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Policy | Why India's higher education sector fails to deliver

The problem is in how we have modelled our higher education system.

May 11, 2020 / 02:09 PM IST

Just two days ago, Indians were jubilant about the fact that Sundar Pichai has now taken over Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc, as its CEO. He’s also not an exception, and there are Indians doing well for themselves, in scores, in foreign countries, in almost all professional domains. So much so, that Indians have the highest household income in the United States and earn almost the double of the American average.

This is also true for Indian academics, who have established themselves globally. Scholars from India went abroad to study and took up academics, and some of them even went on to win the Nobel Prize, such as Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee, etc.

This certainly is a substantial indicator of the professional prowess and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian community. This begs the question that why then India itself performs so miserably when it comes to actually setting up powerful and global companies, and world class research institutions. As a consequence, we do not invent new technology, in almost any field.

With the ongoing issue of fees hike at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the debate on higher education has taken centerstage. It is very important that we examine the perils of the Indian higher education system.

As is the case with any other thing in the world, education also requires money. That said, India spends the seventh highest amount on research and development. This is more than Britain, France, Spain, Italy and Russia individually do. Yet we import a lot of technology from these countries. Hence, it can safely be concluded that money is not the problem.


The problem is in how we have modelled our higher education system.

The primary mistake which we did was creating specialised institutes such as IITs, IIMs, NLUs etc. Around the world, the top specialised school is housed in a university. For instance, the Harvard Law School is the best law school of the world, and is a part of Harvard University. So is the case with Harvard Business School. The US did not require a National Law School or American Institute of Management to become the top educational institutes of the world. Yet, even our specialised institutions, fare very poorly when it comes to global rankings.

With the advent of these specialised institutions, inevitably we did not bother with our already established places of learning -- the traditional universities. For instance, the Allahabad University, was famously known as the Oxford of the East and is actually modelled as the Oxford University, and produced scholars in all domains of knowledge. Today, it is nowhere near its former glory, and so is the case with most traditional universities. A student in Bengaluru, for example, getting admission into the National Law School Bangalore and also in Law Department of the Bangalore University, will certainly always choose the former.

This is a result of systematic neglect of these universities by the State, because specialised institutions, any day get much more funds, per student. They also get all the talent. The universities are left with no talent and no money. Hence, the seventh-highest expenditure on R&D is mostly spent on these specialised institutions and there is no spatial distribution.

The specialised institutions, especially in the case of IITs and IIMs, did so much better than other universities, because the government made them autonomous. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has no supervisory control over IITs and IIMs, which it does over other universities. The result of non-regulation is for everyone to see: IITs and IIMs are now far ahead, both in education and research.

The quality of higher education administered in Indian universities inadvertently also suffers from regulation. For instance, to be appointed as assistant professor in any university in India, the aspirant has to clear a National Eligibility Test (NET). I being myself a teacher of law, can comment on the quality of the question paper for the subject, and it is laughable. The NET exam is being conducted this week, for various subjects. The paper for law contained questions which required aspirants to answer the date on which a particular law was enacted, or in which particular judgment this exact quote is found. Almost all questions are memory-based, hence the exam is just a test of memory rather than knowledge. An aspirant may have international research publications, but they can’t be appointed as assistant professors, unless and until they clear this exam.

That said, the argument here is not against the exam but against the government ownership and behaviour. Before the NET was introduced, the situation was worse, since all university teaching positions are government jobs, they used to be offered to the near and dear ones of the heads of the departments, deans etc. Even today, nepotism is rampant in the entire higher education sector in India. Still everyone has to clear an exam before securing the government job.

Therefore, the solution to this lies in strategic privatisation of higher education sector. The government should invite private players to be a part of the already established universities and also make it easier to set up private universities. The Indian School of Business (ISB), which is privately-owned and earns consistently good global rankings, is a testament to the fact that this model can be replicated on many other levels in education sector. To put this into perspective, all Ivy League universities in the US, are private universities.

The substantial absence of private players, has made the higher education system in India just a place to corner well-paying government jobs and not as a place to disseminate knowledge.

Raghav Pandey is an assistant professor, Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. Views are personal.
Raghav Pandey is an Assistant Professor of Law at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai.
first published: Dec 10, 2019 10:23 am

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