While the architecture of knowledge is changing globally, India languishes in a historical bid to decelerate its educational system – especially university education. Subpar secondary school teacher-student ratios, followed by unskilled or jobless degrees, a promised but long-pending revamped national education policy, hundreds of thousands of posts lying vacant in central and state universities, ritual exploitation of ad hoc faculty members even in the metropolitan cities, historic lows in the budgeting for education as a percentage of the GDP, shutting down of nearly 1000 engineering colleges across the country, and political leaders of fringe groups clamouring for non-western or Vedic education, are merely a few instances of the plague.

Of course, the colour of the cat is not a problem as long as it catches the mice. The problem is there are just too many grass-eating cats in the fray.

Not reforms but reformation

A new book on higher education and educational reforms, The Future of Indian Universities, makes all the right noises in this direction. Edited by C Raj Kumar, it is an anthology of 19 papers from a conference held at the OP Jindal Global University (JGU), in March, 2017. The book may at once be a treasure or Pandora’s box. Designed to deconstruct, disrupt, and “dynamise” stagnant notions of higher education in India, it is the only volume in recent history that deals with the subject of the university and its future – with special focus on administration.

One remembers the remarkable contribution of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in the form of the nationalism lectures, which became the book What the Nation Really Wants to Know. The Future of Indian Universities amplifies the focus to the bureaucratic problems of university education and administration, and pursues that goal unflinchingly.

Raj Kumar – educated at Oxford, Harvard, and Hong Kong, with stints at the United Nations, and now the founding vice chancellor of JGU – and the authors in this volume have ensured it is a rewarding work. The contributors to the book are Pawan Agarwal, Kanti Bajpai, Carol M.Bresnahan, Sreeram Chaulia, Yugank Goyal, Barbara Harriss-White, Sital Kalantry, A Francis Julian, Stephen P Marks, Shailendra Raj Mehta, NR Madhava Menon, YSR Murthy, Indira J Parikh, Alice Prochaska, Prem Nath Raj Sinha, Anamika Srivastava, R Sudarshan and Shiv Vishwanathan.

The book is dedicated to the former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. Even so, it does not shy away from highlighting Mukherjee’s own “fashionable” espousal of academic values, not to mention the academic “mediocracy” perpetuated, willy-nilly, by other political leaders. Since the book was fondly released by the former President during his final days in office, one presumes it has his blessings – as any work of governmental or legislative criticism should for globally recognisable higher education to become a practical objective in India instead of remaining a theoretical adventure for the upper echelons.

Kumar highlights the lack of incentives for research, corruptible mechanisms for disbursal of funds, overall mediocrity in institutions of higher learning, bureaucracy and lack of proactive measures by the MHRD, socio-political excuses for low global competiveness, lack of autonomy for emerging universities and special educational zones, and the dichotomy between public and private universities despite the fact that the latter are privately governed and funded institutions. Sensibly, he adds that it is not as if Indian universities perform especially poorly, but that they lose relevance internationally, being unable to respond to global transformations. Harriss-White’s essay is especially pertinent in this regard, with her proposition of a “fourth culture” of universities, where private interests are geared towards enhancing and empowering public utility in education.

Beyond the ancient and the modern

Vishwanathan historicises how the institutionalisation of mediocracy led to the decline of the cosmopolitan university (as envisioned by PC Roy, JC Bose and R Tagore), and educational institutions in turn became cultures of employment rather than of empowerment. Despite its gratitude to the professed overnment, the book makes no effort whatsoever to curry favours with its leaders.

This refreshing stance is most strongly seen in the essays by Raj Kumar and Murthy, who criticise piecemeal reforms and statutory regulations, by Mehta and Sudarshan, who underscore the tripartite divorce between public policy, policy education and the public, and by Bajpai, who asserts that leaders who have left Indian universities stolidly at the bottom of global rankings have no moral right to censure elite colleges or ranking methodologies.

While Menon highlights the dangers of the elusive “demographic dividend,” Agarwal provides a series of recommendations to reap this dividend through improved educational governance. It is interesting to note the growing margins by which female students in urban higher education outnumber the males – even as more graduates than ever before are unemployable.

Indian higher education is also afflicted by fake journals and plagiarism, much of it owing to the irrational pressures of publishing, and the unutilised internet expansion in South Asia. This is highlighted by Marks. At the cost of repetitiveness, almost all the contributors argue for greater autonomy of private universities. Srivastava’s caveat comes in handy – that with growing corporatisation of education it is crucial not to lose contact with social justice. Another caveat, from Goyal, is that of the unprecedented surplus in knowledge production today – how global knowledge production surpasses the data of all the libraries of the world.

While the volume talks of the dire need for funding for publishing research and incentivising it for faculty promotions, it is a timely reminder that more than production, today, knowledge requires sharing and integration into the basic curricula and social life – rather than simply having more Indian engineers wanting American jobs, as Bresnahan points out.

One hopes that the book will be able to see itself translated into practical amendments, especially with regard to academic autonomy for universities, discerning and more meritocratic subsidisation of research and higher education, legislation for special educational zones, and of course, more socially relevant curricula across universities and disciplines. The flaws of the book lie largely in its repetitive petitioning for autonomy – one that perhaps highlights the effects that state and central bureaucracies have on the functioning of a private university, or even a public university, for that matter.

Another flaw is in the organisation of the book, emboldened especially in the end. Chaulia’s notions of Gandhian self-reliance and sustainability in education could have been further developed towards a topical conclusion to the book. They are, instead followed by a non-sequitur – an essay on the need for clinical legal education in India, appendices containing Mukherjee’s vision for the future university, and congratulatory remarks to the organisers of the conference held in March. Here the book ends, abruptly.

After nearly five hundred pages of thickly footnoted and insightful recommendations, we are back to square one with the question: who will implement these. Will it be left to these nineteen professors who made this volume possible?

A palpable exclusion from the book is the growing onslaught on freedom of speech, liberal university culture and political responsibility of the student community – especially since the volume is dedicated to Mukherjee, who is a champion of these causes. Notwithstanding this, the book begins a daunting mission, that of disrupting prevailing views such as those which state that Indian higher education is highly successful, or that its future depends on greater political intervention. As more and more evidence comes in to comprehensively rubbish such claims, one worries if the Centre’s push for ancient heritage education – even in school curricula – is the best way forward. The Future of Indian Universities has possibly paved the way for critiquing government policy in education with anti-governmental gratitude.

The Future of Indian Universities, edited by C Raj Kumar, Oxford University Press.