Inaugurating the 99th edition of Indian Science Congress in Bhubaneswar earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted that over the past few decades India's relative position in the world of science had been declining and countries like China overtook it. He lamented that though science and engineering continued to attract the best students, many of them later opt for other careers because of poor prospects in science. Stressing upon strengthening of supply chain of the science sector, Singh said scientific output might be made more relevant to the country's stage development to address to the challenging problems of the poor rather than just of the rich. But this is not merely a problem of science education in India, this is problem related to the entire higher education system in India.
India is increasingly being viewed as an emerging global power, a power that will shape the global balance of power in the 21st century. There are enormous obstacles, however, that India will have to overcome in order to sustain its present trajectory of economic growth. One of the most significant of which is the crisis in India’s higher education system, something that goes unnoticed amid the glare of the engineers, doctors and managers that seems to be emerging from India’s premier professional institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of  Management.

To rectify this, the Indian government has proposed to set up a dozen new so-called world-class universities, in addition to 16 new Central universities, in an effort to expand quality higher education in India. The blueprint has been formulated by the University Grants Commission and it is expected that the government will be able to place the enabling legislation before the next session of the Parliament. These world class universities will have an all-India common entrance examination, a student-count not exceeding 12,000, the best of faculty with incentives over and above regular pay, a curriculum revised every three years, a semester system, private sector funding, vice-chancellors with at least decade-long teaching experience, collaboration with universities and institutes in India and abroad, academic creativity free from red-tapism.

Education has been placed at the centre of the forthcoming 11th Five-Year Plan, described as India’s ‘education plan.’ The outlay for education is being increased from 7.7 per cent of the total gross budgetary allocations in the 10th Plan to more than 19 per cent in the 11th Plan with an unprecedented five-fold increase in education spending in nominal terms. Again, the Prime Minister has repeatedly emphasized the need for reforms in the universities and called for a ‘new revolution in modern education’ with an emphasis on ‘a quantum jump in science education and research.’ The National Knowledge Commission, a high-level advisory body established by the Prime Minister to recommend changes in the higher education system ‘with the objective of transforming India into a knowledge society,’ has also underlined the need that India’s higher education system needs a systematic overhaul. But little of substance seems to have changed on the ground.

Knowledge is the key variable that will define the global distribution of power in the 21st century and India has also embarked on a path of economic success relying on its high-tech industries. But given the fragile state of India’s higher education system, it is not clear if India will be able to sustain its present growth trajectory. While India’s nearest competitor, China is re-orienting and investing in its higher education sector to meet the challenges of the future, India continues to ignore the problem as if the absence of world-class research in Indian universities is something that will rectify itself on its own. While India may be producing well-trained engineers and managers from its flagship IITs and IIMs, it is not doing so in sufficient numbers. There is also a growing concern that while private engineering and management institutions are flourishing due to their rising demand, their products are not of the quality that can help India compete effectively in the global marketplace.

India has the third largest higher education system in the world, behind only the US and China, that is churning out around 2.5 million graduates every year. Not only is this just about 10 percent of India’s youth but the quality of this output is also below par. If we leave aside the IITs, the IIMs, and some other institutions such as the All India Institute of Medical Science, the Indian Institute of Science, and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, we will find a higher education sector that is increasingly unwilling and unable to bear the weight of the rising expectations of an emerging India. The Indian universities, which should have been the centre of cutting edge research and hub of intellectual activity, are more in the news for political machinations than for research excellence. Years of underinvestment in higher education and a mistaken belief in providing uniform support to all universities irrespective of their output has made sure that neither the academics have adequate support to provide top-quality education to their students nor do they have any incentive to undertake cutting-edge research. India desperately needs research-oriented globally recognised universities to be able to participate in the modern-day knowledge-based global economy to its full potential.

A crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis for a democratic nation. Though the crisis that he was drawing attention to arose from a different set of issues facing the US academia in the 1960s and 1970s, the present crisis in the Indian universities is equally profound and has the potential to directly affect the future of India.

It has been pointed out that a process of privatisation of higher education system is underway in India, a result not of some comprehensive programme of education reform but as a consequence of the collapse of the public sector and the withdrawal of the middle classes. This is indeed a worrisome trend and it is hoped that the India realises that just by pumping more money into the system or by building more universities it will not be able to remedy the underlying rot in the system. While the blue-print for establishing world-class universities is the necessary first-step, it will not solve the problem on its own. The focus on quantity is not the correct approach towards solving the problem of declining quality of Indian higher education system. The policy-makers do not seem to have a clear grasp of what it takes to build institutions that can produce the kind of research and teaching that Indian higher education desperately needs.

Higher education cannot be reduced to mere economic instrumentality with its sole focus on equipping students with the practical skills needed by employers. Nor should the purpose of our higher education be simply to produce engineers and scientists able to compete with the Chinese. Reduction of learning to job skills rather than an inquiry into the larger issues of life can be disastrous in the long run. India will have to nurture learning for its own sake and to foster other less quantifiable and profitable – but still valuable features of higher education.  If the main goals of higher education are teaching students to think critically, broaden their intellectual horizons and promote self-awareness, then the Indian higher education system should be considered a comprehensive failure. And it is not clear if the government is interested in an overarching overhaul that can stem the rot in the nation’s higher education system.