Hard work or Harvard: What India needs is more educational autonomy

If autonomy, creativity, freedom to design curriculum, the appointment of faculties, and incentivization of research are used as a sales pitch to lure world-acclaimed institutions, why not set your own house (Indian universities) in order first? Why not harness the potential of Indian universities like the JNU instead of stigmatising them? 

Mayank Mishra Jan 27, 2023
Representational Photo

In a quest to make India a ‘knowledge society’, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has drafted norms for facilitating foreign universities and educational institutions (with a rank among the top 500 global rankings or foreign higher educational institutions - FHEIs - of repute in home jurisdiction) to set up campuses in India which allow them autonomy in decision making.

It is something that cannot just remain narrowed down to the education sector but shall have layered ramifications. One of the most common arguments in favour of FHEIs in India is that it may potentially help steadily decrease the outflow of billions of dollars due to the migration of nearly 200,000 students for higher education abroad every year. However, the craze of well-to-do Indian students to migrate abroad for higher studies is not only limited to attaining quality education but to improving the quality of living by settling down in greener pastures. 

To add to the perspective, over 183,000 Indians renounced citizenship in 2022, up from 129,000 in 2014. Also, a university abroad provides not only an international degree but also a whole set of experiences of different facets, including material, cultural and social. 

Another argument is that physical infrastructure as prerequisite for FHEI to establish a foreign campus would usher in foreign investments into the country. But the approval for FHEI by the government would be for ten years only, subject to renewal on the basis of performance, thus raising questions about the gestation of investments incurred by foreign universities setting up campuses in India.

Needed liberal university space

The potential area of academia that needs more attention apart from STEM are liberal arts and social sciences. India has a severe dearth of quality institutions and funding in the field. However, given the political and social volatility perpetually fuelled by electoral dynamics, the freedom of quality research may potentially become an area of contestation. University spaces in India are already marred by accusations of curtailing of academic freedom and free speech; any leading varsity globally would not compromise on these credentials. The treatment meted out to researchers, academicians and students whose ideas were antithetical to the regimes in power go against the ethos of liberal university spaces.

The ambitious reformation of education through the National Education Policy (NEP) has the ostensible goal of preparing future generations in a rapdily changing world. However, the current political rhetoric of glorifying ancient Indian knowledge systems is more a tool for political propaganda than a body of thought which is academically engaged. The exposition of pseudo-science at the Indian Science Congress of 2019 goes against the scientific temper and the spirit of inquiry that is sought to be promoted. It is paradoxical that in a nation where acclaimed Western universities are highly sought after, its policy promotes policies and dogmas that stigmatises the values that these same universities promote. 

Given India’s economic inequalities, the state’s responsibility to reinforce a constitutionally mandated social structure that emphasises access to affordable quality education becomes paramount. The new policy guidelines see foreign varsities setting up their campus in India as commercial enterprises thus granting them licence to repatriate funds. These universities are expected to have a ‘reasonable’ fee structure and presumably would not have affirmative policies like reservations. 

Oxfam estimates that ten percent of India’s population holds 77 percent of the national wealth. The key to improving Indian higher education is to ensure both quality and affordability; foreign varsities would make liberty and autonomy prerequisites to deliver quality, while the affordability aspect is open to question. The demand for state-funded institutions is not going to subside, given the country’s demography.

Clash of ideologies

If autonomy, creativity, freedom to design curriculum, the appointment of faculties, and incentivization of research are used as a sales pitch to lure world-acclaimed institutions, why not set your own house (Indian universities) in order first? Why not harness the potential of Indian universities like JNU instead of stigmatising them?  That the same government is seeking to seduce the world’s best varsities to set up campus in India is a recognition of the pedagogic standards and academic rigor of these universities. And it is due to the respect of  liberty, autonomy, and non-interference in these universities by the political class of those countries. 

Contemporary populist narratives in Indian politics have expressed disdain and cynicism for the 'western values' of liberty, autonomy and democracy of which these universities are standard bearers, and It would be interesting to see how these values are reconciled with the new education policy of inviting these 'liberal' universities to India. 

As per the UGC, India has 1072 universities and 42343 colleges. Given one of the world’s world’s largest higher education systems, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education in India is 27.1 percent, one of the lowest in the world. 

In an ostensible declaration of prioritising ‘hard work’ over ‘Harvard’, it would be refreshing to focus on ‘hard work’ in holistically promoting and funding autonomous universities than prioritizing importing ‘Harvard’ in the quest of imparting quality education and making India a potential global knowledge hub.   

(The writer is pursuing Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal. He can be contacted at mayank-mishra@live.com)

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