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Opinion: Ms. Bhaswati Mukherjee,
Former Ambassador of India to Netherlands and Former Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO

Higher Education as a Lever of Development in India


India’s illustrious second President, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, as Chair of the University Education Commission (1948-49) immediately after India’s Independence underlined the importance of higher education to lift India from its crushing twin burdens of poverty and underdevelopment in this seminal introduction to the Commission report:

“The most important and urgent reform needed in education is to transform it, to endeavour to relate it to the life, needs and aspirations of the people and thereby make it the powerful instrument of social, economic and cultural transformation necessary for the realisation of the national goals. For this purpose, education should be developed so as to increase productivity, achieve social and national integration, accelerate the process of modernisation and cultivate social, moral and spiritual values.”

Famous Nobel Laureate and Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, put it more simply:

“I want the huge majority, the only majority, every one, to be able to speak, to read, to listen, to blossom.”

Both are powerful messages, which also resonate in the Preamble of UNESCO’s Constitution: “That the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensible to the dignity of man…that peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.”

India’s Founding Fathers always highlighted the importance of tertiary education and despite the resource crunch, built Universities for social sciences as well as medical colleges and India’s now famous Institute of Technology (IIT). It was not an easy task. In 1947, just after Independence, India, forced to miss out on the Industrial Revolution because of colonial rule, was a very poor country with a huge population and alarming illiteracy rates particularly among its women. India’s literacy rate at the time of Independence was 12%. The prevailing ‘mantra’ in the World Bank and Breton Woods institutions, staffed by former colonial bureaucrats, was to force developing countries to invest their resources only in primary and secondary education, encouraging those who could afford to benefit from university education to do so in the country of their former colonialists. Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, Professor, Columbia University, and author of ‘Higher Education, the State and the Marketplace’ says: “The World Bank made a frontal assault on African Universities in 1986, advising the Vice Chancellors that it would make economic sense to close universities in independent Africa and have its human resource needs trained in Universities in the West.” This was followed by what Mamdani defined as ‘conditional aid’. The attempt was to encourage a ‘brain-drain’ with the outflow of national intellectuals to the West since no opportunities were available in the home country.

This World Bank injunction was rejected by both Nehru in India and Mao in China. Both countries have never looked back.

There is a national consensus in India, encapsulated now in the 2016 National Policy on education, which recognises the criticality of education as the most important vehicle for social, economic and political transformation. One cannot over -emphasise the role of higher education as the key catalyst for promoting socio-economic mobility and preparing our citizens in the knowledge society.

Tertiary education is facilitating the absorption of the positive effects of globalisation and enabling India to develop a trillion plus economy through a highly qualified and broad national talent base.

India is no stranger to higher education. The importance of education was well recognised in India. ‘Swadeshe pujyate raja, vidwan sarvatra pujyate’ in Sanskrit simply means: “A king is honoured only in his own country, but one who is learned is honoured throughout the world.” The world’s first University was established in Takshila in 700 BC and the University of Nalanda was built in the 4th century BC, a great achievement and contribution of ancient India in the field of education. Nalanda is now being developed as a potential UNESCO World Heritage site. Science and technology in ancient and medieval India covered all the major branches of human knowledge and activities. Indian scholars such as Charaka and Susruta, Aryabhata, Bhaskaracharya, Chanakya, Patanjali and Vatsayayna and numerous others made seminal contribution to world knowledge in many diverse fields such as mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, medical science and surgery.

Post-secondary education needs to prepare graduates with new skills, a broad knowledge base and a wide range of competencies to enter a more complex and interdependent world.

Under colonial rule, with the glorification of English and Western values, India gradually lost self-esteem and self-confidence. The dominant notion was that the West needed to bring civilisation to primitive people. Edward Said noted: “The culture of imperialism entailed venerating one’s own culture to the exclusion of other cultures”. This attitude is best symbolised in Macaulay’s Minute in 1835 when he said: “I have never found one among them (Indians) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’

This colonial legacy still lingers on since education is of relatively low priority in India’s federal structure, both in status and recognition. The right to education is a State subject in India’s Constitution. There is now recognised in India’s Parliament, cutting across political barriers that education must be given the highest priority. Necessary resources must be provided and conditions created that are favourable for the process of teaching and learning to flourish. Indian educationists often cite the famous Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda who underlined: “Education is not the amount of information that we put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character-making assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library. If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages of the world and encyclopaedia are the greatest Rishis.” This statement assumes much greater significance with the advent of internet and ever expanding digital connectivity.

Quality assurance in higher education is the top priority of India’s policy agenda. Post-secondary education needs to prepare graduates with new skills, a broad knowledge base and a wide range of competencies to enter a more complex and interdependent world. This will take time since quality is a multi-dimensional concept. Systems of accountability and accreditation with a robust regulatory mechanism are essential to the process of sustaining and improving quality. Quality has to be the concern of all institutions. Excellence will flow from good quality institutions and appropriate governance structures. Higher education in India has experienced an unprecedented expansion accompanied by diversification of the sector. The unplanned expansion of the sector poses challenges for enhancing and maintaining quality.

The country has established external quality assurance agencies in the 1990s to assure external quality. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) was set up by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 1994 to accredit Universities and institutions of general higher education. The National Board of Accreditation (NBA) was established by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) in 1994 to accredit programmes and institutions. NAAC accredits institutions and certifies for educational quality of the institution based on several criteria.

For higher education to be a lever of development in India, its Universities must  be globally ranked.

There is an urgent need to undertake reforms in India’s tertiary sector. Some reforms measures could include:

Creation of independent quality assurance frameworks to address the quality deficit in the higher educational institutions.

Matching of autonomy with accountability: this would involve the realignment of the regulatory functioning in such a way as to promote autonomy of institutions. This approach envisages that a paradigm shift to facilitation rather than regulation.

Revisiting of the issue of multiplicity of entrance and eligibility examinations with the exploration of the possibility of a single national test.

Permitting of foreign education providers in India for proper regulation and internationalisation of education by enhanced collaborations.

For higher education to be a lever of development in India, its Universities must be globally ranked. Today not a single Indian University finds a place in the top 200 positions in the global ranking of Universities. Even India’s top ranking institutions appear low in the global rankings. The idea of establishing accreditation agencies in India was to enhance standards and quality of higher education.

As a measure of quality assurance, India established accreditation agencies in 1994. The institutions of higher education were supposed to approach the accreditation agencies to get their institution or programme accredited. Accreditation was voluntary and as a result only few institutions are accredited in India. This issue must be addressed urgently.

India as a nation has travelled a long way from the India that Swami Vivekananda described so many years ago in ‘The Essence of India’. He said: “The longest night seems to be passing away, the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us – away back where history and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom of the past, India, this motherland of ours is awakening! None can resist her anymore; never is she going to sleep anymore; no outward powers can hold her back any more. India that is to be, the future India, must be much greater than ancient India.”

If India now does the things now required to be done and transforms its higher education sector,  it would be equivalent to  a major social revolution. The rest of the 21st century could then belong to India.

For two-thirds of mankind’s history, India as one of the oldest living civilizations in the world dominated the world scene, be it in philosophy, economics, trade, culture as well as in education. If India now does the things now required to be done and transforms its higher education sector, it would be equivalent to a major social revolution.  The rest of the 21st century could then belong to India.

Ms. Bhaswati Mukherjee is presently a lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute and in different Universities in India and overseas – on disarmament and strategic issues. She also works on the Spice Route Project for State Government of Kerala and the Indentured Labour Route Project for UNESCO and the Government of Mauritius. She completed a book on ‘Emerging Challenges and Dynamics in the India-EU relationship’, commissioned by the Indian Council of World Affairs.  Ms. Bhaswati was the Ambassador of India to the Netherlands from 2010 to 2013, and the Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO from 2004 to 2010.


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Youth Voices

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