Events in far away places sometimes have unintended consequences. The collapse of higher education in India may be the result of developments that apparently have nothing to do with it. Before elaborating on this, it is necessary to sketch the characteristics of this collapse. Higher education in India suffers from a complete lack of vision about its nature and purpose. Higher education policy is pursued by ad hocism and populism. Thus, quality and excellence are sacrificed. At another level, universities are dominated by a body called the University Grants Commission that asserts the ownership of something called a national education policy. The UGC, because it is the principal fund-giving and accrediting body, has successfully undermined the autonomy of universities in India. Witness the recent events in Delhi University. Excellence and autonomy, the two essential requirements for the pursuit of knowledge, the sole aim of higher education, have thus disappeared from the screen of higher education. The lowest common denominator has trumped all other cards.
Yet it was not always like this. Jawaharlal Nehru had a vision of higher education that had a convergence with his overall goal of making India into a powerful economy with a strong manufacturing and industrial base. He realized that India needed top class engineers and professional managers. Hence his emphasis on establishing the IITs, the two institutes of management and on supporting the Indian Statistical Institute. What needs to be underlined is that in the making of these institutions, Nehru made the pursuit of excellence the priority and never interfered in their functional autonomy. Nehru sought to imbue the institutions of higher learning with the needs of a new republic. In a subsequent regime, under Indira Gandhi, the goals of higher education were defined by her education minister, S. Nurul Hasan. The latter established research institutes in the sciences and the social sciences and ensured they functioned independently.
What is significant is that the visions of India’s first prime minister and of Nurul Hasan were tinged by the ideas and ideals of socialism. Both had thought profoundly about higher education and set their goals according to their ideological predilections. The point to remember is that they had a vision, an idea of what higher education is about and what it should be about. This vital quality has disappeared from today’s education policy-makers, if they can be at all dignified by such an appellation. Hence the speculative generalization contained in the first sentence of this leader. Did the decline of higher education in India begin with the coming down of the wall that divided Germany’s principal metropolis? The disappearance of an ideology meant also the disappearance of certain kinds of people who had given India’s higher education a direction.