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Reasons to welcome foreign varsities

Education World, 30 Nov, 1999
By Vipin Veetil

Following the debate on opening the Indian education sector to foreign players reminds me of Frederic Bastiat's famous Candlemakers' Petition: "Pass a law requiring the closing of all windows. inside and outside shutters, curtains. all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses. so as to boost the candle making trade." Similarly closing our doors to foreign universities may help preserve ailing Indian universities, but the future of millions of Indian students will become darker as without sunlight.

In any debate on education policy, the interests of students must be the paramount consideration. All others should be subservient. A student centric perspective will immediately highlight the two glaring holes in our once celebrated university system: inadequate capacity and poor quality teaching and research. The gross enrollment ratio (GER) in tertiary (undergraduate and postgrad) education is only 11 percent - lower than developing countries like Indonesia (15 percent) and the Philippines (31 percent), not to mention the average for OECD nations (71.2 percent).

In the current shuttered environment, the quality of education and research in Indian universities has been in consistent decline and they continue to lose their best students to universities abroad. Unsurprisingly, on every measure higher education in India lags behind. Yes, we have IITs and IIMs, but how many students do they serve? The flood of Indian students into universities in the United States , Britain , Australia and Singapore indicates that given half a chance Indian students would exit the system. The country's premier economic research institution, the Delhi School of Economics, has only 5 registered M.Phil aspirants and an even smaller number of Ph D students. Another indicator of the rot in higher education is that Indian research publications account for only 2 percent of papers published worldwide.

The GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) agreement of the WTO is an excellent opportunity for improving this state of affairs as it encourages cooperation between institutions of higher education in signatory countries. Therefore it's a good augury that many of the best universities in the world have already expressed interest in establishing campuses in India . In addition to capital investment, these institutions will also import much-needed domain knowledge, modern syllabuses, efficient resource management and professional teaching methodologies.

Inevitably, reservations have been expressed about increased engagement with foreign universities. Some educationists claim it will further aggravate the problems in higher education by limiting access to affluent urban students to the exclusion of the rural poor. But in this context it's important to bear in mind that our overall experience with liberalisation and deregulation of the economy post 1991 has been positive. In IT, telecom, banking, insurance, movies, we are much better off today than before liberal-isation. Therefore there's no reason to expect a contrary outcome with the opening up of the education sector.

Moreover it's important to remember that the existing higher education system has hardly served the poor. Most poor people don't complete primary and secondary education. In the circumstances heavy subsidisation of higher education - which keeps fees abysmally low - benefits the middle and affluent classes. For the poor, the forgone income and the cost of living is as much a deterrent as college fees.

The entry of foreign varsities into India is likely to prove a boon for higher education for  several reasons. First, an important cause of the declining quality of education in government colleges and universities is their inability to attract and retain quality faculty, especially given rising salaries in the private sector. Higher salaries offered by foreign institutions will attract talented youth into academia and research, improving standards of higher education across the board.

Second, improved higher education will attract more Indian, and hopefully African and Asian students to India in preference to western universities. This will save us the billions of dollars that Indian students spend in western universities, and also counter the brain-drain problem.

Third, there is likely to be a significant labour shortage in most western countries (and Japan ) because of their ageing populations. Already Indian teachers, doctors, and other professionals are in great demand in Europe and the US . Since foreign universities are likely to have a better knowledge of their own job markets, they will offer study programmes which will train Indian youth for international markets, dramatically improving their employability.

Opening the door to foreign institutions of higher education is a necessary first step towards breaking down the massive wall between Indian students and quality higher education. It would be ironic to allow foreign companies to sell us cars, phones, toothpastes and lipsticks, but deny their participation in the provision of education which is far more crucial to improving the quality of life of Indians.

(Parth J. Shah is president of the Centre for Civil Society, Delhi . Written with Vipin Veetil)

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