The foreign impulse

Bringing in international universities serves a slender need, and does not address questions of quality and equity.

The first half of my professional life took me to the research laboratories and departments of India's leading universities and institutes, while I have spent subsequent years engaged with education in rural government schools. My interactions with researchers and professors at institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, JNU, TIFR and the IITs filled me with hope. With better funding, infrastructure and an enabling regulatory environment (that is, less bureaucracy), these institutions would, in time, hold their own in comparison to any other institution in the world.

And then I plunged into rural India and came face to face with the fact that 80 per cent of our children receive completely inadequate education. The 15 per cent of these children who survive the 12 years of rote learning in schools enrol for three desultory years of college education. In colleges that are understaffed, with teachers who are demotivated, with little infrastructure and neither sensible monitoring of quality nor even the remotest idea of what students learn in those three years. India today has over 600 universities and over 30,000 colleges churning out graduates year after year, many with little understanding of their chosen subject. Visit Gulbarga, Kolhapur or Bhagalpur and meet any young graduate, fresh PhD or lecturer who teaches there, and the problem will hit you like a fist in the gut. Visit the departments of a university and see the sincere professor vainly battling the system for better curriculum, assessment and learning experience for our students.

So if the objective is to do something to change this situation, many things need to be done simultaneously. That is why I am lukewarm to the government's announcement that it will use the route of an executive order to allow foreign universities to operate in India. Evidence and rationale seem to indicate that this step will be peripheral to the urgent issues of equity and quality education in India. Two questions, then: Why are foreign universities interested in coming to India? Whom will they serve? The answer to the first is the lure of the huge market of 1.2 billion people at a time when funds are getting severely slashed in Western universities. And for some top universities, setting up a centre in a country like India would add stature to their global social commitment. The answer to the second is that they will present to Indian students the opportunity of a foreign degree right here in India. Will foreign universities plunge into undergraduate courses because that is where the numbers will make financial sense, or will they establish masters programmes to save foreign exchange for India as its graduates seek such qualifications from foreign universities? Even if these degrees will come much cheaper than going abroad and save the government foreign exchange (said to be around $10 billion), the students who will study at these institutions will be those who are financially well-off or educated in India's elite urban schools. And the crème de la crème may still opt to go abroad anyway. So where do the objectives of equity and equal opportunities for quality higher education get realised with such a move? Sceptics will equate this to the handful of elitist schools offering international baccalaureate programmes to the privileged few who prepare to go abroad for higher studies.

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