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India in Transition

Liberalizing Education

Maya Dodd
September 13, 2010

Despite recent wide sweeping reforms in Indian education at the school level, reviews of India’s college education structure are clouded by endless controversies. The demands to “liberalize” college education have leaned on the need for new investments at a critical juncture of India’s growth. However, for one-fifth of the country’s population, the biggest challenge faced is the absence of quality in current standards of college education. The inadequacies in educating vast numbers of Indian youth far exceed issues of regulation or demand-supply deficits. Debates plaguing the Knowledge Commission’s recommendations to dissolve the University Grant’s Commission’s (UGC) control of universities; the scandal of abuse of powers by the Indian Medical Council in legitimating colleges; the indiscriminate rise of private education in engineering and management under the purview of the All India Council on Technical Education (AICTE); and the overall neglect of more inclusive regulations for vocational education, all point to the general observation that undergraduate education in India is in desperate need of an overhaul.

The real crisis lies beyond challenges of scale or arguments on which agents can best provide India with its much-needed colleges. If all debates on education have been reduced to the urgency of accommodation, post-secondary education has been especially afflicted by a history of deflecting debates on the quality of education by invoking the specter of numbers. Since Independence in 1947, the number of colleges in India has increased over the past sixty years from under five hundred to currently over twenty thousand. Since this educational infrastructure can accommodate only 7 percent of all of India’s college-age students, the low enrollment ratios of today mirror this fact. While by 2010, the population of the 15 – 24 age group was estimated at 19 percent of the total population, the forecast for increasing inclusiveness falls short. In a recent convocation address, the Union Minister for Human Resource and Development, Kapil Sibal, admitted, “While we aim at scaling up the number of students enrolling in colleges to forty-two million in 2020 from the present fourteen million, still 160 million students will be left out. To give them alternative education, we need investments that may also come through foreign institutes.”

This recourse to foreign investment signals the harsh reality that there is a definite market in India for foreign degrees. At even the school level, new possibilities have emerged for many students who can afford an international baccalaureate (IB) education. Opting for “IB” schools can, in cities like Mumbai, easily cost around $2,500 a month and many are comfortable paying the fees for “international” quality. IB students frequently go on to an undergraduate education abroad and liberalization seeks to further this option locally – both the state and for universities seeking new markets.

There is no doubt that the mere scale of India’s youth and current infrastructural limitations warrant global alternatives. Already, many reputed universities are poised to set up local campuses within India. A typical accusation from the quality/quantity school of debate would decry those who possess such options. However, the real scandal lies not in the reality of those who exercise their choices, but in India’s inability to provide more choices for the many who seek quality in their college education.

A true liberalization of Indian college education would successfully redress issues of demographic needs along with that of quality. Previously, democracy’s logic dictated that college education had to cater to scale, even at the expense of quality. Today, we are dealing with an increasing inequality where democratic reforms allow the rich consumer access to a personalized curriculum while the rest merely fight it out for seats. The anxiety of the middle-classes translates into pressures of professional competitiveness (as recently memorialized in the successes of Hindi films such as Three Idiots and Taare Zameen Par) robbing students of valuable choices.

By reducing all quest of education into that of admission into a profession, the very possibility of another experience is pre-empted. At core, all debates on regulation and delivery of quality stem from two basic problems: First, the segregation of knowledge through a streamlining that occurs for most Indians at the age of fifteen, when they have to choose between professional courses or Arts, Science and Commerce; and second, how under the guise of managing scale through affiliation, universities govern the curricula and admissions procedures of colleges even when they are barely familiar with their needs.

While these concerns might seem like operational flaws, their impact on the real-life choices of students cannot be emphasized enough. A common practice implemented in liberal arts colleges around the U.S. serves as a fundamental threat to the Indian style of college education, modeled on the economies of scale. The idea that undergraduate education should foster a wide view of disciplines – the encouragement of sampling across several disciplines before the eventual selection of major and minor specializations – is severely alien to Indian colleges. That the current system emphasizes specialization and water-tight choices at an early age, neatly fits with parental aspirations to early professionalization and guaranteed jobs. Such a system disburses a colonial legacy of fostering narrow expertise for practical application, over the substantive experience of a well-rounded college education that teaches breadth and reflexivity. Sadly, college education has neatly dovetailed with the needs of an information society, further imperiling the actual education of the minority of youth, who amidst disparities manage to arrive to college at all. Early professionalizing reflects a need for employability discernible in the rising enrollments for Bachelors degrees in Business Management (BMS), Mass Media (BMM), and Computer Application (BCA) that have become increasingly popular since the late 1990s when first introduced at the undergraduate level. Only recently are some of these degrees even being offered in languages other than English.

While the eschewing of local relevance is exacerbated by franchises and the trend to twinning degrees – where students study in India, but pay exorbitant fees to receive their degrees from abroad – state owned private colleges have long since rendered many debates on local and federal controls moot. One example of this is manifested in the issue of reservations and caste-based quotas. Regulations on universalizing access and quotas for disadvantaged classes to secure admissions have historically not been applicable in private colleges that receive no aid from state funding. While state assistance could enhance the ability of private colleges to better provide for linked research resources and enhanced exposure, even heavily subsidized state colleges do not presume to provide such infrastructure, and private investors prefer to preserve their autonomy over accepting the strings attached with state aid. Consequently, several debates that focus on quotas, grants, and regulations do little to genuinely push for an increased quality of education for Indian college students.

For India’s young demographic to compete globally, the need for updated choices, access to research resources and talented faculty have justified the push to liberalize education. Despite the din about growth rates and new markets, excellence in college education cannot be represented by enrollment ratios and consumer choices, but by the quality of graduating classes. True liberalization would go beyond viewing education as a sector only in need of better regulation and enhanced investment in scale, to tackling the bigger and more elusive challenge: the generation of excellence in college education. Early professional specialization, privatization of infrastructure, and maximally efficient mass testing through competitive examinations might be perceived as answers to feeding the gap between outdated curricula and current needs. However, these measures barely begin to confront questions of student-teacher ratios, or affording the time needed to fully explore options and strengths in the quest for true graduation. The sheer scale of India’s youth ought to invite honest reflection on what it means to liberalize the quality of college education, especially since above all else, it is this quality that remains in short supply.

Dr. Maya Dodd is the Director of the Centre for South Asia at the Foundation for Liberal and Management Education (FLAME) in Pune, India where she teaches Literary and Cultural Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University.Email:


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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