Higher education policy lacks direction, say academics

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, many academics were hopeful about the future of India’s higher education system after years of seeing the quality of university education steadily undermined by political and bureaucratic interference.

One year on, however, there is disappointment at the lack of a clear higher education direction and concern over the government’s repeated attempts to take control of some of India’s best institutions, undermining their institutional autonomy, and centralising control of higher education.

When Modi appointed Smriti Irani – his government’s youngest minister and a former actress with little previous experience of government – as the Human Resource Development, or HRD, minister which includes responsibility for higher education, many academics preferred to wait and watch rather than judge her on her lack of educational qualifications and political experience.

However, according to Dr Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, the trajectory of the Modi government’s education policy has been “disappointing and makes one apprehensive”.

“I don’t see any fundamental change in a view – common to our Left and the Right [wings of politics] – that somehow, higher education is something to be controlled, centralised,” Kapur said in an interview with a local media group.

“Yes, I am disappointed. Because I think that Modi’s vision of taking the country forward is not possible without the right human capital,” he said.

Indecisive minister

Irani has been shrouded in controversy. Her appointment came as a surprise to many, even within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, whose members say the HRD minister’s post has always been held by political heavyweights. Even with all their experience, past ministers struggled with the portfolio, said a BJP member not wanting to be named.

Arjun Singh, who was HRD minister under a previous government in 2004-09, faced immense resistance when he brought in higher education quotas for lower castes, the disadvantaged and tribal groups. He also came under fire over the so-called ‘Deemed University’ status for private for-profit institutions, often seen as low quality institutions.

Even heavyweight Kapil Sibal, who under the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance of centre-left political parties’ coalition formed after the 2004 elections, promised a series of much-needed education reforms, but could not generate enough consensus within his own party to enable the passage of his bills through parliament.

Sibal’s proposals to set up ‘Innovation Universities’ and roll out the red carpet for prestigious foreign universities to set up campuses in India have fallen by the wayside.

Irani lost little time in announcing that a new National Policy for Education will be formulated, with consultations to begin soon.

She has set up committees to look into the functioning of the higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission, which oversees universities, the All India Council for Technical Education which oversees business and engineering schools, and the National Council for Technical Education, among others.

Yet she is seen as indecisive because she is sitting on a pile of files and has delayed key appointments, including appointing the head of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, or NCERT, a key body for extending vocational education which is a central plank of Modi’s promise to increase youth employment, and the head of the Central Board of Secondary Education.

Appointments stymied

A huge backlog has arisen in the appointment of vice-chancellors and other vacant senior posts in publicly funded universities. Controversially, the Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO, in March rejected “on a technicality” the appointment of physicist Sandip Trivedi as the new director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

Academics said it is the first time in the history of the country’s premier scientific research institution that a director’s appointment has been vetoed by the PMO, which also vetoed an appointment committee’s choice of director for the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, which has not had a director for over a year now.

Ministry interference led to the resignation in March and its subsequent withdrawal by Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the standing committee of the IIT Council, the governing body of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs, and the tendered resignation in December 2014 of Raghunath K Shevgaonkar, director of IIT Delhi, after a bruising politicised disagreement with the HRD ministry over the choice of an IIT head.

According to a director in the ministry, many high-level university appointments are stuck because they have not been cleared either by the PMO or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS – the Hindu nationalist grassroots organisation, of which the ruling BJP is the political wing.

Some feel the RSS is pushing its nationalist education agenda through Irani.

The HRD Ministry’s controversial appointment of RSS-linked Y Sudershan Rao in July 2014 as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, or ICHR, received much flak from academics who said he was unknown to the community of professional historians. They claim he has never published a peer-reviewed paper.

Under Rao, the ICHR in a surprise move this month disbanded the editorial board and advisory committee for its prestigious in-house journal Indian Historical Review. Speaking out days after she was removed from the journal’s advisory board, eminent historian Romila Thapar said the move was detrimental to the quality of an esteemed institution such as the ICHR.

Thapar told University World News the new government was pursuing “reckless reforms”.

“The centralisation of the education system will reduce universities and colleges to teaching shops and coaching centres. The government is deciding on these reforms without involving professionals and teachers in dialogue,” she said.

She was referring to the proposed Central University Act that seeks to replace the existing acts of the central universities with one single Act that would require all universities to follow a common admission process, and a common syllabus along with transferable faculty. Critics say the Act eats into university autonomy.

“The government is promoting uniformity, which is the opposite of innovation and excellence. If this is implemented, no university will have the freedom to experiment with teaching-learning methods, research, or invest in academic excellence,” Thapar said.


The Modi government announced it would set up new institutes of excellence, such as new medical institutes, IITs and Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs, in less prosperous states such as Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Assam. But the challenges, including availability of land, building infrastructure and recruiting quality faculty, remain.

The HRD Ministry oversees more than 40 central universities, 16 IITs, 30 National Institutes of Technology, 13 IIMs and more than 1.4 million schools.

There is a huge challenge of rising faculty vacancies – a 38% vacancy rate in premier institutions such as the IITs, and 30% to 40% in central universities. These top institutions are also failing to make it to the world's top 200 universities.

“The government has done a few good things such as launching a programme that allows us to invite people from abroad at the government’s expense. This has made it easy for universities to invite foreign faculty,” said Sudhir Kumar Sopory, vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “But we have not seen much enhancement in budgetary allocation and resources continue to be a constraint.”

Earlier this year, the government formalised the Global Initiative of Academic Networks, or GIAN, during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India. GIAN aims to bring up to 1,000 US-based academics to India each year for short periods to teach, explore avenues for collaborative research and other academic activities.

“The irony is that GIAN has been set up for our academics and students to learn best practices from US-based faculty. However, our government officials have as much to learn from the Americans, as well as from others, about how to run public universities,” said Assistant Professor Pushkar from the department of humanities and social sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani-Goa.

“In the US, as in most countries around the world that have robust higher education sectors, public institutions are not government-controlled. Ministers do not have the power to approve or reject the appointments of vice-chancellors and directors.

“Our universities will not realise their full potential unless the government stops meddling in matters it has no business messing with,” Pushkar said.

For Irani and perhaps Prime Minister Modi, the massive task of fixing India's education woes and overhauling the system seems to be more than they bargained for. According to academics, to fix an already broken higher education system, the current administration needs to encourage academic autonomy and innovation, not throttle it.