OPINION

Will the Higher Education Bill Help The Education Sector?

April 01, 2010
jay

The National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill is expected to be presented in the Indian parliament this month. An important provision in the bill is the proposal to allow foreign colleges and universities to set up shop in India. There is a hot debate raging in the press about the merits and demerits of this move and whether it will really usher in a change in the higher education sector in India. On the whole, the debaters seem to fall into three predictable categories. Most educators and administrators of the premier instiututions of India who believe this will skew the level playing field away from them fall into the category that is opposing the bill. A lot of people who are fed up with the lack of choices in India (and industrialists who see an opportunity here) wholeheartedly welcome this move. In the middle are the opinionators who would like to see a massive change in the educational sector and believe that the bill is a move in the right direction but do not expect any great changes to happen for the foreseeable future. I belong to the third category. Here is why I support the bill with reservations.

The bill finally recognizes the fact that the education sector in India is in a shambles and it is high time we fixed it. This is a welcome admission from the government. Mr. Kapil Sibal, the HRD minister, has been working overtime to right many of the wrongs in the system. He has attemped to make significant changes in the K-12 system for starters. In the past several months he has also made a lot of noises about the dearth of scientific research opportunities in India, lack of choice etc. This focus on the higher education sector is therefore a move in the right direction. There are several problems hobbling the sector in India, primary among them being funding. India spends about 0.4% of its GDP (about $4 bn) on higher education while the US spends more than 1.5% of its GDP ($200 bn). Even more glaring is when one compares the overall education expenditure in India - 4% of GDP, while even countries like Malaysia (20%), Thailand (27%) and Philippines (17%) spend a lot more. With the government finding it tough to control its deficit spending, it is not likely that it will be able to allocate much more to education - a vital sector nevertheless - than it is doing today. Hence the need to invite private investment into the sector. This, therefore is a good move from that perspective.

Attached with this motive in the bill are a number of lofty goals which are unlikely to be achieved, though. It is assumed that with foreign universities coming in, the flow of students going to other countries for an education will reduce. Another assumption is that quality education from a foreign university will become much more affordable which will increase the number of students seeking it especially from the lower strata of society. These are pipe dreams in my opinion. For one, several top universities like Harvard, Oxford etc have already declared that they may not be interested in setting up their branches in India. There are a number of reasons why. For one thing, students go to Harvard or Oxford not only for the saleability of the degree they give out, but also the experience, the talented faculty, the opportunities available for research, the world-class infrastructure as well as the richness of the cross-cultural interaction that they provide. These will be very hard to replicate in India. For one, in order to replicate the kind of faculty that these colleges provide, they will have to import them from their parent institutes as developing such faculty indigenously would take a lot of time and effort. That is not going to be easy unless you pay them dollar salaries + hardship allowances. If one believes that Indian professors will gladly move to India for a pittance of a salary for the opportunity, then one is hallucinating. World class professors look for world class research opportunities. The ecosystem in the US or UK provides much richer interaction among the research community that it is easier to publish and engage in research. Indian education system lacks such a culture and it will take a long time to replicate it here. So, expecting that we will have world class faculty rise up in India miraculously is a dream that is not rooted in reality.

Another important factor is the culture of charity in India which is woefully inadequate. A lot of colleges and universities in the US and other western countries are generously funded by rich people. This money is used to subsidize the education of a large section of the student population including Indians. This is a result of the culture of giving that has been there in the western countries for a long time. It will take a while before Indians open up their purse strings to fund colleges and universities in India. This will mean that building world class infrastructure, paying world class faculty and subsidizing students from the lower strata of society in India are not going to be possible for most reputed colleges. Alternately it means that an education in such a college in India will be beyond the means of the average Indian student - precisely the opposite of what the bill aims to achieve. If some reputed institutes were to set themselves up in India under these constraints we will have more colleges like ISBs (Indian School of Business, Hyderabad) who charge 25-30 lakhs for a degree rather than an IIM which charges 10 lakhs for a degree. Even the latter is unaffordable for the middle class.

Given these constraints, a lot of critics have rightly pointed out that only the B and C grade universities from the western world will be willing to come to India. This could lead to a lot of unscrupulous behavior as they would look at this opportunity as a money-making venture. Our experience so far has not been very encouraging on this front. It remains to be seen how the provisions in the bill will try to reduce or eliminate such consequences.

One approach that could produce some viable opportunity could be like that of what Yale University is contemplating. Yale plans to enter into partnership with Indian colleges and Universities so that Yale's superior curriculum can be adapted to the Indian environment. This is the approach that worked well in the past for instance when the IITs and IIMs were set up. However, this is typically limited in scope and does not bring the flavour of the foreign university to India.

I would go ahead and say "well done Mr. Sibal" for sparking this debate and trying to do something about the morass in the higher education system in India. Some of the pitfalls in reforming the system lies in the ecosystem itself which will need a lot of time to change. The experience of countries like China, Dubai and Singapore are reference cases in point. Opening up their education sectors failed to revolutionize the system in these countries. However, rather than failures, they have been limited successes. It will be great if we build upon their experiences and come up with a viable approach that will work for us. It will be foolhardy to expect the dawn of a new era from this bill, though.

An experienced profesional of more than 20 years. Enquiring into the context of the big issues of the day so as to understand them is a quest I pursue all the time. As Niall Ferguson said "To understand something, you need to understand its history". Hoping to bring some much needed multi-layered perspective into the burning issues of our country and the world by looking at ourselves from the outside rather than from within.
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