Higher Education – Revolution in the offing

By K.N. Pandita

Defending his Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation) draft Bill 2010, Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal claimed that “the bill would usher in a revolution larger than one in telecom sector in this country.”

Why then was a highly beneficial measure not initiated all these years that would have brought substantial change to India’s education sector?  Actually the Congress government in 1955 failed to see it through, and the coalition government led by UPA in 2006 again failed in pushing the bill in the parliament. 

In both of the two previous abortive attempts it was the Left, which, in its characteristic negative culture, subverted a proposal that would have opened vistas of raising our educational standards to the level of developed countries. The Left contended that opening up of education sector would lead to unregulated fees and admission procedure that favoured only the affluent classes.  But perhaps advertently it did not focus on huge monies that out-flowed with Indian students seeking admission in foreign universities.

Unshackled of the Left in last elections, the Congress-led UPA government feels more reassured to table the bill which will come up for crucial debate in the present session of the parliament.

What has been the motivation for the HRD minister to introduce the bill? Over 50,000 Indian students choose to join overseas universities for higher education every year, which causes an outflow of about 10 billion US dollars annually. This is because the Indian middle class has achieved the capacity to send their youth abroad for higher education and training.

According to data provided by Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry, India has 220 million students enrolled in her 20,000 colleges, 370 universities and 156 foreign educational institutions that conduct their courses in India. Out of the 220 million enrolments, 14 million are for higher education.

The Indian middle class comprises 350 million at present and it is expected to expand to 600 million by 2025. Again by 2025, about three-quarters of India’s urbanites will be part of the middle class compared with one-tenth at present. Imagine the enormous outflow which will take place with the burgeoning Indian middle class in years to come and its student community aspiring foreign degrees.

India has the largest student population in the world with estimated market of US dollars 40 billion per year. We have passed the second decade of liberalization but the education sector remained stagnated in grooves from which it should have wriggled out.  We have the pressing need of deregulating our education especially the higher education sector to meet the demands of a burgeoning economy.

What does the bill signify or in other words what gains will it bring to the country when it is passed by the parliament? There are pessimists and negativists who are quick to paint a dark and dismal picture whenever India thinks of opening to various facets of modern life. But the ground situation is one that will no more give way to negativism.

Heavy regulations and over-protection of education sector from global forces may have allowed Indians to get cheaper education but at the same time growth and quality of higher education has suffered the consequences of protectionism.

The bill envisages foreign universities investment of 51 % of capital expenditures needed for establishing the campuses in India. It will entitle foreign entrants to offer degrees in the country which was not allowed so far. Only accredited universities will be allowed and permission to franchises will not be encouraged.

Entry of foreign universities is expected to enhance educational opportunities. Foreign university degrees for the students will be made more affordable to a much larger number of Indians. It will increase availability and quality of various faculties and the bill may usher global best practices in India’s higher education sector.

“Foreign universities will prevent three-fourth of Indian students aspiring to go abroad”, said a lobby spokesman. Indirect benefit would be the prevention of brain drain.

According to the Ministry of HRD, about a 50 universities including Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Imperial College, London have applied to the Indian government for clearance. However, some prestigious foreign universities like Yale, Harvard. Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University have said they are in no haste to open their campuses in India.

There are other universities like Columbia that are following a different strategy. Their concept is of setting up centre in India that would focus on research and exchange programme rather than offering degrees.

But all said and done, there will be difficulties in the way of foreign universities establishing their campuses in India while ensuring the level of standard expected from them. The draft bill imposes tough conditions on fees, curriculum, degrees etc. and demands strict adherence to the norms that have been laid down. If these harsh conditionalties prevail, it is feared that India could become unattractive to students.  Grant Thornton, a recognized consultancy said that general infrastructure in India is not capable of supporting world-class university campus. In particular, Indian rural sector may not qualify for these campuses.  These challenges may force many aspiring foreign universities to tie up with existing universities and institutions in urbanized areas. Furthermore many local educational centers with strong political lobbies behind them could scuttle induction of a foreign higher education institute in India.

But supporters of the bill say that higher education is no only a matter of awarding degrees. It is to improve the quality of education. And if the bill in question is passed by the parliament, that will be a step in right direction.

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