The fig leaf of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and a few other decent institutions is woefully insufficient to hide the state of India's higher education. The crisis is perhaps worse than the one in our school system. We may not admit it, nor talk about it as much, but we know it.
It may be illustrative to look at the IITs themselves: Are they truly outstanding, or are they just mediocre? No Indian institution figures in any "top 100 universities of the world" list, not even the IITs. They (and the Indian Institute of Science) start appearing around the 150 mark.
Lists do not tell the full story, but the IITs do not figure among the world's top institutions by any measure. The only exception is perhaps the quality of the students who graduate from these places. The reputation of the IITs has been built by the achievements of their students.
With this in context, let me state the hypothesis that I often hear discussed, but rarely see in writing: The only magic that the IITs do is in the selection of their students. They get the brightest and the most driven, every year, from a nation of one billion people. But this lot would achieve wonders even if they didn't go to any university. Since the IITs are (at least) decent places-these students go on to be super achievers, burnishing the reputation of their alma mater by sheer association. Basking in that associated glory, we conveniently side step the reality - that as institutions, the IITs are just mediocre, not top notch.
I wish people would come out and trash this hypothesis, with evidence and facts; at least that would let us have our fig leaves. Though even with that, we can't escape the wasteland pretending to be our higher education system.
Sage and insightful voices from within this wasteland have tried to start an informed public discourse over the last few years on how to tackle the higher education crisis. Unfortunately, these few voices and ideas get marginalized in the cacophony that people generate - people like us, who only have the patience for "elevator speeches", but who unfortunately control many purse strings. No wonder a lot of the public discourse on higher education sounds banal and shallow, like a novice investment banking pitch.
Let me pick just one thread of this discourse: The notion that "private" participation is the key to improving higher education.
One segment of Indian higher education where we already have significant private participation is engineering. A half-rigorous comparison of private engineering colleges with government engineering colleges is sufficient to tell us that on average, the former do not do a significantly better job than the latter.
Even shallower is the notion that private "profit seeking" capital can somehow help in revitalizing higher education. Look at the commercial structure of US universities: the top 50 are either government-funded or have very significant philanthropic "endowments". Even the top 10 "private universities" in the US, the Harvards, Yales and Stanfords, support 25-60% of their expenses through the returns on their endowment funds, besides other grants and contributions. These universities do not make "profits" in any sense of that word - and certainly not in the sense of providing returns to whoever has invested the capital. In simple terms, if the philanthropic endowments and other grants were not there, these universities would not exist.
I have seen that this simple point comes as a big surprise to a lot of people, especially the votaries of private participation, who tend to assume that given the high fees in these Ivy League universities, they must be "making a lot of money".
Profit-seeking private capital will have only a minor role in improving our higher education. Genuine philanthropic private capital may have a much larger role to play, if that kind of capital actually starts getting invested.
To start revitalizing our higher education system, we will have to vitalize our discourse on this issue, and not get trapped inside ready and shallow solutions - private participation, vocationalization and entry of foreign universities.
In The making of the modern university (1996), her fascinating account of how the modern US university system came into being, Julie Reuben describes the ebb and flow of the deep concerns that shaped the intellectual engine of the US. She describes what she calls the "intellectual transformation and marginalization of morality" - the replacement of the religious foundation of the university with that of the ideals of science and cosmopolitanism.
The book is worth a read - it points out that the first crisis we need to address is in the public discourse on higher education. Unless we elevate the level of this discourse - in honesty and quality - we won't begin improving education. And irrespective of the wonders of the demographic dividend (and the like), we are not going to get very far without a top class higher education system. The fig leaves would just get blown away.