetic, dishonest and ineffective.


In the end, college and university life rises or falls by the quality of the curricula and teaching. In India today, both are problematic, to say the least. A casual survey of the syllabi of even the major teaching institutions shows that the framing of the curriculum is abysmal. Students are either swamped by the size of the syllabus or they are scarcely challenged. In any case, they are rarely exposed to the cutting edge. When the faculty does know where the cutting edge is, it is either unable to deal with the material intellectually or feels that students cannot cope with the intellectual challenge (this is rarely the case). Those who are knowledgeable and ambitious as teachers have to get past regulations that vest syllabus framing in large and conservative collective bodies which are unable to bring about change.

The teaching skills of the faculty, on average, are atrocious. In colleges, this is in part a function of the huge teaching load that is inflicted on teachers. Anything more than 12-15 hours per week in the lecture room is ridiculous. No teacher can stand up to the physical and intellectual rigours of classroom teaching, assessment, and preparation beyond this and will, perforce, cut corners.


But it is not just the teaching load. There is a stubborn unwillingness to pay attention to the most elementary aspects of pedagogy and be in the least self-reflective about one’s day-to-day practices. There is no lesson planning of any depth. There is little effort to be effective on the blackboard – writing legibly, outlining lectures, and spelling difficult and technical terms. Nor is there much attention to the basics of speech communication – how to stand and deliver a lecture, ask questions and wait for an answer, pace a class, and so on.

Most of all, though, there is no interest in lifting the terms of discourse in the classroom. Teachers drone on and on from notes, speaking at the audience unrelentingly, rarely lifting their heads to take stock of audience reaction, challenge the students to participate in the communication and creation of knowledge, and enliven the proceedings. Students are expected to take notes more or less accurately and repeat what they have learned.

Stated otherwise, the classroom is not a questioning, dialogical space, but rather a dead, hierarchical one in which the teacher speaks and everyone else listens (and numbers in the classroom is not an excuse for such a morbid approach). Crucially, students are not expected to apply knowledge to the world around them: if they were, they might begin to engage the academic material critically. The examination questions are not framed to elicit the student’s understanding of how to use what he or she has learned. And since, at the undergraduate level, there are no extended projects or research papers (where knowledge might be applied), the student goes through the first degree in much the same way as high school; indeed, most bachelor’s degrees are in reality an extension of high school learning in terms of the stilted, mechanical experience of the classroom.


Compounding the problem of bad teaching is the lack of appropriate reading materials. It is not that these materials do not exist, it is that they are not assigned. Accessing academic journals, particularly the foreign ones, was once a problem for colleges and universities because of the cost of subscription. But with the Internet this is no longer a serious constraint for most institutions, even those in provincial towns. The purchase of books, admittedly, continues to be expensive, but cost is not the only factor. It is the ignorance of faculty who do not keep up with writings in their field, or of libraries that service them. A librarian in India is still a forbidding custodian of books who sees his or her role as primarily one of denying books to students and teachers so that the precious volumes do not get lost or defaced. He or she has little knowledge of any academic field and little interest in alerting the reading community to new offerings.

The other problem is the cost of articles and books for students who might be asked to purchase the key materials. For students from low-income households, this is a real concern. Once again, without a scholarship programme that covers the cost of academic materials such as books, college and university life becomes an unending trauma. Students rush around from one friend to another to borrow from those who can afford to buy the materials or else persuade others to set up a collective that shares the costs (these rarely work well). If they cannot do either, they must rely entirely on class notes, which is always unsatisfactory. Academic life requires physical ease and leisure; you cannot meet its demanding requirements if you are constantly on a paper chase!

The problem of appropriate study materials has another facet which is very challenging, and this relates to the language problem. Most study materials at the college and university levels are in English, and most Indian students particularly at the undergraduate level, cannot cope with this.


No Indian government, not even the BJP-led NDA government, supposedly a muscular votary of Hindi, has bothered to invest in translating academic writings into the national language. Few if any state governments have any ambition with respect to a translation programme into their languages, even though they too beat the drum about regional feeling and pride. While knowledge of English and English-language materials is more or less inevitable, especially at the master’s level onwards, we must get Indian language textbooks and a translation programme covering journal materials in place.

It is worth remembering that the demand for Indian language texts will only grow as the educational system churns out young people whose knowledge of English is at best functional. China and the East Asian countries more generally have invested heavily in academic translation programmes and can deliver entire books in their own languages within weeks of the English publication! The task, therefore, is by no means impossible.

This brings us to the general question of the physical facilities in colleges and universities. The situation here is horrendously depressing. Enter an institution of higher education and prepare to weep: cracked walls, floors, and roofs; leakage and seepage everywhere; toilets that are filthy; antiquated equipment; furniture that is an ergonomic disaster and usually broken and unwieldy; canteens that are dingy, dirty and unhygienic; crowded hostel accommodation that deadens the spirit with no attention to design; everywhere student posters and graffiti that have defaced walls, windows and pillars; faculty accommodation built in a PWD, socialist mentality; the complete lack of common and recreational spaces for students and faculty; drab, colourless interiors; and on and on.

Behind all this is an attitude shared by the government, educationists, and the public (including many students and teachers) that the life of the mind is a monastic one and that the configuration of living spaces and their ornamentation does not matter. This dour, pitiless, Cromwellian attitude is pathetic in its ignorance of the human spirit and what makes it grow and thrive. This is not a call for luxurious living; it is a plea for attractive, meditative spaces which can be constructed affordably if only we gave attention to the necessities of architecture and design.


Finally, an ‘A’ class education in colleges and universities depends on a teaching and research culture that is conspicuously lacking in India. I have said quite a bit about teaching earlier. The key point to be made in addition is the relationship between teaching and research. Teaching does not derogate from research unless there is no time left for the latter; and research profoundly does not derogate from teaching unless the research programme is all consuming. As anyone who has done both knows, the two inform each other, as they must. It is in the course of teaching that one gets the best research ideas, and it is by doing good research that one enriches one’s teaching. This is one of the oldest nutmegs of academic life but nonetheless true for all that and deserves to be repeated till it hurts!


On the research culture of India, much could be said. How to construct a research problem that pays attention to time, money, facilities, the intellectual limits of the research scholar, the rhythms and demands of personal and professional life (such as family life, promotions, administrative responsibilities, teaching), and, above all, the issues that deserve to be investigated in light of the problematics of the field is a vital matter. Most Indian academics need to understand the importance of these constraints far better. As research scholars, we either set our sights too high, become perfectionists and, as a result, never finish a research endeavour; or we are so modest in our ambitions and ventures that what we produce is hardly worth doing! I have repeated this to my research students and to younger colleagues ad nauseam but with only limited success.

Our research culture suffers from other ailments as well. For instance, we pay insufficient attention to pure research which has no immediate ‘relevance’ or ‘application’. No field of enquiry can progress without this. Another way of saying this is: do not ignore theory. The theoretical realm is the nourishing core of any discipline. Without it, we cannot grow. Or to use another metaphor: theory is the foundational map. Without it, we are lost. To rubbish theorizing as abstract, an arid mind game for armchair intellectuals is nonsense and self-defeating. No field can develop without theory. We in India have rubbished theory even as our empirical work has been shoddy. As a result we are neither here nor there in the academic game: methodologically poor in the empirical domain and cussed and lazy in the theoretical.


In the research game today (as perhaps always), there are only global problematics. That is to say, the leading questions, methods, and provisional answers that govern a field of enquiry are ones which are fielded globally amongst a group of scholars who live in every country around the world. Nativist agendas, an unwillingness to keep up with what is happening elsewhere, avoiding foreign conferences and gatherings, publishing in one’s own journals, not allowing foreign scholars to teach and conduct research in one’s country – all these diminish academics. They not only impoverish us in India, they impoverish others as well who might benefit from our work. In research, increasingly, there must be a sense of collegiality and partnership. Indeed, we literally need to work as partners with other scholars, within our own academies and in foreign institutions. Our administrators need to encourage this and to change the rules that inhibit our doing so. The government in particular needs to change its attitude to foreign travel and collaboration.

Higher education that is accessible, affordable and ‘A’ class requires a massive overhaul of the present system, nothing less. The government’s fiddling and tinkering with reservations, entrance tests and fees, the educationist’s perennial complaints about autonomy and funding; and the public’s wail about the need for more IITs and medical schools is only a part of the problem. We need a massive programme of rethinking and restructuring.