Tamil Nadu’s success in education underlines empowering, assertive populism

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Of the 860 institutions ranked, 182 institutions (accounting for 21 per cent) are from Tamil Nadu (TN). (Express Photo: Sahil Walia/ Representational)

The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranking for 2019 has just been released. This year, 860 higher education institutions are ranked, up from 445 in 2018. The NIRF ranking covers institutions from nine categories, such as overall, university, engineering, college, management, pharmacy, law, architecture, and medical. For what it’s worth, the NIRF ranking not only measures the performance of education institutions in India, but also, for good measure, expects them to measure up. Can the NIRF ranking exercise help enhance the quality of higher education?

To play up its potential is to be unrealistic, yet to despise it as an unworthy attempt is to be myopic. A prudent endeavour would be to scrutinise the NIRF ranking, identify interesting or intriguing patterns, and initiate an informed discussion. Our attempt is aimed at this. What we observe from the 2019 NIRF ranking is a remarkable regional dominance and disparity. Such dominance and disparity might appear, to the voodoo pundits, prosaic. To our understanding, they are primarily the products of, and draw attention to, substantive aspects — policies and governance.

Of the 860 institutions ranked, 182 institutions (accounting for 21 per cent) are from Tamil Nadu (TN). The combined contribution of six big states — Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — is 127 institutions. In relational terms, they account for about two-thirds of the singular contribution of TN.

The above regional disparity appears from the category of “overall”, which is generic, denoting nothing novel or nuanced. “Colleges” would be a better category to scout, as they serve as the backbone of higher education in India. Again, of the 200 colleges ranked by the NIRF in 2019, 74 colleges are from TN. Kerala, with 42 colleges, comes next. Thus, these two states are home to more than half of the quality colleges in India. Delhi, with 37 colleges, comes third. Surprisingly, no college from Bihar, MP, UP and Odisha is of a standard to find a place in the 200 ranked colleges. Even the share of Gujarat and Rajasthan together is minuscule — five colleges.

Thus, an important pattern emerges: The adequate contribution of TN coexisting with the inadequate share of some big states combined. Is there something unique to Tamil Nadu? An analysis of its performance, welfare and politics brings out two important insights. First is the “populist” nature of its welfare policies. The regional parties which have been governing TN since 1960s progressively built a competitive populist platform. Central to this is a progressive and expanding pool of welfare programmes, a fair measure of effectiveness in delivery, and a reasonable degree of commitment to their stability.

The second aspect is the “form” of populism — it is empowering and assertive. The welfare policies were fortified with and paved a way for a carefully crafted micropolitics of identity creation and assertion. Identity-based reservation in education and employment was an important component of this form of populism. These two aspects created a critical mass of quality education institutions, which in turn benefited and empowered the middle and bottom groups, which were marginalised or ignored by the earlier political regime and its ruling elites.

The demands and assertions of these groups, in turn, forced the state to deliver and expand the services. Of the 74 ranked colleges from TN, only one-third (17 colleges) are based at Chennai and the rest (57 colleges) are spread across various cities. This raises an important question: Can populism promote quality? TN’s experience shows that it is eminently possible to deliver and sustain higher education institutions without lowering their quality and access. The populist form notwithstanding, what Tamil Nadu’s case underlines also is effective welfare policies and governance. This brings us back to the issue posed at the beginning. It is possible to use the NIRF ranking to draw attention to issues of governance and quality that blight higher education in India.