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Rediff News  All News  » Business » Our universities are in a mess

Our universities are in a mess

September 28, 2006 13:47 IST
Union Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, it must be conceded, has real gumption. After having very nearly struck a remarkably bad bargain for India and the developing countries at the last two meetings of the World Trade Organisation -- which fell through only because of the greed, inflexibility and lack of unity among the rich countries -- Mr Nath has positioned himself as the foremost champion of neoliberal globalisation in the United Progressive Alliance government, with the exception of Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Amazingly, he has raised his rating within the Cabinet despite his dubious performance. He is one of the four Ks being considered for appointment as foreign minister, no less.

Nath has run a successful crusade for Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These will result in a massive land grab and huge losses for the exchequer. He now audaciously demands that India's higher education sector be thrown open to unbridled Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). His ministry has made a strong pitch for this in a 'consultation paper' written 'in preparation for' the WTO services negotiations.

It is noteworthy that the plea for effecting such a major change in the prime source of India's most skilled and intellectual personpower should be exogenous, or driven by external circumstances, rather than by an endogenous consideration of how the country should improve its universities and professional colleges to develop its human resources and emerge as a global leader -- not just in science and technology, but in the world of ideas as a whole.

It is even more regrettable that the argument for allowing the unregulated entry of foreign capital into higher education should be inspired by a narrow view of India's participation in the WTO talks on Agreement on Trade in Services.

India should never have agreed in the first place to negotiate GATS and accept the perverse re-definition of drinking water and sources of knowledge as mere 'services', trade in which should be recklessly opened up -- putting commercial interests above all else. Nothing could have been a more eloquent testimony to our willingness to subjugate India's developmental objectives and strategies to the profiteering demands of multinational capital.

However, let us get to the core of the commerce ministry's argument. It consists of four propositions, two of which are unexceptionable and two obnoxious. Take the first lot. The paper concedes that education is a public good crucial to human capital creation, which is itself a key determinant of progress. The second acceptable proposition is that India has not invested adequately in higher education.

Consequently, only 11 per cent of those in the relevant age group (17 to 23) are enrolled in colleges or universities -- a proportion that's unacceptably low, not just in relation to the developed countries (enrolment rate, 50 to 80 per cent), but even Brazil (18 per cent), the Philippines (31 per cent) or Malaysia (29). There's a strong case for sharply raising India's tertiary enrolment rate.

So far so good. Now come the two bad propositions crucial to the carte blanche-for-FDI view. The paper holds that higher education in India largely benefits the elite and hence is a private good, which should be funded privately.

Indeed, it disingenuously says: 'Private funding of higher education is not only more efficient, but also more equitable.' There is undeniably a problem of access in India's highly stratified, unequal and hierarchical society. Very few people have the luxury of going into tertiary education. Indeed, only one-third of those who enter school complete secondary education.

But this mandates improving access through more subsidies, scholarships, freeships, and courses that combine learning and earning, etc -- not for further reducing the access of a majority of our population to high schools and colleges. The relevant statistics make out a good case for greater public funding of higher education. India currently spends only 0.37 percent of its GDP on it, three times lower than developed countries. Private investment in education is a recipe for elitism and further contraction of access.

The second argument is even worse: namely, foreign investment is all that's needed to improve matters in India. Hence we should allow FDI into higher education, like the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Singapore do. This wholly ignores the issue of content of education, reducing it to a financial problem -- of guaranteeing a high enough profit on investment.

But higher education is all about generating knowledge, encouraging critical thinking and imparting skills relevant to this society and driven by its needs.

Education in general, and higher education in particular, is a highly nation-specific activity, determined by national cultures and priorities. The European Union has to a certain extent politically integrated 25 countries, and the Euro has economically integrated 16 of them, including Germany, France and Italy. But the education systems in the three largest countries of continental Europe are as varied as the languages they speak.

A German learns engineering through a different sequence of steps from a Frenchwoman. And the way Italy designs its university courses to suit the needs of state recruitment is markedly different from the fashion in which vocational education is organised by its neighbours.

In India, we have a huge, creaking, poorly managed higher education system, with 348 universities, 17,625 colleges and 10.5 million students, besides 320,000 teaching staff. There is very little quality control, especially over the 63 unaided 'deemed universities', 7,650 unaided private colleges and 150 foreign education institutions (FEIs).

Although the private colleges have over 3.1 million students, they duck state regulation, for instance, in respect of Scheduled Caste or Other Backward Classes reservations. India's public institutions are subject to the not-very-rational control of the University Grants Commission and All-India Council of Technical Education.

The growth of India's higher educational institutions has indeed been spectacularly rapid: universities have doubled in number since 1990-91, and enrolment has more than doubled. But this has been at the expense of quality, increased rigidity in course design, poor absorption of knowledge, and growing lack of access to laboratory facilities, journals and opportunities for field work, etc.

Let's face it: Our universities are in a mess. The average Indian graduate compares poorly with her/his counterpart in most countries, including many developing ones. The so-called elite institutions are extremely selective, and well-funded, but pose the problem of relevance and drain of talent. Most IIT graduates end up going abroad or selling soap. Less than 5 per cent do what they are best trained to do -- very expensively, at an annual cost of Rs 10 lakhs-plus per student.

All this calls for reform, administrative changes, more funding, greater flexibility, quality improvement, etc. But this daunting task won't be remotely addressed by the entry of foreign universities. A National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration study of 131 FEIs (59 from Britain, 66 from the US) says the only two of them run full-time courses in India; the rest offer twinning programmes to attract students to the host country.

Twinning is a cheap option, as part of the programme is undertaken in the host country and the rest at the foreign destination. This is an open invitation to fly-by-night operators and owners of 'degree mills', without an iota of quality or relevance.

Faced with the demand for free FDI entry, the ministry of human resource development appointed a committee under eminent scientist CNR Rao to go into the issue. The Rao Committee wisely suggested that FEIs should only be allowed under regulation, for a limited period followed by review, on payment of a substantial security deposit, no repatriation of surpluses, etc.

FEIs must be accredited in the home country, and which offer courses on a par with those taught there. They must accept Indian regulation on quotas, fees, etc. and agree not to poach Indian faculty. They must fully disclose the fee schedule. They should be allowed on a strictly reciprocal basis.

Messrs Nath and Ahluwalia are mounting pressure to drop all these cautionary principles. But their plea would violate the spirit of all the consultations held since January 2005 with different agencies, including the states. It also goes against the principle of non-discriminatory and reciprocal treatment, and will encourage commercialisation and profiteering in education.

The commerce ministry's proposal will turn India into a passive recipient of educational services, forever willing to be exploited by the supposedly 'superior' FEIs.

No university of excellence like Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford or Princeton is likely to set up shop in India. We'll be loaded with 'B' and 'C' grade universities. This will only increase the existing drain on resources caused by the 140,000 Indians who go abroad to study every year. The drain is enormous -- the equivalent of what it would take to set up, say, 10 JNUs or 15 to 20 IITs. This is wholly unconscionable.

If India is ever to emerge as a knowledge superpower, it cannot dispense with self-reliance in higher education. No self-respecting country can afford to do that. Self-reliance doesn't mean autarky and isolation: we must encourage contact, interaction and collaboration with good foreign universities and laboratories. But that has nothing to do with hawking our students as grist to the FEIs' commercial 'degree mills.'

Praful Bidwai