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The Great Education Divide

Bridging General and Professional Education

It is time to break the mythical divide between general higher education that raises consciousness, and professional education that is instrumental to employment and marketable research. 

Media discourses surrounding the events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have revealed a sharp polarity in views on the meaning and purpose of higher education. Is public funded higher education in a developing country meant to produce thinking citizens or employable youth? Should taxes fund scholarship that has no impact, nor is market friendly, at least, in the short term? Is political activity on campuses a distraction from academic pursuits?

Each of these questions has pointed to a fundamental divide, or what seems to be a black and white choice between a higher education that raises consciousness and illuminates the horizon, and one that must be instrumental to employment and marketable research. In the Indian scenario it plays out through the increasingly unsustainable, and somewhat facile, divide between general higher education and what is known as professional education.

Impact of Policy

A discourse that dichotomises the important roles of higher education is perhaps a reflection of a system that has come to be gripped by very narrow disciplinary and vocational confines. Colonial policies recast in new moulds at the time of independence and during economic reform established such a framework. “Occupational education,” as it was first designated by the Wood’s Despatch of 1854, acquired fresh significance after 1947. In colonial India, such education serviced the need for artisans, artificers and other technical personnel in the public works. On the eve of independence, the Sarkar Committee situated technical education at the heart of nation building through industrialisation. The Radhakrishnan Commission felt the need to break away from a liberal arts emphasis in colonial education—one that produced civil servants and white collar workers. The National Policy of Education 1986 reinforced the separate universes occupied by technical and general higher education. Following economic reforms in the 1990s, private engineering colleges expanded rapidly, particularly in regions touched by the information technology sector (Krishnan 2014).

Technical Education for Development

In Nehru’s India, higher education in general and scientific education in particular was envisaged as a crucial agent of socio-economic transformation. Science and technology at the service of industrialisation would promote economic self-sufficiency, while the practice of science would inculcate the spirit of scientific inquiry and scientific temper. Disciplinary compartmentalisation was perhaps a strategy for expediting the nationalist project. Decades later, however, there is little evidence to suggest that such ties have sustained. The exodus of students from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other public institutions of technical education to Western countries and the advent of information technology and related sectors have meant that technical education now has closer ties to the research and market imperatives of advanced industrialised nations than to India’s own developmental needs (Sohoni 2012).

Further, a slew of low quality technical institutes churn out unemployable graduates aspiring to join the information technology (IT)-enabled services (ITES) sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the organised workforce in the private sector. This has grave consequences for other sectors of the economy such as manufacturing and public works, which benefit little from the surfeit of engineers in the country. The shrinking manufacturing sector fails to provide employment while inadequate public services deepen the problems of access and equity.

The disconnect of many educated youth with India’s indigenous problems is then located, at least in part, in the uncritical reproduction of engineering education in the country.

Middles Classes and the State

It has to be said that the IT boom of the 1990s tried to construct a meritocracy that promised to liberate the aspiring middle classes from the stranglehold of a much discredited public services system. Employment in the IT industry required a combination of skill and cultural capital, which meant that social hierarchies based on caste and class were often reproduced (Upadhya and Vasavi 2006). Nevertheless, it came to redefine the symbolism attached to technical education. The powerful agent of nation building came to be viewed more as a means of socio-economic mobility or as a pathway to middle class membership.

Technical education at the service of IT was instrumental in distancing the middle classes from the state. The flourishing of private sector engineering colleges, many of which ran on capitation fees, diminished the role of public education. It is therefore not surprising that a rising middle class that wants to stake a claim in the system does not demand better public universities. For similar reasons, the issue of corruption strikes a chord with middle class professionals, while that of redistributive justice does not. The argument rests on the model of corporate citizenship where social justice is a matter of philanthropy rather than of political engagement or demand for rights.

Challenges before Public Universities

On the other side of the education divide rest the traditional colleges and universities, most of which are publicly funded. They also account for over 50% of enrolments in higher education. Plagued by the shortage of qualified faculty and a curriculum that does not reflect new developments or emerging challenges, India’s public university system is neither vigorous nor adequate. The deemed unemployability of a large section of such graduates in fact points to the production of a graduate underclass that is both undereducated and underemployed. Expectedly, there is also little evidence to suggest that such education has produced innovators and entrepreneurs. Besides, there is the long standing concern of universities being captive to organised political interests, which further contributes to its falling signaling value in the labour market.

Historically, India’s public universities have been at the forefront of social movements. This must be owed in good measure to the very nature of such institutions. As various social groups come together in a more or less egalitarian space, the voices of radicals and subalterns begin to be heard (Deshpande 2016). The freedom struggle and the anti-emergency movement had gathered strength on university campuses and delivered stalwart politicians. JNU, in particular prides itself for the defiance of Indira Gandhi at the peak of her Emergency powers. Its robust tradition of student activism is also credited with effecting progressive changes in admission policy, instituting intra-university mechanisms for gender justice and campaigning forresearch scholarships. Yet student activism is being discredited for promoting personal aggrandisement and disruptive activities.

The moot question is whether a university like JNU can then proclaim the virtues of blue-sky thinking and consciousness raising without trivialising the problems of teaching, curriculum, and uninspired student politics in public universities.


The occurrences of the past few weeks have demonstrated how India’s university students can be powerful agents for widening democratic participation. In reminding the political class of the founding values of the Indian republic, they have also situated the debates on public education and the role of universities in perspective. But just as higher education cannot be reduced to a market enterprise guided by corporate interests, it also cannot remain a rarefied realm of higher thinking unconcerned with employability and innovation. If a university is a site for building the values of citizenship and raising the stakes for participation in the country’s future, it has to nurture critical thinking, employable skills and creative entrepreneurship all at the same time.  A higher education system that feeds India’s much touted knowledge economy cannot rest on facile splits and policy-induced chasms.


Deshpande, Satish (2016): “The Public University after Rohith-Kanhaiya,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 11,

Krishnan, Simantini (2014): “The Political Economy of India’s Tertiary Education: Persistence and Change,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 11,

Sohoni, Milind (2012): “Engineering Teaching and Research in IITs and its Impact on India,” Current Science, Vol 102, No 11,

Upadhya, Carol and Vasavi, AR (2006): “Work, Culture and Sociality in the Indian IT Industry: A Sociological Study,” Final Report Submitted to Indo-Dutch Programme for Alternatives in Development, August,

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