Debating Higher Education in South Asia

by Professor Michael J Hutt

10 Feb 2015

A one-day roundtable meeting on higher education in South Asia (‘Revolution and Realities in the New Economic Order’) was held at the British Academy on 22 January 2015. The new South Asia Institute at SOAS, of which I am Director, partnered with the British Academy and the British Council in the organisation of this event, which was the first of a series of five ‘Global Education Dialogues’ on higher education in South Asia organised by the British Council. The debate will now move on to Delhi, Dhaka and Colombo before a final meeting in London in June. The discussion which took place on 22 January was underpinned by six research reports which had been commissioned by the British Council and sought to outline the challenges facing higher education in South Asia. Roundtable participants included educationists from India and Pakistan (notably the chair of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan and education ministers from the Indian states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana) and representatives of a selection of UK universities and higher education agencies.

It is a cliché to say that higher education in South Asia is at a crossroads. For demographic reasons the region is facing a huge surge in demand, and this demand coincides with a period of dramatic social and economic change. Yet I wonder how meaningful it is to consider these issues at a regional level. While some issues cut across borders, others play very differently in different countries. In India, for example, the marketisation of education is already proceeding rapidly, in step with the country’s recent economic growth, with private universities mushrooming in every state alongside the subcontinent’s most venerable and respected public institutions of higher learning. (It was perhaps significant that the panel on public-private partnerships  – one of six panels which formed part of the roundtable discussion – was interpreted by Indian speakers as a debate on the relationship between public and private universities, not between universities and the private sector more broadly.) In Nepal, on the other hand, the development of higher education, which is still provided almost exclusively by state-run institutions, has been hamstrung by a lack of resources and damaged by excessive levels of politicisation. The two situations could hardly be more different.

Similarly, the discussion of an issue such as the under-representation of women in positions of higher education leadership in South Asia could only go so far on its own restricted terms. To take it further and reach conclusions with real resonance, it would be necessary to consider gender as one element of a much more complex matrix of exclusion and under-representation which also involves factors such as caste, ethnicity and region. A fine-grained analysis would also have to take into account the complex system of affirmative action that has been in place for a range of ethnic and caste categories in India for many decades.

Debates on education in so-called ‘developing’ countries often include discussions of whether universities and colleges should limit their offerings to the skill sets required by their relevant national economy, or even whether states should resign themselves to the fact that large swathes of their population will have to be content with abbreviated and limited educational opportunities, and largely in STEM subjects at that. Some of the more interesting discussions at this roundtable focused on the utility of innovations such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and the delivery of instruction through new technology such as mobile phones, about which many delegates professed a high level of agnosticism.

The next three dialogues of the series will focus more closely on specific strands of interest and concern, and it will be interesting to read their findings. Meanwhile, those of us in the UK with a close interest in the region (and especially those of us who believe that education is about more than vocational and technical training) are left pondering over our own engagement with higher education in the countries of South Asia. My colleague Richard Black, SOAS’s Pro-Director for Research, who spoke at the roundtable, has set out his own thoughts on this, and it was encouraging to hear delegates from the region express an interest in research collaboration and split-site Ph.D supervision.

The more nuanced, grounded and sensitive our understanding of higher education in South Asia is, and the more it is based on a genuine dialogue with the region, the better the opportunities and solutions that will emerge from such discussions, and the greater the benefit to us all.

Michael Hutt  is the Director of SOAS South Asia Institute. He was appointed as the chair of the British Academy’s South Asia area panel in 2014.

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