Friday, June 16, 2006

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Unshackle the higher ed system

The Indian education system is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. The government regulates who you can teach, what you can teach them and what you can charge them. It also has huge regulatory bottlenecks. There are considerable entry barriers: Universities can be set up only through acts of legislation, approval procedures for starting new courses are cumbersome, syllabi revision is slow, and accreditation systems are extremely weak and arbitrary. The regulators permit relatively little autonomy for institutions and variation amongst them.

Over-regulation has produced the crisis of higher education that is the context of the current agitation. The shortage of quality institutions is a product of India’s regulatory structures. Increased public investment that the government has promised is absolutely necessary to increase access. But this investment will not yield much if India’s regulatory regime remains rigid.

From this YaleGlobal article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

I sincerly wish Mehta hadn't pushed the National Knowledge Commission into taking a stand on the quota issue. It's a pity that, in the ugly aftermath, he has had to resign his Membership of the NKC; his excellent ideas on how to design and implement a superior higher ed system in India could have formed the right framework for the Commission to build on.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Overdose of merit and reservations onyour blog! Move on to some other interesting topics...

  2. Anonymous said...

    Can you substantiate your claim that Mehta pushed the NKC to take a stand on the quota issue? He did take a stand himself and went public with it. But would he have to resign if the NKC had backed him?

  3. Abi said...

    Anon: This post is not about reservation. It's about Mehta's thoughts about our higher ed system,how it's shackled by our regulatory regime from expanding, and how private money (from philanthropists' as well as students) is not flowing into this sector. These problems are independent of reservations, and that's why I feel bad that NKC will not have the benefit of the inputs from Mehta who has thought a lot about these issues.

    In any case, I still keep posting about the quota issue because I continue to learn new things (particularly from serious academics). This will continue for a while, I suppose.

    As for evidence for Mehta's 'pushing' the NKC into taking a stand, take a look at this report:

    [begin quote] NKC Member-Convenor Pratap Bhanu Mehta had on April 6 termed OBC quotas as a ‘‘very distressing development’’ and had said that ‘‘there is no point having a NKC, if we don’t take a stand on this issue’’.[end quote]

    Note that he wrote this stuff in an e-mail as early as April 6, within a few days after Arjun Singh made the announcement. It was reported in Indian Express at that time, but I am not able to locate that first news report.

    Jayati Ghosh, another member of the NKC, send an e-mail of her own, recording her dissent.

    NKC might have taken this issue up by itself, but Mehta certainly was an early initiator of this move.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Exactly Abi, I think Mehta did himself a great disservice.

  5. Anonymous said...


    Thanks for posting the link to Lani Guinier's interview. Excellent post !
    The quality of posts has gone up after Prof V. Sanil's artilcle :)

  6. Anonymous said...

    Agreed Pratap Bhanu Mehta has excellent ideas and knowledge. Even more tragic is the case of Andre Beteille.

    There is no one, I repeat no one who knows more about castes in south India than Andre Beteille.

    He has spent years in villages in Tamilnadu and knows all about the caste system as it exists on the ground. Obviously he is extremely uncomfortable to have around due to his cut-thru-the-crap abilities.

    If he (instead of PC) tells us that his personal experience tells him OBC quotas are working, I would trust him. He has that level of knowledge.

    Social scientists and hard data are like kryptonites for the current crop of caste based politicians.

    So they were harassed and humiliated just like the world-renowned cardiologist P.Venugopal is now. Remember Arjun Singh accused them of not knowing the constitution, they also got blasted by TN politicians (surprise).

    You may argue that even if they are humiliated why do they not stick around ? Surely they can do something else that is easier, such as digitizing libraries or something. Why cant they just ignore the humiliation ? After all cant we let barking dogs bark.

    Unfortunately, scholarshp and humiliation do not square off like that.

    Remember, Prof Beteille is respected the world over and has taught in Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, Chicago, and the renowned London School of Economics. They do not like to be humiliated by the likes of Arjun Singh, and Anbumani.

  7. Abi said...

    You may argue that even if they are humiliated why do they not stick around ? Surely they can do something else that is easier, such as digitizing libraries or something. Why cant they just ignore the humiliation ? After all cant we let barking dogs bark.

    RC: I have not argued -- and will not argue -- any such thing. So, your sarcasm about 'digitizing libraries' is misplaced.

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta urged NKC to wade into a muddy political terrain; IMO, this was an entirely unnecessary step for him to have taken [After all, nobody prevented him from expressing his views as an individual]. Having taken that fateful step, he could not have avoided resigning his NKC membership when Arjun Singh and others started talking dirty.

    All I have said here is that this was a tragedy of Mehta's own making. Sadly, the NKC will now have to function without his keen insights.

    As for Andre Beteille, I share your admiration for him.

  8. Anonymous said...


    Please dont take offense at the sarcasm.

    What would their point of existence be if they only stuck to non-political issues ? Everything is political in India, except things like "digitizing libraries". That is why I used the sarcasm.

    I think it was well within their bounds to respond. Read on.

    These scholars were appointed by the Prime Minister to advise him on "on matters relating to institutions of knowledge production, knowledge use and knowledge dissemination. The mandate of the Commission is to sharpen India's "knowledge edge".

    To me, it sounds like major new caste based quotas in all our premier "knowledge" institutes is within bounds for the NKC. I also think such a major decision by the HRD ministry, hitting at the core of their mandate required a response from the NKC as a group, not from individual members stating their personal positions.

    I dont need to tell you the caliber of these people. I am sure they took their job seriously and most of their plans might have revolved around these premier central educational institutions. Now, suddenly without consulting them, the union government announces 27% quotas for OBCs - they will feel humiliated and might feel they are irrelevant.

    You may know that my blog also gets into the politics of things. If they had kept quiet and not taken a stand (as a commission), they would have to shut their mouths for ever. Everyone will say, "Why didnt they speak up earlier ? Where was the NKC in all this when it mattered ?". If they did not speak as a group, their opinions would be "strictly personal opinion of an individual", you might even have some politicians saying, "if you dont like it why dont you quit your position as NKC".

    The political humiliation was inevitable in this atmosphere. Their accomplishments, dedications, and scholarship do not shield them from attack. In the latest version, even common courtesy is not shown to the world renowned cardiac surgeon who dedicated 48 years of his life to AIIMS.

    It is difficult for me to imagine what the ground situation was, "How was the HRD ministry treating them ? What was the tone of the phone calls ? Did they feel they were needed or were they just showpieces ?" A lot of intangibles go into these decisions, I fully trust that these guys took whatever decision they were professionally comfortable with. I have no reason to doubt that.

  9. Anonymous said...

    BS. The report just mentions he dissented. There is no evidence he lobbied or pressured the other members to accept his ideas.

  10. Anonymous said...


    Mehta may not be so perturbed by this tragedy of his own making as you say it to be.

    Frankly, I am a little surprised at your tone. Here is one guy who has stood up for his beliefs(right or wrong) and you chide him for taking a position?

    Right, we should leave making policy in the hands of ministers only.

    BTW, even this reference to private sector would b political as Mrs Karat has already ruled against a)increasing tutions b)private sector involvelment in education .

    I am not sure being an academic, why are you taking such a position?


  11. Anonymous said...

    //In the latest version, even common courtesy is not shown to the world renowned cardiac surgeon who dedicated 48 years of his life to AIIMS.//

    Who is that

  12. Abi said...

    RealityCheck: Thanks for presenting your view of the NKC affair. IMO (see here), it was not NKC's business to poke its nose into a politically 'hot' issue, unless it was asked (for which, I agree, there probably was very little chance). It's clear you believe otherwise. Let's just agree to disagree.

    Confused: I am sorry I haven't made myself clear. The tragedy that I am talking about is ours (er, mine!); nobody knows (and certainly not me) what Mehta thinks about the NKC affair. Since *I* believe it's a tragedy, I just wish he had not taken that fateful step of sending that e-mail to the full Commission (to which Jayati Ghosh responded; and, as they say, the rest is history).

    I don't understand your question about why I am taking 'this' position. What position?

  13. Anonymous said...

    This exchange is a bizzare example of people pontificating without the facts. Yes, Mehta appears to have asked his colleagues to take a stand, but is that why he resigned. His resignation expresses great frustration at things other than reservation as well. You are all assuming that he would have been effective in pushing through other reforms, but when the government is as obtuse as it is, what option do other people have? The shame is not that Mehta resigend but that liberalisers like Pitroda and Nilekani did not. Who is listening to the Commission anyway - it has been superseded. And the idea that Mehta could railroad Pitroda and Bettile and Nayyar and Nilekani is crazy. The trouble with us is that you are damned if you do and damned if you dont.