Higher Education: Caught in a Time Warp

Joe A. Scaria

In the last week of September, 2014 a professor hurried breathlessly into a self-financing professional college in Kerala, with good reason for his haste: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission craft (Mangalyaan) had been successfully inserted into the Mars orbit and he couldn’t wait to share the excitement with his students.

The professor, who had been with the Indian Space Research Organisation, was sure that by the time he reached the campus, teachers would be busy in front of television screens, explaining all about the space probe as the episode was being telecast live.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead of well-informed teachers and eager-beaver students discussing India’s giant leap in space, he found classes as usual on the campus, happily oblivious of the fact that India’s space agency had become the fourth to reach Mars after those of Russia, the U.S. and the European Space Agency.

Welcome to the realm of India’s higher education sector where fossilized texts exist in a vacuum eons away from current practices, conformity crushes creativity, and placements and pay are the all-pervading mantras. As for understanding about art, culture or history, do not expect even a rudimentary awareness.


A majority of campuses struggle with long-standing issues like reservations, poor infrastructure, textbook-centric teaching, and students who have entered the campus with the benefit of inflated marks granted by state school boards. There are new ones, too, like job-hopping teachers and the inability to deliver millennial-relevant content.

That brings us to a unique problem about our higher education: On one hand, there is an all-out attempt to improve the gross enrollment ratio, which is the percentage of population enrolled for higher education. The GER obsession has led to a helping hand from examination boards that shower marks like monsoon rains. On the other, industry keeps protesting that they cannot find competent hands from those who are already on campuses.

They gripe with reason: At mock interviews on college campuses, B-Com students fumble when asked for 10 per cent of 50, there are automobile engineering students ignorant of Tesla Motors or Uber, and very many have not heard of Larry Page or Sergei Brin. Such things are not in the syllabus, you see, and will not figure in the exams.

Anyone out there who has heard of an Indian college campus holding a talk this week about the discovery of gravitational waves, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago and identified by laser detectors in the U.S.? There you are.

A high-decibel counter argument is that we also produce a Sundar Pichai and a Thomas Kurian for the Googles and Oracles of the world. But that hardly washes, considering that from among the millions of young Indians who go through higher education the number of superstars is skimpy.

A week before he was assaulted for daring to dream about private education and linkages with world-class universities, Kerala State Higher Education Council vice-chairman and former diplomat, T.P. Sreenivasan told me: “When you see a rural girl from Kerala beat the rest of the country in the IAS examination, you know that there is top-class talent and brains here. Unfortunately, what is missing is uniformity in quality.”


That seems to apply for the nation as a whole. A handful of stars are not what a nation deserves after it churns out over half a million engineers and many times that number of arts and science graduates each year.

No wonder, they say if you are a horse you must go to the U.S. and become a race horse. Over a hundred thousand Indian students are warming up to that idea each year, making India second only to China in sending students to the U.S. for higher education.

For a country that is aspiring for super-power status, super-quality educational institutions are indispensable. During India’s own days of glory many centuries ago, the software underpinning its success came from the Nalandas and the Taxilas.

In our decrepitude, we have the sights of Kerala’s higher secondary education director daubed in motor oil and its higher education council chief accosted, slapped and sprawled on the ground – down to the level of its ‘higher’ education.

(Photo credit: Davi Ozolin via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Sean MacEntee via Foter.com / CC BY State Farm via Foter.com / CC BY)