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India’s higher education on a neoliberal path: Rankings should not sideline dissent and diversity

The ranking process is a vicious circle wherein higher-ranking institutions can mobilize more resources and vice versa. Unfortunately, those institutions which are not part of this frenzy competition will eventually be excluded from the higher education space dominated by the current neoliberal discourse.

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Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, noted that the most dominant contemporary form of fatalism is neoliberalism. Higher education today is not spared from the shackles of neoliberalism. Educationalists across the globe lament the neoliberalist turn of higher education. 

In India, it is bolstered by the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) and its assessment and ranking strategy of Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) to ensure compliance. Today, assessment and ranking are naturalized and critics appear cynical. Participating in this process of ranking has now become an obligation for HEIs. While contestations on the rubrics of assessment and ranking are encouraged, the purpose of these processes is seldom questioned. Notwithstanding, the education ministry of India has recently formed a panel to prepare a roadmap to strengthen the assessment and accreditation of HEIs.

Neoliberalism insists on immediate results; ideas and discursive practices are alien to its ethos. Its target-oriented, alienating speed finds some respite in techno-scientific teaching-learning devices and methods. Emphasis on surveillance and compliance to quality parameters laid down by external agencies have made HEIs a totally administered space. Although in the neoliberal lexicon, students are clients of educational services, the real client of HEIs is the corporate world which anticipates employment-ready pupils. HEIs appear to cater to public interest while in fact serving private corporations.

The superiority of the market, ‘goodness of competition’ and utilitarian knowledge have become the defining features of today’s higher education in India. ‘Outcome-driven education’ is the new catchphrase and educational practices are ‘evaluated and measured’ as per administrative conveniences, utilitarian values and the quality protocols of business and industry. For instance, publishing is considered ‘productive’ as it is reckoned in the ranking rubrics whereas, reading, a time-consuming foundational activity of knowledge production is paradoxically considered ‘anarchically wasteful’ to the neoliberal order of HEIs if at all it does not result in publication.

NEP Framework

Logically, one who proposes a change has the burden of proof. But the sweeping structural changes through the NEP are adrift of any evidence to suggest what is erroneous with the previous education policy or existing arrangements in HEIs. The neoliberal crucibles of NEP include the promotion of outcome-driven, skill-based education, and ‘graded autonomy to HEIs. Both of these are regressive moves, which stray away from, and distort the real meaning of freedom and autonomy.

The most interesting and valued outcome of education should be something that cannot be predicted. The end result of education ought to represent a fluidity that entails the spontaneous acquisition of knowledge, skills and experience. However, this sort of creativity becomes a casualty in the outcome-driven framework. Meno’s learning paradox states, ‘if you know what you're looking for, the inquiry is unnecessary. If you don't know what you're looking for, the inquiry is impossible.’ Outcome-driven education is a skewed solution to this paradox, which undermines both novelty and curiosity.

The NEP says, ‘the higher education system must aim to form the hub for the next industrial revolution which it predicts to be an age of robotics. It thus seems that according to the NEP, education plays an attendant role in the market needs. NEP has reformulated education from one’s sustained efforts for intellectual, social and personal growth to that of a mere pass to enter different levels of the labour market and therefore a professional and vocational curriculum is preferred over the disciplinary pursuit of knowledge.

Assessment and ranking

Surveillance and control are the postulates of neoliberalism. NEP legitimized these in higher education by introducing the notions of ‘graded accreditation’ and ‘graded autonomy’ which are linked to a system of sustained surveillance. This is further tethered to the ideals of ranking and grading. The drive to receive the topmost rank among HEIs as well as the proliferation of ranking agencies have propelled this trend. The parameters for assessment vary between agencies of ranking as do the credibility of ranking/grading. For instance, a recent report says that many universities are graded higher than the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) whereas the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) places IISc at the top. It is wise to not confound the status hierarchy, resulting from different assessment and ranking parameters, with the quality of HEIs.

The main principle of assessment is compliance with dogmatic expectations about the overall ‘productive’ educational output. Teachers spend a lot of time documenting their own activities and creating clerical records for this purpose. The need for extensive documentation requires more support staff and bureaucrats. Both these groups play a pivotal role, surpassing even the faculty, in the increasingly surveillance cum fund-hungry neoliberal infrastructure of HEIs leading to the horrible, bureaucratization of the intellect.

Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, maintained that social rankings are not neutral methods, but politico-ideological valuation and hierarchization based on the principle of inclusion and exclusion. In a similar vein, healthy differences between HEIs are transformed into an academic hierarchy by the mechanism of assessment and ranking. This transformation is, however, obscured by complying with the neoliberal definition of ‘merit’. Merit in this sense comes to mean how well one aligns to market needs.

Ranking, furthermore, is less of a quality indicator than an institution’s data-keeping / organizing skills and corporate social capital. Nevertheless, it exacerbates capability differences between institutions by moving more resources toward higher-ranking institutions. In this process, it converts and projects a lower-ranking institution’s struggle for resources as a struggle for recognition and merit. Thus, the ranking process is a vicious circle wherein higher-ranking institutions can mobilize more resources and vice versa. Unfortunately, those institutions which are not part of this frenzy competition will eventually be excluded from the higher education space dominated by the current neoliberal discourse.

Diversity is beneficial 

The quest for autonomy and intellectual freedom within this neoliberal backdrop is definitely a "feasible utopia", to use Ronald Barnett’s terminology. Here the ‘feasibility’ in the otherwise ‘utopian’ future ignites the belief that HEIs could perhaps look different than they appear today. Higher education is a social institution responsible for the dynamic development of society and therefore, cannot be reduced to functioning parallelly to Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs). 

With the massification of higher education, diversity is inevitable and will prove to be beneficial. An awareness of ranking as a politico-ideological scaffold would help HEIs to embrace it with caution, from a safe distance and ensure a timely exit. Failure to exit the ‘game of ranking obsession’ is inimical to an institution’s broader vision of education and its sense of autonomy. Let us not sideline dissent and diversity, which is the lifeblood of higher education, for compliance and decisiveness resulting from assessment and ranking.

(L T Om Prakash is an Associate Professor of Sociology, at CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. Shaniya Karkada is a Research Intern with the Centre for Social and Policy Research, CHRIST University), Bangalore. Views are personal.)

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