In late 2006, the National Knowledge Commission in India released its much awaited report. The Commission was established in mid 2005 with the objective of enabling “the development of a vibrant knowledge based society. This entails both a radical improvement in existing systems of knowledge, and creating avenues for generating new forms of knowledge”.
The Commission was chaired by a US-based technology guru Sam Pitroda, and was given terms of reference that included the task of advising the Prime Minister on how to “Build excellence in the educational system to meet the knowledge challenges of the 21st century and increase India’s competitive advantage in fields of knowledge”. Its recommendations on higher education are therefore are of great interest. The Commission notes that higher education has a significant contribution to make to economic development, social progress and political democracy in India, but laments the fact the proportion of India’s population, in the relevant age group that enter higher education is only 7 per cent, and that the system of higher education is simply not adequate to meet the country’s needs. It therefore recommends the creation of many more universities to attain a gross enrolment ratio of at least 15 percent by 2015, including 50 national universities that can provide education of the highest standard. However, the Commission realizes that this ambitious goal cannot be met without major changes to the system of regulation for higher education in India. It insists on the need for better coordination under a single Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) for setting entry criteria and monitoring performance standards. While seeking increased public funding, the Commission also suggests diversifying sources of financing higher education, in ways that are familiar enough in most other countries that have sought to restructure their higher education systems. This basically means greater reliance on private sources of income. The commission also makes recommendations about how to pursue ‘excellence’ by restructuring, for example the curricula and assessment and evaluation procedures of both student progress and faculty performance, but does not say what kind of curriculum it sees as relevant to the knowledge society. It suggests that social inclusion should be a major principle underlying Indian higher education, with a recommendation to the universities to adopt a needs-based admissions policy, as well as affirmative action.
A great deal was expected from the Knowledge Commission in India. But, in the end, its analysis and recommendations are viewed by higher education leaders in India as largely disappointing. It presents an analysis of knowledge society largely in economic terms, following the various familiar mantras about the new knowledge economy developed by such international organizations as the OECD and the World Bank. While it makes some attempt at thinking through issues of globalization of knowledge in relation to India’s distinctive cultural and political traditions, this is quickly passed over with the familiar rhetoric about the uses of technology in human capital formations. Its recommendations for higher education thus appear trapped within the existing social imaginary, and its own attempts to suggesting radical innovations are at best limited. Fazal Rizvi