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WHEN the UPA-2 regime assumed office in 2009 and the octogenarian Arjun Singh was replaced by Kapil Sibal, many felt hopeful that India’s creaking higher educational establishment would finally receive a long overdue push. Sibal’s early announcements, stressing the need for massive expansion with a special focus on quality, and initiating moves for a flurry of reformist legislation, displayed an unusual interest and resolve. And even though critics, rightly, questioned many of the specifics of the different proposals, the mood overall was optimistic. Finally, many felt, the license-quota raj in the higher education sector was on the verge of being dismantled and hopefully replaced by a more nimble structure, better equipped to meet the requirements of a growing and transforming economy and society.

Three years down the line, the mood is decidedly despondent. Each one of Kapil Sibal’s high-ticket legislations is stuck, some even failing to be introduced in Parliament. Others remain mired in parliamentary committees, unable to evolve consensus and win the needed bipartisan support. Worse, with the HRD minister far more exercised with handling the scams afflicting his other charge, the telecom ministry, and playing firefighter to a beleaguered regime, even the talk of India aspiring to be a knowledge power has receded into the dusk. Just tot up the number of higher education institutions lying headless, and we get a good idea of a ministry in deep freeze.

The common response to a charge of inaction is to come up with a fresh flurry of announcements – new schemes with more money. As if increasing budgetary support, though no doubt critical, will by itself do the trick. No wonder proforma announcements about ensuring autonomy and doing away with the stultifying interference of the bureaucracy fail to convince anyone.

Take as example, the state of affairs in the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Set up in 1969 to give fresh impetus to social science research, within and outside the university system, the ICSSR, which made considerable impact in its early years, started showing signs of decline and decrepitude by the early 1990s. Unable to attract fresh talent, or even retain existing expertise, it soon became yet another grant dispensing bureaucracy. Despite recommendations by as many as five review committees – the latest in 2011 – the ICSSR has even failed to appoint a full-time Member-Secretary – the current incumbent, a non-academic serving on extension.

Last month, the ICSSR organized a high-profile conference to discuss the state of social science research in the country. Most participants expectedly decried the declining standards of research – be it issues or methodologies – a fact captured well by the quality of our professional journals. Equally depressing is the recognition that a disproportionate amount of the better quality research on India, barring in a few disciplines, is either by foreigners or by Indians settled abroad.

In itself this is not surprising. The Delhi School of Economics, the country’s premier institution, has been unable to hire a full professor in over two decades – the last being the late Suresh Tendulkar. Despite being accorded the status of a Centre for Advanced Studies in Economic History, there is no economic historian on its staff. Nor does it offer courses in trade theory – a shocking fact in a country wedded to globalizing its economy. It should be a matter of concern that even as DSE graduates continue to be in great demand in the corporate and banking sectors, very few choose an academic career. And those who do, most often train for research abroad.

In a recent reunion of the Jawaharlal Nehru University alumni, those from the first decade (1972-82), the buzz was no different. The general feeling was that while JNU had undoubtedly helped broaden the horizons and perspectives of those fortunate enough to pass through its portals, and has provided skilled manpower to many institutions and sectors, as a centre of higher education and research, it has clearly underperformed. If such is the mood in our best university, and one which, in relative terms, does not suffer from a lack of resources, clearly our educational mandarins need to think afresh.

In the ICSSR conference, minister Sibal grandiosely announced a manifold increase in the annual budget and ten new annual Amartya Sen fellowships/awards to help spur quality research in the country. All this is welcome. But then, if enhancing budgets and announcing new awards was sufficient to energize a sector in decay, then possibly, our higher education would not be in the state it is currently in. For meaningful change, more than the minister, it is the academic community which needs to display new imagination and enterprise. That, it appears, is still some distance away.

Harsh Sethi