It is perhaps paradoxical that a country like ours with its ancient brahmanical tradition of reverence for learning should have made such an abysmal failure of its higher education. Teachers who never teach (which may even be all for the best), leakage of question papers, organized cheating, incompetent and dishonest assessment, text-books that are mostly hilarious rubbish, the occasional minister or secretary of education who is in jail for selling university degrees and the many more who should be — the Indian university system is a collective race to the bottom in academic standards which plumbs new depths every day.
In contrast to this ongoing farce, the Indian Institutes of Technology maintain a reputation for quality that is unparalleled in the developing world and the envy of many developed countries as well. So do a tiny handful of professional colleges, of medicine, law and management — although, in the case of the last, it is not clear whether the quality of the institutes quite measures up to the superlative standards of their students.
This bifurcation, indeed polarization, of our higher education is rooted in our political economy. Since independence, our economic and political development has been largely driven by a “revolution of rising aspirations”, a mass demand for higher living standards fuelled by the example of plenty elsewhere in the world. An aspect of this revolution is the passion for wider access to middle-class status, for fuller job opportunities at reasonable incomes. The government’s response has been the rapid expansion of government and semi-government employment, an expansion justified initially in terms of the government’s supposed duty to capture “the commanding heights of the economy”. A vast standing army, a proliferating university establishment and the indefinite multiplication of the bureaucracy constitute different facets of this job creation programme ; employment, not productivity, is its guiding principle.
Whatever the scale of job creation, however, it is of the essence that excess supply should rule in this labour market, so that the going wage exceeds the minimum that job-seekers might want. Entry into the fortunate world of the middle class has to be restricted, and the universities represent the first gateway of entry. Their function is to reduce the vast army of aspirants to middle-class status to manageable proportions, so that a subsequent process of selective recruitment can work.
In a complex federal democracy, however, the administration of this far-flung apparatus of job creation is decentralized. Its parts are controlled by different agents with their private agendas and their own vulnerabilities to pressure from job-seekers and student unions. Politicians seek to maximize employment, university admissions and degrees in their own constituencies. University authorities, facing pressure from politicians and student unions, relax admission and degree requirements. There are hardly any academic constraints on this process of multiplication of numbers and dilution of standards. After all, the university is primarily a stepping stone to bureaucratic or clerical employment, and bureaucracy has few essential prerequisites beyond basic literacy; all other relevant skills are a product of experience, of learning by doing, of on-the-job training. To insist on high academic standards in this milieu amounts to pointless pedantry. The limit to the whole process of expansion and devaluation of higher education is not academic but financial: it is set by the number of jobs that the government can afford to create.
Quality, therefore, is essentially irrelevant to university education. This is the basic structural principle around which all the institutions that govern university life are built. The University Grants Commission, the bureaucracy that presides over the system, is primarily a body that seeks to impose quantitative uniformity — in salaries, in teacher-student ratios, in teaching loads, in rules — in total disregard of quality considerations. It is ably abetted in this endeavour by teachers’ organizations, which recognize only one criterion of excellence — seniority — and stoutly resist all other measures: publications in refereed journals, student evaluations of teaching, or anything else.
Indeed, within the university system, excellence is a burden. Consider the gradual decay of the Delhi School of Economics or the deliberate destruction of that once-magnificent institution, Presidency College, Calcutta, by successive state governments in determined pursuit of mediocrity. The brain-drain to the West is, of course, a cause of the intellectual impoverishment of our universities; and there can be little doubt that the gap in salaries, research facilities and opportunities for exchange of ideas and intellectual stimulation has supplied the main impetus for the migration of our best talent to the American university system. However, other countries have designed policies for coping with such problems. Israel, for example, permits its outstanding scholars to spend up to half the academic year teaching abroad, so that its students may benefit over the rest of the year. Such a policy would be unthinkable in India: here bureaucratic uniformity must be maintained at all cost and after all, if the raison d’être of the system is simply the expansion of babudom, what does quality matter'
Engineering, medicine and law differ from the bureaucracy in having their own irreducible minimum requirements of technical skills. There cannot be much demand for the services of engineers who build bridges that collapse instantly, doctors who constitute major health hazards and lawyers who lose all their cases. A minimum of accountability ensures a limit to the possible dilution of professional standards, even in government service.
In the private sector, quality competition is more intense; it generates a demand for higher technical content in professional education and for more rigorous admission and examination standards. Given the vast size of our school-leaving population, the level of talent it encompasses can be very high. A demand therefore exists for professional institutions to screen out and cater to the very talented. Intensifying this is a global market for professionals, which draws the overwhelming bulk of our best talent into professional education.
The technical requirements of management are less exacting; but globalization generates a demand for the highest natural ability. Management institutes are important, therefore, not for the skills they nurture, but for their admission and examination standards: the more exclusive and selective, the greater their value to potential employers as signals of quality. In addition, of course, students at these institutes can forge personal networks that are invaluable in their subsequent careers.
Recent changes therefore have stepped up the momentum of quality improvement in our professional and technical institutes. But our university system, that juggernaut for the mass production of low-quality degrees, has run out of steam essentially because of the bankruptcy of the government. Budget constraints have hardened: gone are the days of nonchalant job-creation, of the merry multiplication of bureaus, offices, enterprises and indeed universities, and with those days has disappeared the rationale of the university system itself. Perceptive students no longer regard the university or its degree as the stepping stone to employment, or indeed to anything. Those not so perceptive continue to add to the numbers and frustrations of the half-educated unemployed and unemployable.
Yet, given the fact that a vast university establishment is already in existence, it must be permitted to go through the motions; no selective weeding out is possible, no shift in focus from quantity to quality. Like the innumerable public enterprises that purport to produce and market unsaleable products at vast cost to the taxpayer, the Indian university system will survive as an anachronism, a terminally ill dinosaur that must yet be maintained on life-support for the indefinite future.