Students are the victims and culprits of India’s broken higher education system

Indian students must emerge from the shadows if they want to fix higher education.
Indian students must emerge from the shadows if they want to fix higher education.
Image: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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I recently read an article on the Kafila blogmore like an angry, reflective rant—written by some students from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi.  To quickly summarize, the piece criticized the draconian views of the principal of St. Stephen’s College regarding curfews on women’s dormitories and his stymieing of his students’ democratic ideals of discussion, protest, and open criticism. More broadly, though, the article’s writers seemed to be speaking about the larger stagnant institution of Indian higher education, overseen by a class of rigid administrators represented by this sexist and bigoted principal, as described by the students. The students’ frustration was palpable in the text and their story felt to me like a perfect example of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Except Indian students are not an unstoppable force. Not even close.

In 2007, I was a student at St. Stephen’s College for seven months as part of a study abroad program offered by my home institution, Brown University. In as many ways as possible, I tried to become a Stephanian: I joined the football (soccer) team, acted in a school play written and directed by an Indian peer, performed in the school talent show, was a member of the Honors Economics Society, and went to several student events on and off campus. More importantly, though, I was a frequenter of the school’s cafe and enjoyed endless chai and butter toasts with my Indian peers under the monotonous relief of the fans spinning overhead.  Most of my friends were third years, like me, and all of them were obviously very bright. I was curious about their plans after they graduated. With only a few exceptions, they were planning on pursuing second undergraduate degrees at foreign universities.

“Wait, what?! You are studying here for three years just so you can go do it again for four more years?” I could not grasp the logic of this.

What changed my understanding was when I started taking classes at St. Stephen’s College. Except for one, they were horrible.

This was not an isolated incident—all my fellow exchange students (six from Brown University and even more from Rutgers University in the next apartment block) concurred that the academics were a joke compared to what we were used to back home. In one economic history class the professor would enter the room, take attendance, open his notebook, and begin reading. He would read his notes word for word while we, his students, copied these notes word for word until the bell sounded. Next class he would find the spot where the bell had interrupted him, like a storyteller reading to children and trying to recall where he had last put down the story. He would even pause slightly at the end of a long sentence to give us enough time to finish writing before he moved on. And this was only when he decided to show up—many times I arrived on campus to find class abruptly canceled. Classmates exchanged cell phone numbers and created phone trees just to circulate word of a canceled class. I got a text almost daily about one of my classes. My foreign peers had many similar experiences.

I would sit in class and think to myself, “Can you just photocopy your notebook and give me the notes so I can spend my time doing something less completely useless?” I refused to participate. Instead, I sat at my desk writing letters to friends.

If it were not for the fact that attendance counted towards my marks, I would have never showed up at all. There was no need. I calculated the minimum attendance required not to fail, hit that target square on, and still got excellent grades. In one political science class, the only requirements for the entire period between August and December were two papers, each 2,500 words. I wrote more intense papers in my US public high school in a month. Readings were required but how can this be enforced when there is no discussion that makes students accountable for coming to class prepared? The only questions I heard asked during my classes were about whether the material being covered that day would be on the exam. Remember, this is not any regular liberal arts college—St. Stephen’s College is regarded as one of, if not the best, college in India.

The best learning experience I had was hundreds of miles from campus with four other students and one professor on a trek to Kedarnath during October break . We had multi-day conversations spanning morality, faith, and history. During one memorable overnight bus ride, our professor told us the entire Mahabharata epic from memory while we leaned over seats or squatted in the aisle to be closer to the campfire of his voice while the rest of the bus dozed around us. The thirst in these students was there and this professor exemplified passionate teaching.

But the system is broken. Bearing in mind the richness of India’s intellectual tradition, my entire study abroad experience in India, from an academic standpoint, was an enormous disappointment.

To pause for a moment, here is the problem with me talking about this topic: right now many Indians reading this are starting to feel defensive.  “Nationalist” is a term I have heard as a self-description as they defend Mother India from the bigoted, criticizing foreigner. They focus on me rather than the problem. I have had people de-friend me on Facebook and walk out on meals because I politely expressed an opinion on politics or history that went against the publicly consented “Indian opinion.”

For a nation that prides itself on the 17 languages printed on its currency, I am greeted with remarkable intolerance. Even after living in India for close to three years, attending an Indian college, working for an Indian company, founding an Indian company, paying taxes in India, and making India my home, I am not Indian enough to speak my mind. But in a nation that rivals all others in the breadth of its human diversity, who is Indian enough? Because if loyalty and a feeling of patriotism were the barometers for “Indianness,” rather than skin color or a government document, then I would easily be a dual US-Indian citizen. This Indian defensiveness is false nationalism. It is not a stance that cares about India, it is one that cares about what others think of India, which is not nationalism. That is narcissism.

My voice should be drowned out by the millions around me who are disappointed with how they have been short-changed by the Indian government—their government. Education is one of the most poignant examples of this and serves as great dinner conversation amongst the elite: “The Indian education system is lost in the past and failing India.” Everyone at the table nods, mumbles their concurrence, and cites the most recent Economist article or PricewaterhouseCooper study on the matter in order to masquerade as informed.

“Yes, how sad.”

“Yes, how terrible.”

“Yes, India must fix this.”

Yet among my fellow Indian education alumni I mostly hear a deafening silence when it comes to action. What is remarkable is that all students in India know what I am talking about. They know and are coping: Indian students are taking their useless Indian liberal arts degrees and going abroad to get real ones that signify a real education. A real education being one that challenges the intellect and questions paradigms, not one of rote memorization and conformity. Or, as was the case with my Indian friends at Brown, they skip India altogether. Sure, I took some unimpressive classes at Brown and no curriculum is perfect, but Indian students should be demanding more. Much more.

The article I read by the Stephenian students was a step, but too little of one and in the wrong direction. Dorm curfews? The students of St. Stephen’s College need to dig deeper and question why they are in those dorms in the first place. Griping about the loss of their democratic rights in school? Wake up: Students have no recognized rights. If they did, then their right to an education would be respected, but the status quo says otherwise. How dare they discuss it, says the system.

To provide another anecdote, I used to interview Indian students applying to Brown University. While the admissions office says this forms a small component of the application relative to other factors like grades, activities, test scores, and essays, they nevertheless like to arrange an alumni interview whenever they can. The purpose is to be conversational and get a sense for the human who is obscured by the very impersonal scores and grades; it is not meant to be an interrogation. The applicant is also encouraged to ask me questions and learn more about Brown. In all the interviews I did, only one applicant truly inspired me to write a glowing review of our encounter. Similarly, I constantly get asked by Indian parents what the secret is to getting in to schools like Brown. I have even been hired by a few parents to consult for them and assist their son or daughter in the application process.

What consistently struck me about these students was their (and their parents’) cookie cutter attempts to craft the perfect applicant. That in itself was not remarkable—high school students all over the US do this—but what I found different was the lack of depth. The students spent hours at tutorials to ace board exams and maybe had an activity outside of the classroom here and there, but there was nothing, except in that one outstanding student, that provided an outlet for their personality to shine through. I particularly focused on helping the students with their essays (I never wrote for them, only edited) and coaxed them to describe why they had done some activity or loved some class. Dead stares and long telephone pauses ensued.  There seemed to be no spark—no inquisitive magnetism pulling them towards exploring the unknown. I was teleported back to the economic history class I took at St. Stephen’s and I felt like the professor: these students would look up from their notebooks at me and want to know what to copy next. These students were adapting to be seen as the best within a broken system—it was an overwhelmingly depressing epiphany.

In my opinion, the students of India have two choices: either let the government sort itself out or take ownership of the problem themselves. Mass protest against the inertia of regressive forces is an atavistic trait in young Indians. Indeed, modern India was born out of such actions.  Moreover, many of the cultural revolutions throughout history have had students waving the banners. What I find inspiring about St. Stephen’s students writing the article I referenced at the beginning is that they have the most to lose in this fight and are starting to fight anyway.

Fact: Every student at St. Stephen’s is part of India’s elite. While there is a reservation system for the admission of scheduled castes and others residing at the bottom of India’s socioeconomic pyramid, once every student at St. Stephen’s enrolls they become a member of the elite, irrespective of background. With that name stamped on their diploma, the world becomes easier because they are part of “the club.” For example, an idiot who graduates from Harvard and learned nothing probably has an easier chance of getting a great job than the genius from an unheard of college. Sad but mostly true. The same can be said with respect to the Ivy League, Oxford and Cambridge, and elite schools all over the world. It would be easy for St. Stephen’s students to not challenge the system and continue to move down the conveyor belt because, relative to other schools, their actual education matters less; the name and reputation of the school relieves some of the weight that the student’s intellect would otherwise have to carry.

The opposite side of this same coin, though, is the upside St. Stephen’s students could reap.  St. Stephen’s students also have the most to gain from change. Because St. Stephen’s College is such a great school, it can attract great names and create a great curriculum. Imagine if my teachers had actually taught their classes? Whoa. Instead of just the promise and illusion of an amazing liberal arts education, St. Stephen’s students would get that education. If the end is knowledge, then St. Stephen’s students win big.

We are entering a year of politics and elections. With elections comes the possibility of change. The most troubling line in the student’s article was in reference to the “wielding of disproportionate power by the Principal,” which was: “Education in India awaits a rescue from the hands of such figures.”

Who, may I ask, do you hope to be your rescuers? Your representatives in government? Your parents? The characters from Rang De BasantiThere is a window available if only there existed the resolve and determination within India’s students to seize it, which remains to be seen. One lesson that no college is very good at teaching: In life, you should not expect others to fight your battles for you. While higher education is a public good and has champions in the private and public world, students are the ultimate stakeholders. If the students at St. Stephen’s College want to practice the potent words that they wrote in Kafila, then it is time to stand up and be counted. If not, the only people who suffer will be themselves.

A version of this article was originally published in Kafila.