The horrific attacks on Indian students in Australia are an issue that the new external affairs minister will have to take up immediately. But the reports that have followed the attacks should also provide some food for thought to the new minister for human resource development (HRD).
Depending on which report you believe, there are between 70,000 and 95,000 Indian students enrolled in Australian universities, which are not exactly the best universities in the world. Yet, thousands of Indian students go there every year, and pay hefty fees to do so. Why?
These students are in all probability refugees from the mess that the Indian system of higher education has become. While ensuring Indian students abroad are safe is undoubtedly the most immediate task, the recent violence should also lead Indians to ask why so many of our youth need to go abroad to study every year.
One clear reason is to acquire skills that they are unlikely to get in India. That will take the best and the brightest to centres of learning such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, Oxford and the like. But I doubt that is why thousands more flit away to countries such as Australia, Singapore, Dubai and Canada every year.
I think there is more than skill acquisition involved. One strand of modern research ties education to the theory of signalling. Universities help employers separate the wheat from the chaff. A student who comes out of a top college or university is not necessarily a genius, but employers can be sure that the sheer act of getting through a tough course and examinations is a signal that the student is capable of problem solving and hard work.
Indian universities have clearly failed in this task. Most are sinks of mediocrity. While a lot of the debate on higher education in India focuses on the elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management— where skill acquisition is of a high order—there is less interest in regular colleges and universities that do more of signalling than skill acquisition. Hence the desperate rush for a foreign degree.
In the absence of either high levels of skills or a strong degree that sends out a signal to prospective employers, what most Indian students have to fall back on are good old parental and community contacts. That’s hardly an ideal.
These are issues that someone as capable as Kapil Sibal should be able to appreciate. India now has an HRD minister who is not a tired ideologue in the fashion of Murli Manohar Joshi or Arjun Singh, more concerned with rewriting history textbooks, destroying the institutional independence of the best colleges, playing with caste quotas—all when the more important task was to increase the supply of quality higher education to meet higher demand from students.
India needs both better and more universities if it is to build future competitiveness. I had written in an earlier column (“Harvard on the Yangste”, 2 April 2008) that China is investing heavily to create world-class universities. It is taking the elitist route.
“Peking and Tsinghua universities each received 1.8 billion renminbi—or more than Rs1,000 crore at current exchange rates—way back in 1998. The top 11 universities got more than 17.43 billion renminbi (close to Rs10,000 crore) from the government in 2004. And the money keeps flowing.”
The number of graduates in China quadrupled between 1998 and 2005, as more young men and women got the opportunity to attend university. And there is more involved than more money. Smaller universities are being consolidated while professors have strict targets in terms of publications in peer-reviewed research journals.
Meanwhile, the new government should also move fast to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India, something that the Left had fervently opposed when it was supporting the previous government.
The signalling function of education ensures that brand names matter. It is not just a question of getting a degree. Equally important is the question of which university has given out that degree. Getting foreign universities in will bring in not just fresh capital to complement public investment, but also brand names that can be trusted.
No economy can grow just through using more labour and capital. It also has to become more productive through better human capital and more innovation. India needs to face that challenge by completely overhauling its system of higher education. China is busy doing it. India should not fall behind in this race as it has in the race to build physical infrastructure such as roads, ports and railways.
That Indian students are attacked on the streets of Australia is a shame. But it is also a shame that thousands have to go there every year because they do not have access to half-decent education in their own country.
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