There is a story about India’s new Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal doing the rounds these days — that his love of ‘instant’ cricket is forcing the pace of his political functioning. Like a batsman in a T20 match, who must open his account with an onslaught of big hits, Sibal is rushing to reform education.
Sibal unveiled an impressive agenda for his first 100 days in office. This includes making school board exams optional with only one final school-leaving exam being mandatory, creating a unified and credible regulatory body for higher education, and increasing the number of higher education providers by allowing the entry of foreign universities into India.
Since as a nation we are accustomed to viewing educational reforms as either eyewash or a personification of the common snail in its effort at forward movement, there is scepticism over how swiftly the hurdles to such sweeping reforms can be removed. Given the fact that the Constitution stipulates education as a ‘state subject’, the existing pattern of examination cannot be scrapped without the consent of state governments.
Rumblings against Sibal’s centralist ideas began almost immediately, with reservations being expressed even by some chief ministers of states that belong to the ruling Congress party, and this has been widely highlighted in the print media. What has not been stated is that state expenditure on education being gargantuan — with the attendant siphoning off — of funds being massive, almost any sane proposal to clean up education is likely to hit a stone wall because it will also diminish the power of the corrupt.
But ruffled party feathers in the regions are only part of the problem. How dissent from within institutions that are under the HRD Ministry will be tackled is equally serious. One example of such a problem concerns the question of faculty. While there is unanimity that a massive expansion in higher education must indisputably be a priority, how will the existing shortages of high quality faculty not be worsened by such expansion?
The question of improving quality in the midst of accelerating expansion, in fact, is urgent. This is because of the formidable arithmetic of OBC (Other Backward Classes) reservation — a 54 per cent jump in student numbers in just three years. As a consequence of this, the biggest staff recruitment in the history of the Delhi University has been launched: 646 new academics will have to be hired. This, incidentally, is easier said than done.
At the core of the institutional malaise is a time consuming over-centralised recruitment system that simply cannot respond to such largesse. Three members — a visitor’s (the President of India’s) nominee, the vice-chancellor and the pro-vice chancellor — form part of all selection committees. If this remains the case, at least ten years will elapse before all the required appointments can be made.
Can the appointment process be changed, possibly by shifting towards a system of peer judgment and search processes? This may be one way out of the tunnel if quality is not to be the biggest casualty in this time of cascading expansion.
Another solution has been suggested by policy analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta who says, that because the US academic job market is currently stagnant, this is the time for India to reverse its brain-drain and get back its departed talent. Mehta argues that this can be done by creating the right recruiting strategy.
However, unnoticed by most, the recruiting strategy is what has just taken a wrong turn. This is because even as Sibal must have been imparting the finishing touches to his agenda for opening up the higher education sector, his own University Grants Commission (UGC) was making the hiring of talented scholars more difficult. The UGC, presumably unknown to Sibal, wrote to all centrally-funded universities stating that the minimum qualifications required for the appointment of assistant professors must in future include the passing of a largely inane ‘national eligibility test’.
This has been made mandatory even for those with PhD degrees. This would basically mean — for example — that an Indian with a doctoral degree from, say, Harvard or Cambridge would have to pass this ridiculously bureaucratic exam in order to teach at an Indian university. The likelihood is that every such applicant will simply put off applying for Indian university jobs.
At the Delhi University, for instance, a number of excellent applicants from abroad responded to a call for faculty positions in the Sciences and Applied Sciences made through internationally reputed journals like Nature and Science. The UGC’s letter has effectively told the University of Delhi that it might as well forget about embarking on such recruitment.
A roadmap cannot be made for meaningful reform if bureaucratic speed breakers are not identified and removed. Otherwise, as before, attracting talent to an expanding higher education sector will remain a distant mirage.
Nayanjot Lahiri teaches at Delhi University and is the author of Finding Forgotten Cities (Permanent Black).