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Book Review: Standing Still Not An Option

By focusing on issues that are varied and complex, a liberal arts education nudges students into learning how to articulate and evaluate multidimensional, real-world problems

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Former prime minister Manmohan Singh described legal education in India as ‘a sea of institutionalised mediocrity with a few islands of excellence’. This has been used in The Future of Indian Universities to highlight the abysmal condition of Indian higher education in general. The book is a collection of essays by academics that explores the current condition of institutes of higher learning and identifies future areas of reform.

A report prepared in 2014 by consulting firm Ernst & Young identified key gaps in the Indian higher education system, primarily, poor employability of graduates, low impact research output, limited focus on entrepreneurship, a complex regulatory environment and abysmal institutional governance. The essays take a detailed look at these and other issues.

In 2014-15, only four Indian universities featured in the Top 400 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. This has now reduced to just two. This, as is argued in the introduction to this collection, is not because Indian universities have become worse but because other universities, especially those in China, have performed extraordinarily well. Four years have elapsed between the Ernst & Young survey and the publication of this collection and the issues being highlighted are alarmingly similar. This shows that while the problems are well known, remedial action has largely not been taken. Newton’s law that a body at rest continues to be at rest until a force is applied to it is applicable both to physical bodies as well as to the Indian institutions in which this law is being taught. The comparison with China makes it glaringly obvious that standing still is not an option for India.

To stay relevant, university curriculum must equip graduates with tools to operate in the outside world. One of the essays advocates the promotion of liberal arts and humanities education to develop critical thinking abilities. By focusing on issues that are varied and complex, a liberal arts education nudges students into learning how to articulate and evaluate multi-dimensional, real-world problems. The author argues that without critical thinking abilities, graduates with unidimensional technical skills alone “are not going to be useful in the working world”. This raises the key question of the balance between specialisation and multi-disciplinary education and whether enough of our graduates have the necessary critical faculties to solve problems and become job creators.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry surveyed Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics between 1994 and 2014 and found that 78.5 per cent of them did not do their prize winning work at the same university that they did their Ph.D/MD from and 35.5 per cent moved out of the institution where they did their prize winning work and received the prize while in another university. The study concludes that successful academic careers are related to mobility. This emphasises the need to have a number of institutions with great research facilities rather than focusing on a few “islands of excellence”. With this in mind, it is dispiriting to read about the general lack of funding and incentives for research and publication by Indian faculty.

Various essays identify poor and ambiguous governance, over-regulation and excessive centralisation as systemic issues that are making it difficult to implement any meaningful reform in Indian higher education. A case is made for the regulator to act as an institutional mentor instead of a monitor. The government is working on preparing a draft ‘New Education Policy’ that is expected to tackle these issues.

Amidst the prevailing inertia, the established order of universities as providers of education is being challenged by Massively Open Online Courses, which make course material from top universities available to the general public. In one essay, the author refers to the “disappearance of the classroom” and argues that since it may be difficult to build enough brick and mortar universities in India, distance learning could bridge the gap between great teachers and willing learners. India leapfrogged over landlines to go wireless; will this be an inflection point for Indian higher education.  
As the immovable object of the Indian education system faces the irresistible forces of technology-led disruption and ever-rising job market demands, it raises a plethora of issues. It is then, perhaps, unfair to expect a single book to cover all perspectives on these issues. For instance, in this collection, while the role of private universities is discussed, not enough is presented from the point of view of public universities and what are their perceived challenges and suggested solutions for revival.

Another of Newton’s laws is that the rate of change of momentum is proportional to the force applied. Opinions of academics such as the ones in this collection will add to the force that needs to be applied on the government and regulators to provide much needed momentum to the Indian education sector. How much force of public opinion needs to be applied before things actually change? Well, that’s a question worthy of a doctoral thesis.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Mohit Charnalia

The writer is Director & Head of Risk, Billionloans Financial Services

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