India’s Higher Learning Crisis

If you’re going to research how, what, and why people read, there’s no way of getting around investigating higher education.

Students at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda

In India there is plenty to say about the state of education and plenty that folks in India are willing to say. Education generally is considered an enormous national problem. Indeed, there is serious anxiety about what the Indian education system is doing (or not) for its students, especially for its university students. Some cite the lack of quality institutions or the lack of seats available at the top institutions, others cite the lack of talented faculty, or the brain drain of expertise out of the country, or the rigidly centralized governance structure, or widespread corruption within a highly politicized administrative apparatus. As one (conservative) Member of Parliament I spoke to lamented, India does not have a single institution in the top 100 universities in the world. And therefore, India’s education is felt to be neither competitive nor respected in the global research marketplace. To some extent, each of the criticisms is true. I hope I’ll be able to explain that some are truer than others.

Like so much of India, the education system has undergone massive changes in the last twenty years, and in some ways, the country is still catching up, especially in terms of higher education. In 2000 there were just under 13,000 colleges and universities. By 2013, according to India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development there were over 37,000. India_Highered_Statistics_1That’s an average of five new institutions built per day, including holidays and weekends. The staggering growth is no doubt a response to the demographic shifts that the country is experiencing. Over 50% of the population is under 25 and by 2020 India will have the largest college-aged population in the world. Then add the large numbers of people entering the middle class—from 50 million now to 500 million by 2025—and you have not just a market for expanded higher education, but a desperate social and economic need for it. And most of these students will be the first in their families to attend college or university.

“Thriving and Dying”

But here’s the rub: as the number of institutions of higher learning has increased, the quality of the education, the governance of the curricula, and the training of the faculty and administration have suffered dramatically. Some of this is due to changes in government policies that removed strict oversight of colleges and universities and opened the floodgates for the charter of private institutions.

Predictably, the investments went to the money-making and status-laden professional colleges. It didn’t take long for the number of self-financing colleges of management and engineering to outnumber public institutions. At the same time, such laws like the New Education Policy of 1986 and then again in 1991 declared that existing universities would be required to raise more of their own resources by mobilizing donations from the private sector and raising fees. As a result, government subsidies declined by 25% between 1993 and 2002 (Kochanek and Hardgrave 229-232).

Even further, you have a serious lack of students earning doctorates. In 2015, 40% of all faculty posts remained vacant. The most promising and accomplished researchers are leaving India to acquire posts in Europe and North America, and employment laws prevent universities from attracting and hiring international talent. Then you have the ubiquitous private informal education industry of “Learn English Study/Work Abroad” (English Language Training or ELT) companies promising to make it easier to live somewhere other than India. It’s a textbook case of brain drain.

Yes, a college education in India is more available than ever, but the average value of the degrees and certificates has plummeted precipitously. University of Pennsylvania researcher, Devesh Kumar, puts it this way: “The Indian education system is both thriving and dying.”

The Fate of the Arts

For the humanities, arts, and social sciences these changes have marked an all-out assault on programs, opportunities, and structural support. More and more students are receiving degrees and certificates at professional colleges while a decreasing percentage are receiving education in the arts and humanities. In fact, many of newest private universities fail to even offer degrees in these fields, preferring instead career-oriented courses in business, design, and technology. Or, if they do have an arts program, like the one at the brand new university here Vadodara, it is only arts in a professionalized form: journalism and mass communication. Degrees are sold as a pathway to jobs, not to skills. You study engineering to become an engineer, architecture to become an architect, philosophy to become a philosopher (?), and all those other arts to become a teacher. Of course.

The United States is experiencing this same trend as buckets of money are dumped into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, medicine) while the humanities are left to fend for themselves. Mountains and mountains of research about the superior training of liberal arts students in adapting to the shifting needs of the global economy are conveniently ignored. Given the wild west nature of the higher education landscape here in India, however, and a palpable hunger amongst the youth to find economic stability, the pressures against the arts and social sciences are particularly keen.

The effect has been that traditional universities—large, public, accessible, and inexpensive—are increasingly the only institutions that offer humanities, arts, and social

Classroom in one of the original 100-year-old buildings. Admittedly one of the roughest, but still very much in use.

science degrees. And these are the institutions that are struggling compared the shiny new private campuses that are built far away from public transport, offer expansive grounds and new buildings, are walled, gated, and guarded, and cost about twice as much.

Again, using a local example, the university where I’ve been teaching, the 110-year-old Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, has an outstanding reputation for its programs in arts, as well as in engineering and technology. But its facilities pale in comparison to what one can find in the privates. The faculty are top-notch and the students are very strong, but the classrooms, offices, dorms, buildings, labs, and technological services are well below where they deserve to be. They clearly demonstrate how education policy has shifted its priorities towards privatization and away from supporting access, research, and educational breadth.

Meanwhile private giants like Amity University (and sponsor of the Jaipur Literature Festival) provide in all twelve of its national campuses the most up-to-date facilities and have followed the United States model of selling college life as a kind of third-rate rate resort experience. Run by a conglomerate of industry giants in “plastics, pharmaceuticals, education, technology transfer, turnkey projects, finance, construction, publishing and IT,” Amity aggressively markets itself as the “most hi-tech campus” not only in its access to broadband, networked classrooms, and digital information, but also in its sophisticated camera surveillance system. So much so that it’s kind of creepy.

Shaping Readership

It should come as no surprise, then, that despite the larger and larger number of colleges and universities in India, fewer and fewer of these institutions are invested in anything that might be considered Literature. So while you have a growing population of readers versed in English, a growing population of readers who are educated, and a growing population of readers aspiring to the Indian middle and leisure class, you have that same population not only disinterested in literature, but potentially even hostile to it. Especially if you factor in how popular writers revel in the “unliterary” character of their work and regularly disparage literature.

To take Chetan Bhagat as an example, the subject matter of his novels consciously identifies with the new class of educated India who are not trained at traditional universities, but groomed by the booming management and technical institutes or the hard-knocks of capitalist enterprise. His Five Point Someone follows the struggles of students at the exclusive Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), his 2 States: The Story of My Marriage  initiates its romance at Ahmedabad’s International Institute of Management (IIM), and his One Night at the Call Center predictably chronicles the adventures of employees at what has become a kind of cliché of globalized labor.

Still from the Bollywood movie version of 2 States on location at the Ahmedabad IIM

It’s no wonder that the popular novel speaks directly to and about this population in ways that “literary” novels by Aarvind Adiga, Arundhati Roy, and others simply cannot. But of course they can, but the reading industry and the educational system have made it that much harder, not only by constructing what reading means, but also who the Indian reader is likely to be, how the Indian reader is likely to be trained, and how the reading tastes of the Indian reader have been profoundly influenced by education policy.

One thought on “India’s Higher Learning Crisis

  1. I wonder how you see the elite institutions playing a role here – especially the newer, Westernised universities like Ashoka, Azim Premji, or Ambedkar University that are modelled after American liberal arts colleges. You’d definitely see different reading practises there, although I must say from my experience writers like Chetan Bhagat are enjoyed across the spectrum.


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