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'Cooperative higher education a must for India, China and US'

August 29, 2009 16:59 IST

If India, China and the United States are to prosper in a globalised economy, a joint, cooperative transformation of their higher education systems was imperative, believes B M Naik, former principal of the engineering school at the Guru Gobind Singh College in Nanded, Maharashtra. Naik is now a consultant on entrepreneurship focusing on science, technology and engineering for private sector investors setting up higher education institutions.

Naik, who has published extensively policy articles on how to alleviate India's higher education and served on several accreditation boards, said, "To bring about this transformation from one level to the high level and to the global level and quality standard education, what is most important is that these ideas must move fast from one country to another."

"Good ideas are born in every country and good ideas need to be made mobile," he said while addressing a seminar on Higher Education Policies in India, China and the United States organised by the Bridging Nations Foundation based in Washington, DC.

In India, Naik said, where the proportion of enrollment in high education is low, there was no way of upping this dismal numbers unless there is private sector support and he lauded "the private sector for responding to the challenge and coming up in large numbers all over the country."

He heaped praise on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's privatisation policies and said "It has done a miracle. Today, there are more private engineering colleges in the country than state-supported colleges."

Naik said, "In IT, software development, Indian industry has done a good job and in all this, the privatisation policy of the Indian government has paid rich dividends."

He was bullish on the United States model, calling it "a role model that has been adopted by several universities and several engineering institutions in India," and also said it was a good idea to import as many education experts from foreign countries as possible.

Naik said the partnerships between US and Indian universities and colleges "are mutually beneficial -- it's a win-win for both parties -- because this century is going to be a knowledge-based century and for a knowledge economy, knowledge is power."

He said in India, although the salaries of professors have increased, there was an acute dearth of teachers and he hoped "the majority of PhD seekers in US colleges and universities who are India students," would return to India to teach.

Naik said there would find significant compensation because "professors are now being paid high than the salaries of their counterparts in industries," and because of the lack of availability of teachers they receive 'whatever they demand'.

"The younger generation is hungry and people are ready to spend any amount. They just want world class education," he said.

Naik lauded Sam Pitroda, chairman of the National Knowledge Commission "for introducing waves of creativity, waves of innovation," and also for abolishing entrenched entities like the University Grants Commission.

"It's a very drastic idea, but it is going to work miracles in the next 5-10 years," he predicted.

But Pitroda's optimism was challenged by other participants at the conference like Rajika Bhandari, director, Research and Evaluation of the New York-based Institute of International Education, which publishes the annual Open Doors. Bhandari said that even as the IIE has been observing "how more US students wish to go to India for education and we've seen India rising in the field as a study-abroad for US students," they were facing many challenges.

She said that "US institutions are very keen to build more linkages and partnerships -- because there seems to be interest at both ends -- but yet when it comes to the mechanisms which can make this happen, it seems to be a black box and there seems to be a real lack of information."

"I am not talking about setting up of brick and mortar branch campuses, which might become possible after the Foreign Provider Bill -- if it passes -- but I am taking more about other types of linkages and partnerships," Bhandari said.

Pitroda in his defence, said, in India, besides the issue of capacity, "the second one is really customisation with local champions to create environment suitable for foreign students."

"Let's say, if you had five American students at one university, it probably won't help. But, if we had 50, maybe then there is minimum critical mass. So, we need to increase capacity so that local people don't feel that foreign students are taking their seats. And, two, we need to create eco-systems to make foreign students feel at home."

But Susan Aldridge, president of the University of Maryland University College, who is a leading commentator and policy expert on American and international higher education and is one of 11 university presidents appointed to the commission sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, tasked with studying how the US can improve its system for higher education, warned that India should define its template for education "and not replicate what everyone else has done," whether it be Harvard or any other premier US or international university or college.

She said that "there are a number of challenges in setting up campus -- it's very complex," and while "the transition in higher education in India will create new opportunities for partnership -- for example universities from other countries can come supervise coursework on campuses in India," and issuance of licenses and the local partner needs to be scrupulously vetted.

"The issue of customisation that Dr Pitroda talked about is another one," Aldridge said." "It's not good enough for a US MBA to be taught in a foreign country, in a foreign environment without looking at unique considerations in that country."

She said that "we need to really have a strong case that focuses on that country's environment and the applications of those concepts in that country as well as cross-cultural comparisons between how these scenarios play out in a US environment would work in an Indian environment."

Aldridge said, if this is not thought out carefully, "it compounds the problem to find faculty who are knowledgeable about -- if we are teaching business for example -- how these management characteristics differ from India or differ from China or differ from the US, so that every individual who goes to work for multinational corporations, they have an understanding of these norms internationally."

She reiterated that "India needs to be careful in terms of licensing. It really needs to think carefully about not just the location where the education comes from, but to think carefully about ensuring that their licensing requires some oversight about the quality that is being delivered not just in home campuses, but foreign institutions that are coming in."

Dr Prakash Ambegaonkar, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Bridging Nations, in opening the seminar, said it's a well known maxim that "the rise and fall of a nation happens in sync with the rise and fall of education."

"Looking at higher education, it's a very important measure of a nation's economy," he said, and added, "This is a historic time actually for India".

Ambegaonkar, a multimillionaire entrepreneur turned philanthropist turned higher education proponent after he sold E-Lock Technologies -- the company he founded -- told rediff.com that "Bridging Nations Foundation has a long term interest in higher education and application of technology to make education accessible and affordable to all."

He said, "We have developed education rights text and it is available on our Bridging Nations site. We believe education should be as easily and freely available as the air we breathe."

Ambegaonkar, a longtime friend of Pitroda, said, "We have been researching and analysing the policies of China, India and the United States and their competitiveness in knowledge, which is going to directly depend on how these three -- and for that matter other countries as well -- handle higher education."

"The matrix of measurement of competitiveness will be how graduates and research come out of the universities of the countries, and as much as quantity, quality is an indispensable factor," he said.

Ambegaonkar acknowledged that "having said that, it is essential that these three countries work together towards a harmonised approach to higher education and higher education can be a great bridge for these countries."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC