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Devesh Kapur: Can India's higher education be saved from the rule of babus?

Greater decentralisation of higher education governance is key to meaningful reform

Devesh Kapur 

Devesh Kapur

A recent paper details the striking rise of China as a major contributor to science and technology over the past three decades, buoyed not only by the country's extraordinary rapid economic growth and quick expansion of education but also "a labour market favouring academic meritocracy, a large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists, and a centralised government willing to invest in science"*.

The rapid emergence of China as one of the leading producers of knowledge in global science is not just about quantity; there is a similar increase in highly cited (top one per cent) articles. There is much to celebrate in China's laudable achievement. Scientific research - at least much of it - is a public good and China's growing contributions to the global production of knowledge benefit all humanity, including India.

At the same time, historically, leadership in global science and technology has been closely linked to global political and economic leadership - whether England in the 19th century, Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century or the United States since then. Indeed, scientific prowess is a sine qua non for global power. While emerging powers have to be adept at using advances in science and technology, they are net consumers of knowledge; global powers, on the other hand, have to be at the leading edge of science and technology and inevitably become net producers of knowledge.

In 1990, India's gross domestic product, or GDP (using purchasing power parity), was 83 per cent that of China, while the number of publications was double that for China. By 2011, India's GDP was 43 per cent that of China but the ratio of publications was less than 30 per cent. Clearly, despite rapid economic growth and the expansion of higher education over the past two decades, India has severely underperformed relative to China on a key performance indicator of higher education: scientific publications.

The key reasons for China's rise are also ones that have hobbled India. Just as a self-confident China embraced global economic integration and leveraged it to turbocharge its economy, it has used global faculty, institutions and benchmarks to improve its higher education system. Make no mistake: if a foreign institution wants to establish itself in China, it has to have a meaningful collaboration with a Chinese institution that can learn, copy and improve over time, just as Chinese businesses have done. But this self-confidence is lacking in India. If India's political elites have been apprehensive of globalisation, the country's intellectuals have been, for the most part, hostile; they have viewed themselves as valiant defenders of the nation against marauding foreigners. Patriotism is the best cover for self-interest.

It should be emphasised, then, that China's gains have resulted from massive increases in public investment, but in such a manner that public money is linked to clear national goals in which getting publications in international journals is seen as a priority. While one can contest that priority, there is at least clarity about what the expenditures are meant to achieve.

Not only is meritocracy a much more contested terrain in India, but the idea that there should be clear links between academic productivity, salaries and tenure, as in China, would meet fierce resistance from a vocal interest group, namely faculty. The University Grants Commission (UGC) rules, that faculty members in public institutions should automatically get promotions based on the length of service and have a common salary structure linked to civil service salaries set by an anachronistic authority called the Pay Commission, have reduced faculty to the status of babus. It is not surprising that so much of higher education in India - both overall regulation and the internal governance of universities - is what Pankaj Chandra, former director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, termed "babudom" - a regime of, for and by babus.

It is ironic that regulation and governance of higher education in authoritarian China are far more decentralised than in democratic India. Indeed, one might even say that higher education functions more democratically in China than it does in India, where the UGC (and other regulators) and the human resource development (HRD) bureaucracy have stifled the openness and creativity that are necessary for higher education to flourish.

Consider this: between 2000-01 and 2011-12, the number of colleges in India increased from 12,806 to 35,539, which meant an average of nearly six new colleges a day for more than a decade. What a fabulously hard-working and accommodative regulatory system - unless, of course, one asks how this really happened, and what happens inside these institutions. The Indian higher education regulatory system has allowed every politician worth her name to start a college. How much worse could it get if it did not exist? At least there wouldn't be barriers to those few foolhardy idealists who want to try something different but lack the wherewithal of the politically connected?

There are two pointed realities of higher education institutions in India, even the elite ones. One, they have weak leadership; and two, the dominance of a remarkably small number of individuals in selection and review committees of central higher education institutions and the country's science laboratories. This ensures pliability, de facto patron-client relationships and that few openly challenge the system. Everyone knows this, but can't say it openly because, of course, as the saying goes, the nail that sticks out gets hammered. Science advances not because of the vice-like control of old men, but because of brash young challengers to the status quo. Except in India.

Unless India's higher education system gets rid of the babu mentality - both at the regulatory and at the ministry level as well as within universities - it will betray its promise to its young and to the country's future. Why should the HRD ministry have a role in the selection of an IIT or IIM director, or in the appointment of the vice-chancellor of a central university? The key stakeholders are the campus community (faculty, students and staff), alumni, and, yes, the national government. At the same time, an alumnus of an IIT has a far greater emotional stake in the success and future of his alma mater than a dozen bureaucrats in the HRD ministry or the selection panels they appoint.

The core function - and competence - of the ministries is designing and implementing policy. The more the HRD ministry gets involved in personnel selection, the more it undermines the governance of universities and leaves itself with little time to focus on its core policy-related goals. And the more the UGC pretends it can regulate the massive numbers of higher education institutions in the country, the more one is tempted to pray: deliver us to our enemies but save us from our higher education regulators.

* "China's rise as a major contributor to science and technology", proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 16, 2014 (Yu Xie, Chunni Zhang and Qing Lai).

The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania

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First Published: Sun, June 22 2014. 22:50 IST