Urgently waiting in India: Dreams, struggles and philosophies for higher education
Although India possesses one of the largest university systems in the world relative to its size (Eastman, 2011), the country still struggles to realize its dreams for higher education. According to Pawan Agarwal (2009), Indian civil servant and author on higher education, while India can attribute much of its emergence into the global knowledge economy to higher education, many in government still acknowledge an overall malaise in its system. The higher education challenges in India, however, are not new.
Over 40 years ago, Amartya Sen (1970), Indian economist and philosopher, cited Indian educational policy as the reason for its higher education ills. The challenges, it seems, reach back even further to the early 20th century (Agarwal, 2009). Before 1920, the Calcutta University Commission aimed to create educational policy that would protect against duplication of efforts in higher education (Agarwal, 2009). Later, the University Education Commission recommended that a national system of standards be established (1949). In 1968, the National Policy on Education (NPE) thoughtfully outlined a treatise for the implementation of a strong system of higher education. Despite relaying a sense of urgency for higher education reform and vision, implementation was never realized. Nearly 20 years later, an “open university” was created to bring innovation to learning and broaden access to higher education. A “Programme of Action” was created to strengthen India’s resolve. Despite these efforts, India’s dreams for higher education have yet to find footing.
India’s perpetual higher education challenges relate to poor reputation, oversaturation of the marketplace, and the absence of national standards. According to Julia Eastman (2011), as of 2009, India’s system of higher education consisted of 504 university-level institutions and 25,951 colleges (compared to approximately 6,700 in the United States). Not only is it difficult to manage India’s glut of universities and colleges, it is also complicated to trace each institution’s network of origin. Some universities were established by acts of Parliament, others by the University Grants Commission (UGC) of 1956. Still, more are sanctioned by states and private interests (Eastman, 2011).
With all of the institutions of higher learning in India, why can’t the supply meet the ever-growing demand? The likely answer is lack of quality and access. Since the majority of colleges cater to undergraduate students (Agarwal, 2009), graduate students are left to find education elsewhere — usually, out of the country. Despite various levels of government control over the years, India has never adopted national standards of excellence for higher education, or similar benchmarks. Additionally, Philip Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College (1993), laments that the substantial expansion in enrollment during the 1950s in India has occurred in concert with deterioration in educational standards. Recently, one of the proposed improvements to the quality of higher education would be the establishment of a national accrediting body to oversee quality (Ernst and Young/FCCI, 2010, p. 93). Although vital for the health of India’s system of higher education, accreditation would likely cause weaker schools and programs to close. This change would raise standards, but also heighten vigorous competition.
Dewey, Freire and Indian higher education
Despite the NPE using rhetoric that’s consistent with world-renowned educational philosophers like Dewey and Freire, India still hopes to meet the challenges of its monstrous system of higher education. The NPE notes, “In the Indian way of thinking, a human being is a positive asset and a precious national resource, which needs to be cherished, nurtured and developed with tenderness and care, coupled with dynamism” (p. 3). Additionally, NPE maintains that, "The open learning system has been initiated in order to augment opportunities for higher education, as an instrument of democratizing education and to make it a lifelong process. The flexibility and innovativeness of the open learning system are particularly suited to the diverse requirements of the citizens of our country, including those who had joined the vocational stream” (p. 19).
Both of these concepts relate to John Dewey’s (father of American education and educational philosopher) thoughts about education as a necessity of life and social function. Just as the NPE notes that humans should be nurtured, in part, with “dynamism,” Dewey (1916) suggests that, “ … a living being is one that subjugates and controls for its own continued activity the energies that would otherwise use it up. Life is a self-renewing process through action upon the environment” (p. 2). In terms of “democratizing” education as the NPE states, Dewey concurs that education is the “nurturing” and “cultivating” of young people into a society.
For Dewey, and the NPE, the vehicle by which education exists is society. Democracy is learned through interaction with others. Dewey writes, “Some kinds of participation in the life of those with whom the individual is connected are inevitable; with respect to them, the social environment exercises an educative or formative influence unconsciously and apart from any set purpose” (p. 16-17).
Although higher education in India has a rich history, it has been and continues to be fraught with challenges. There are currently many proposed reforms for the Indian higher education system, which might address challenges and create the system to which India aspires. Among the proposals being considered, Eastman (2011) highlights:
- Granting foreign universities the opportunity to grant degrees in India;
- The creation of “innovation” universities that are research intensive;
- Creating a National Commission for Higher Education and Research.
Now, in the 21st century, can India realize its dreams for a strong system of higher education? The rhetoric for the development of a strong foundation for higher education in India has always been sound; the challenge continues to be with implementation. In order to fully realize its dreams for higher education, India must not be afraid to reach out to international partners for assistance. This will allow fresh perspectives on India’s challenges and provide new insights, philosophies, and best practices from around the world to assist this country in reaching its goals for higher education.
Altbach, P. (1993). The dilemma of change in Indian higher education. In P. Altbach & S. Chitnis (Eds.), Higher Education Reform in India (pp. 13-37). Sage: New Dehli.
Agarwal, P. (2009). Indian higher education: Envisioning the future. Sage: New Dehli.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. Free Press: New York.
Earnst & Young/FICCI. (2010). New realities, new possibilities: The changing face of Indian higher education. Kolkata.
Sen, A. (1970). The crisis in Indian education. Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial Lectures, 10-11.