Thoughts on Indian university education

The lady sitting next to me was very upset.  Prof. Balaram’s first slide in his talk on ranking institutions (at the Indian Institute of Science on 21st Feb 2015) had headlines from various dailies screaming that the Indian Institute of Science had slipped by over 100 ranks in global university rankings.  The lady is just one more in a long line of people, including the President of India, who are dissatisfied with Indian higher education.

Many things make rankings dubious, as Prof. Balaram pointed out.  There are commercial interests. Universities are compared outside of the social, cultural and economic matrix they are embedded in.  The formulae for institution rankings include other indices (such as impact factors of publications) which may not necessarily reflect the merit of the academic output from the faculty and students.  Some locally relevant and critical research conducted in these institutions may not be included in the calculations…

But why is there so much discontent about university education? There is the normal human tendency, fuelled by vanity maybe, to always want ‘ours’ to be considered the ‘best’ – everyone complains that Indian universities do not feature in the top 100 (how these calculations are done, whether it is fair to compare Indian institutions to those in the US, and whether Indian institutions rank highly in some areas like chemistry, do not bother the majority).  Then, there is dissatisfaction within the institutes themselves: the faculty are not happy with the administration; the students are not happy with the faculty…  Even the best ‘ranked’ Universities are often just places to hold exams, ‘degree granting devices’.

But just over 50 years ago, Universities in India were very different places – students learnt under ‘stalwarts’, dedication and a certain commitment to perfection were considered essential, they were ‘happening’ places.  Prof. L. S. Seshagiri Rao’s description of Central College in Bangalore during the 1940s and 50s (in his interview in The Hindu on 20th Feb 2015) is an example.  Such places did not have to be ‘ranked’; everyone somehow knew they were great, everyone was satisfied.  As I read Prof. LSS’s description of his student days, what came to my mind was Tagore’s famous poem – ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…’; fifty years hence, maybe Indian Universities have somehow got stuck in the ‘dreary desert sand of dead habit’.  Fifty years hence, what is so different?  I asked Prof. Balaram.  He wrote back, ‘Even as the pool of dedicated and talented teachers has shrunk with each succeeding generation, the number of institutions providing higher education has increased exponentially. There are too few inspirational teachers, distributed across a very broad range of different institutions. It is improbable that today’s students will have an educational experience that will match Seshagiri Rao’s.’

So which way should Indian higher education go? Perhaps, as Prof. Balaram says, the way out is for young, dedicated people to choose to teach.  But, as the Cheshire cat says to Alice, the way also ‘depends on where you are going’.

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