Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Removing constraints in higher education

The argument that foreign investment benefits only a minority is flawed

The Global Education Meet (GEM), which was convened in Kerala last week, caught the headlines for the wrong reasons. At the venue of the meet, Students’ Federation of India (SFI) activists assaulted the vice-chairman of the state’s higher education council, T.P. Sreenivasan. The motive: To prevent acceleration of ‘commercialization’ of education.

The resistance to privatizing education and foreign investment is often based on two flawed assumptions. First, privatization inevitably leads to profiteering and compromises education, and second, public institutions always do a better job.

While the merits of GEM’s specific approach of establishing International Higher Education Zones—a kind of special education zone—are debateable, the fundamental clash of ideas on display in Kerala is telling. The protesters claimed that inviting foreign investment and foreign universities to Kerala would facilitate a “global trade in education" and would be pointless as this would benefit only a minority of students. These arguments are both atavistic—pointing to a belief in an isolated, idealized form of egalitarianism that is unworkable in practice—and indicative of the manner in which those flawed assumptions can lead people to ignore the experiences of the countries that dominate higher education globally.

The establishment of big universities with state-of-the-art facilities may not serve the purpose of educating and training every one of the multitude of India’s youth. But they raise the bar by creating healthy competition. And they have beneficial spillover effects. They can lead to establishment of enterprises, which thrive from the human resources in the given area and potentially drive the entire city’s urban growth, provided it is integrated with the city and not walled off from it. Silicon Valley benefiting from Stanford academia and Boston from Harvard and MIT are cases in point.

The structural issues inherent in India’s current higher education system—walled off for decades—are the reason for the demand-supply gap in its skill market. Private institutions account for almost two-thirds of the higher education in India (according to a 2011 report by Ernst and Young and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry). Some of them even provide the finest education in the country. Despite this, barriers are present at every level for these institutions—entry, operation and exit.

Private universities and deemed universities currently have no power to affiliate colleges, fix salaries of their faculty or even include courses in their colleges. This privilege lies entirely in the hand of the state or central university. The control of these universities, in turn, lies in the hands of the University Grants Commission (UGC), the professional councils and the government (centre and state).

Restrictions also exist on entry of foreign universities, foreign faculty and foreign collaboration. Though 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) is allowed in the education sector, the provision comes with riders. Not-for-profit principle and permitting only Section 25 companies with no foreign investment to invest in technical institutes are just a few of them. If these bottlenecks do not scare away interested foreign institutes, they can engage in exchange programmes, distance education and faculty exchange programmes with existing Indian institutes.

If India has to accommodate its rising need for higher education, granting autonomy to private institutions, liberalizing laws for foreign entrants and decentralization are a necessity and not a leisurely choice.

According to World Economic Forum’s latest report The Future of Jobs, 65% of current primary schoolchildren will end up working in completely new jobs that do not exist yet. An evolving dynamic course structure should be framed through a symbiotic association with both private and foreign partners if India has to keep pace with the world of nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics and space research.

Research has to form an essential part of the curriculum and be linked with the industry’s requirements. The Digital India fund set aside for education may be effectively used for complementing these objectives through information and communication technology (ICT) and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

With half the population of India falling below the age of 29 and the age distribution chart swelling up considerably after 15 years, there is no better time to look at and revive the higher education sector in India. The land of Nalanda, Vikramasila and Taxila, which featured vividly in the accounts of travellers like Hsuan Tsang, I. Tsing and Strabo, currently has no varsity in the world’s top 100 ranking. Higher education in India needs more than just reform. It requires a revolution.

Will private and foreign entrants help in reviving the higher education system in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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