India’s bet on liberal arts will fail without more investment

Amid languishing quality, introducing what could be a more expensive curriculum to deliver may not boost employability, says Pushkar

September 12, 2021
A green shoot with an Indian banknote wrapped around it illustrating funding for liberal arts in India
Source: iStock

The future of liberal arts education in Asia has been questioned following the announcement of the closure of Yale-NUS College in Singapore. However, India’s higher education sector is witnessing what can only be described as the beginning of a liberal arts wave.

Scores of new liberal arts institutions – almost all of them private – are emerging, while older, established universities are redesigning their curricula to integrate humanities disciplines into their typical focuses on engineering and management.

This trend is also reflected at the level of national policy. In contrast to the impetus in the West to reset higher education towards a more STEM-intensive future, India’s government has embraced the liberal arts. Its much-vaunted National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 consciously links liberal arts education to India’s past. It states that the country’s “long tradition” of interdisciplinary learning extends back to the ancient universities of Takshashila and Nalanda, which existed more than a thousand years ago, and is evident in the “extensive literatures of India combining subjects across fields…The very idea that all branches of creative human endeavour, including mathematics, science, vocational subjects, professional subjects…should be considered ‘arts’ has distinctly Indian origins”.

The government insists, however, that reconnecting liberal arts to its authentic Indian roots is much more than a vain attempt to create a mythical age of higher education. Instead, this model of “holistic and multidisciplinary learning” – which has also fallen out of favour in its traditional home of the US – is exactly “what is needed for the education of India to lead the country into the 21st century and the fourth industrial revolution”, the NEP asserts.

Even before the government took up this cause, students were taking note of the new liberal arts institutions, such as Ashoka, FLAME and Shiv Nadar universities. Now, with the government endorsing the model, many more students will likely be drawn to them.

But the success of India’s liberal arts institutions cannot be assessed only in terms of new institutions or rising student enrolments. The emergence of liberal arts teaching at India’s most prestigious educational establishments underlines that this is no passing fashion. The Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Bangalore will soon begin an undergraduate programme in liberal arts, while IIT-Bombay is starting a unique liberal arts, sciences and engineering (LASE) programme.

However, the real marker of success will ultimately be student employability. If liberal arts courses can produce high-quality graduates – not just from highly selective colleges, but public universities more widely – who can command decent graduate salaries, then India’s bet on liberal arts education will have paid off.

If not, the “liberal arts wave” will seem suspiciously similar to the engineering and management education boom that took off in the 1990s with the creation of hundreds of engineering- and management-focused institutions that promised well-paid careers for their graduates. Instead, with most institutions offering poor quality education, graduates were left with worthless degrees that seldom delivered the dream of white-collar financial security.

India’s liberal arts wave – quite unsurprisingly – responds to this very problem of student employability. Liberal arts education is being promoted by universities, the government and the media as the missing part of the puzzle that will help would-be engineers or management consultants to gain that crucial first foothold in the graduate labour market by giving them a more rounded set of skills, human as well as technical. However, this will simply be wishful thinking unless universities beyond the small handful of elite institutions take effective steps to improve the quality of their education.

While curricular innovation is welcome, what is required above all else, if India is to make a success of the so-called Asian Century, is for the country to invest in a higher education system that currently serves about 38 million students. That investment is particularly crucial given that delivering liberal arts education may be more expensive than the single subject degrees that are now deemed less helpful for student life chances.

Without this injection of new revenue, India’s efforts to produce employable graduates will continue to be largely in vain.

Pushkar is director of the International Centre Goa, Dona Paula (Goa). These are his personal views.


Print headline: Liberal arts wave needs funds

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